A glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast for nine-sixteenths of a second has been a topic of conversation for 18 years now. We have speculated, debated and investigated every angle of that moment and still find new ways to reexamine the moment. To relive the moment.
Without even seeing one of the many images captured of the moment (and we always see one when the conversation is on Janet) you can picture it: the horror on her face, the bewilderment on Justin Timberlake’s as he held the piece of her leather bustier that was supposed to dramatically rip off along with a chunk of the red accent bra she had on—which, as we're told, was not supposed to happen.
We don’t know how it happened or why it happened. But it happened. And the world saw a glimpse of Janet’s breast for nine-sixteenths of a second and then she became public enemy No. 1. It feels absurd to even think about it now, considering the adoration Janet is deservedly lavished with these days. But there was a time when that moment—that blink and you missed it moment in our pre-You Tube existence—overshadowed Janet’s career. And it still does, frankly. That nine-sixteenths of a second lingers over all that Janet does and all of who she is.
Despite all of what she’s done and all that she means to the world, we can’t let go of that moment. We can’t move on from that. We won't move on from it.
What led to that nine-sixteenths of a second has become the greatest source of intrigue around Janet Jackson—outside of our interest in insight into her relationship with her brother Michael or her feelings around their notorious father. And it was the was the most pressing question leading into the debut of her highly anticipated documentary Janet Jackson., which premiered simultaneously on A&E and Lifetime over the weekend ahead of its UK debut.
Ultimately Janet offered little critical thought on the moment that changed everything for her and for us (our hunger to relieve the moment literally birthed YouTube). She’s moved on, and she wants us to as well. There was no scene of her raging against Timberlake for how he handled things. There was no reflection from her speaking about then-Chief Executive and Chairman of CBS Les Moonves and the lengths he went to punish her—a truth that came out in 2018–nor did we hear Janet contextualize what happened with her and the public discourse around the racism and misogyny at the root of her condemnation.
Instead, Janet opted for grace. And much of Janet Jackson. was that—Janet extending grace to those we believe have wronged her. She let us in, slightly, on her frustrations with the distance between her and Michael and the complicated experience of collaborating on “Scream.” She shared the pain she felt over her relationships with her ex-husbands James DeBarge and Rene Elizondo (no mention of her last marriage) and reflected on the complicated legacy of her father. She was sharing her truth on her terms.
As a Janet fan that’s studied her music like gospel for most of life I’d watch four hours on any one of her groundbreaking albums. I was probably never going to feel completely satisfied with what ended up on screen. What left me fulfilled—outside of the rich trove of footage she shared with us—was Janet using the film as an opportunity to tell us her story the way she wanted to. She’s one of the most compelling artists of all time that lost control of her narrative over nine-sixteenths of a second.
Janet Jackson. might not have been the revelatory portrait of a singular talent that many of us were hoping for. But Janet told her story the way she wanted to. After all she’s been through—and all we put her through—her desire is that we all move on from that nine-sixteenths of a second. And we owe it to her to at least try.