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Want to Understand How Power Works? Just Look at the Grammys.

It impossible to think about Marilyn Manson’s recent Grammy nomination without also considering Janet Jackson’s post-Nipplegate shaming—and Justin Timberlake’s career triumphs.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Nov 26 2021

11 mins read

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Image: Shutterstock

Content warning: This newsletter contains references to sexual, physical and emotional abuse and misogyny.

In some ways, the abuse allegations against Marilyn Manson are not surprising. The headline of a recent Rolling Stone feature was “Marilyn Manson: The Monster Hiding in Plain Sight” and its thesis was that, while his provocative and dark public persona may have started as an act, it very quickly became a handy cover for his actual abusive behaviour.

According to more than a dozen different women (including actor Evan Rachel Wood, who began dating Manson when she was 18 and he was 37), the shock rocker frequently abused them verbally; withheld sleep and food; used drugs as a means to control them; bit, cut, electrocuted and whipped them without their consent; posted nude photos of them online without consent; and regularly raped them, according to a Rolling Stone feature published earlier this month. For years, Manson openly bragged about having a “Bad Girl’s Room,” a former vocal booth that he transformed into “a solitary-confinement cell used to psychologically torture women,” literally locking them in the cramped space for hours as ‘punishment.’ And he once allegedly chased Game of Thrones actor Esmé Bianco with an axe, “smashing holes in the walls after saying she was ‘crowding him.’”

Manson is currently facing several civil lawsuits, and in February, the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department opened a domestic violence investigation against him over incidents that occurred between 2009 and 2011. (He denies the allegations, calling them “horrible distortions of reality.”) He’s also receiving more mainstream attention than he has in years; he recently joined forces with Kanye West, first appearing at a listening party for the rapper’s latest album, Donda, then actually being featured on the album and attending an Oct. 31 Sunday Service event, where he and Justin Bieber prayed together. And this week, he received his first Grammy nominations since 2013 in the Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song categories, again because of Donda.

I’m not recounting the allegations against Manson for the shock value. I just want to be super clear what the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences is co-signing this week, and what it means when the organization’s CEO, Harvey Mason Jr., says, “we won’t restrict the people who can submit their material for consideration. We won’t look back at people’s history, we won’t look at their criminal record, we won’t look at anything other than the legality within our rules of, is this recording for this work eligible based on date and other criteria. If it is, they can submit for consideration.”

Especially since there’s a perfect example of the Academy looking quite closely at people’s history, in stark contrast to this supposed neutrality.

Yes, I’m talking about “Nipplegate”

If you’re a Janet Jackson fan—or a Britney Spears fan, or you just can’t stand Justin Timberlake, like me—much of what’s covered in Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, won’t be a surprise to you. But the New York Times’ documentary, which is playing now on Crave in Canada and Hulu in the U.S., does spotlight the disparity between the rules that are being applied to Manson today and the rules Jackson had to follow back then—and the vast differences in the scale of their offences.

 In 2004, Jackson wasn’t just a member of a legendary musical family, she was also an icon in her own right who had successfully managed to evolve her public image from child to adult with no real scandals. As Constance Grady pointed out in Vox earlier this month, “American culture was rarely willing to see Black women as fully sexualized and fully human at the same time—but Jackson had managed to pull off the balancing act without letting anyone rob her of her dignity in the process.”

That’s not revisionist history or a retrospective analysis; Grady quotes Touré’s review of 1993’s Janet, the first of her albums to include songs that touched on sex, where he explicitly spells out her impact. “A significant, even revolutionary transition in the sexual history and popular iconography of Black women—who have historically needed to do nothing to be considered overtly sexual—is struck as the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? girl declares herself the what-I’ll-do-to-you-baby! Woman,” he wrote in Rolling Stone. “The princess of America’s Black royal family has announced herself sexually mature and surrendered none of her crown’s luster in the process. Black women and their friends, lovers and children have a victory in Janet.” If young women had taken inspiration from Control—and Jackson’s ability to disentangle herself from her father’s star-making machinations in favour of building a career in her own vision—then they could also be reassured by Janet, and later The Velvet Rope and All for You, that their independence didn’t have to come at the expense of their sexuality or personal desires.

She was also just a colossal star. By the time MTV, ViacomCBS and the NFL identified her as a musician with appeal in red and blue states and asked her to headline the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, she’d sold millions of records, racked up dozens of awards and provided a blueprint for any number of young female pop artists who followed in her footsteps, including Aaliyah, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna. And many male musicians, for that matter, including NSYNC and Usher.

And yet, nine-sixteenths of a second—the amount of time Jackson’s nipple was visible to an audience of 140 million viewers—largely undid all of that.

Janet Jackson’s career has never really recovered from Nipplegate—but the same can’t be said for any of the men who were involved

Despite lingering questions about whether this was a stunt, I believe Jackson when she says it was an accident—and you already know I think it was one Timberlake was 50% responsible for. But the repercussions for that fraction of a second are proof that fame, especially for Black women, is precarious. It didn’t take long before she was branded a “Black dominatrix,” “trollop” and “bitch in heat.” The Grammys were scheduled for the following week; according to the documentary, then-CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves was so outraged that he demanded a public apology at the show as a condition of both Jackson’s and Timberlake’s attendance. She declined; Timberlake opted to “kiss the ring,” as one person in the doc put it, and therefore got to accept his award and perform.

She was also literally blacklisted; according to a 2017 Billboard article, “Clear Channel Communications, which owned Infinity Broadcasting and Viacom (MTV and CBS), blacklisted all of Jackson’s singles and music videos, banning her music from all the TV channels and radio stations the company owned, stifling airplay and making her new album, Damita Jo, her lowest-selling album since 1984.” (In the documentary, the company’s chief legal officer, Andy Levin, said programming decisions were made at the local level, so there couldn’t have been a company-wide blacklist… but someone decided MTV should not play Jackson’s music videos, so forgive me if I don’t believe him.)

To be fair, the white women who worked on the show behind the scenes also faced consequences. Frattini, the MTV exec, had become the first woman to executive produce a Super Bowl halftime show in 2001—but after 2004, she never did it again. And the director of the show, Beth McCarthy-Miller, likewise was never allowed to direct a halftime show again.

Meanwhile, all of the white men involved largely escaped consequences. CBS was hit with a record-breaking fine from the FCC, but the network was eventually able to get it overturned. No one at the network, MTV or the NFL faced the level of public scrutiny that Jackson did. And Timberlake was barely mentioned in the ensuing media coverage; The Atlantic cites the work of Shannon L. Holland, then a professor at Clemson University, who analyzed 200 news articles about Nipplegate and found more than “half of the stories only mentioned Timberlake's involvement in passing, while a third of them didn't even mention Timberlake's role in the reveal at all… [And] while more than two-thirds of the articles referenced the incident as a publicity stunt for Jackson, few articles acknowledged what motivations Timberlake might have had for taking part in it, too—mainly, that he was still trying to shed his boy-band image following his solo-artist debut.”

17 years later, what has really changed?

There's a common thread between these two situations. Obviously, Timberlake is not a violent, abusive rapist—but the same system that shielded him back then is working in Manson’s defence right now, because our society always extends white men either discretion or protection while simultaneously ignoring, if not downright vilifying, women. As that Rolling Stone article I mentioned earlier says, “many of [Manson’s] accusers charge that the media’s embrace of an act full of barely concealed hateful aggression enabled him to abuse behind the scenes—and sometimes in plain sight—without scrutiny. ‘We give an awful lot of slack to men like this, and especially in the music industry,’ Esmé Bianco says. ‘If you’re not a womanizer and a complete misogynist, are you really a rock star at all?’”

Part of the reason problematic men receive this discretion/protection is that institutions haven't changed nearly as much as public opinion has—and this is particularly true of the Grammys. Insiders have talked for years about how out of touch the nominations tend to be, thanks to the (recently disbanded) "secret committees" of board members that get to choose the final nominees each year. But when former Recording Academy president and CEO Deborah Dugan tried to call attention to what was wrong within the organization, she was unceremoniously fired. In December 2019, she informed the Academy’s HR department thatshe had claims to bring against the Academy, concerning workplace sexual harassment and an allegation of rape,” according to W. She told HR that former Grammys exec Neil Portnow (who you might recall stepped down from his post in the summer of 2019 following his assertion that, to fix the gender imbalance in music, women should "step up") had raped a singer after she performed at Carnegie Hall.

Dugan also revealed the Academy’s general counsel, Joel Katz, had sexually harassed her. Furthermore, she said the entire Grammy nomination process was rife with corruption, which isn't surprising considering “a good number of the Board members are leaders in the executive space of the music community, meaning they represent or run companies that represent various artists. Since 2012, 68% of the Board has comprised of men, and that governing body is 69% white.”

For all that intersectional feminism has become relatively mainstream in the nearly two decades since 2004, there’s still pearl-clutching faux outrage from people who find women’s bodies inherently offensive—unless men are exploiting those bodies. And we still excuse, if not expect, that men will take what they want from women. So... is it any wonder that an organization that allowed Moonves to exert his will over Jackson because of his hurt pride in 2004 and seemingly pushed out Dugan for trying to change things in 2020 is the same one that ignores the allegations against Manson (and Louis C.K. and Dr. Luke, not to mention Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart's past behaviour) today? I don’t think so.

And Did You Hear About…

This very smart Vox piece about all those anti-racist book clubs that popped up after George Floyd’s murder—and often fizzled just as quickly.

Anthony Broadwater, who was just exonerated in the rape case that inspired Alice Sebold’s memoir, Lucky. In her book, Sebold wrote that she identified Broadwater as her rapist a few months after her rape when he said hello to her on the street.

T Magazine’s argument that Black horror films are the most powerful cinematic genre in America.

The recent slew of celebrity fast food collaborations, especially Megan Thee Stallion’s recent partnership with Popeye’s. Grub Street went deep on how these businesses have been chasing the Black buy-in for decades, and it’s fascinating.

This very important reunion.

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Marilyn Manson
Janet Jackson
Justin Timberlake