Then again, the sound design was so poor—Timberlake’s vocals were only decipherable when no instruments were playing—even that meager commendation is arguable. What’s inarguable is that after a string of jaw-dropping extravaganzas from the likes of Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake delivered the worst halftime show of the tradition’s recent pop-star era. May the ghost of Prince haunt him forever.
It’s one thing when a cynical media is preemptively eager to drag a performance. From the unjust optics of Timberlake’s redemption for his part in the Janet Jackson nip-slip fiasco to the rumors that he’d be using a hologram of The Purple One against his family’s wishes, the lead-up to Sunday night’s show was mired in controversy. But it’s another when the abysmal end product merits the inevitable snark.
Listless, muted, lacking any cohesion and spectacle, it was the Big Game’s biggest fumble.
These past weeks have served us an unwelcome Justin Timberlake reinvention as a Man of the Woods, with all the conviction of a thirty-something man who grows some stubble and starts telling everyone he’s really into IPAs now, as if that’s a personality trait. Sunday’s show thankfully spared us any more of that, opting instead for a stroll through memory lane soundtracked by his hit-laden back catalog. But it was also a reminder of how easily memories can be tainted.
Timberlake’s set opened with a performance from what looked like Minnesota’s least fun karaoke bar, warbling through his unremarkable new single “Filthy” with the finesse and enthusiasm of someone forced to get up and sing by their annoyingly drunk friends. Starting underground in the arena’s hallway was an odd choice for kicking off pop culture’s biggest concert, starting with a whimper in cramped quarters rather than a bang from the greatest stage.
The whole thing was extremely claustrophobic—an awkwardness that lingered throughout the entire set, as Timberlake moved from one tiny, overly crowded stage to another, and finally into the stands where he was swarmed by fans desperate to film him on their iPhones.
Though it’s one of his more popular hits, we’re honestly surprised that he followed “Filthy” with a few minutes of “Rock Your Body,” the song he performed with Janet Jackson during the infamous 2004 incident. You’d think Timberlake would want to avoid any reminder of the scandal, especially considering how angry so many people still are over the way he handled it.
As Ira Madison recalled in The Daily Beast, while it was Timberlake who literally exposed Jackson’s breast, he swiftly passed the blame onto her. She was blacklisted from TV and her music banned on radio stations, a cloud that hung over her career for most of the next decade while Timberlake’s fame skyrocketed, landing him right back on the Super Bowl stage.
It’s unclear whether an invitation was extended to Jackson to join Timberlake at Sunday night’s show, but after so much speculation she did clarify that she would not be appearing. In response, fans had #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay trending on Twitter, paying respect to the pop star over the white male who disrespected her.
All of this is to say we’re shocked by the, well, rudeness of Timberlake choosing to sing “Rock Your Body” again on Sunday night. It’s just as well, though, to remind us of how ludicrous we are as a society and selectively unforgiving and hypocritical we can be. We buried Janet for the nipple, but will we forgive Justin for the hate crime that was that Prince duet?
Word leaked earlier in the weekend that Timberlake was planning to “pay respect” to Minneapolis’s greatest pop star by performing with a hologram version of him, a report that was eventually debunked—and at least the third time I can remember that a planned hologram performance was scrapped after public outcry over how tasteless and grim the entire idea is.
Still, the constant pop-culture threat of these things is exhausting. Who are the people who desire these holograms? They are macabre and appropriating and disrespectful and, even excusing all that, cheesy as hell. It’s a baffling strategy if the idea is to amp up a live performance. “What would make the thrill and the crackling energy of a live show where anything can happen even more electric? I know! A computer facsimile of a human.”
Most of us presumed that no hologram meant no cringe-worthy Prince homage, but no, Timberlake dueted with a projection of The Purple One performing “I Would Die 4 U.” Prince’s family approved of the use of the projection. Social media certainly didn’t.
That so much of the reaction to Timberlake’s halftime show is in relation to its egregious connections to two other pop stars speaks volumes; despite the fact that the singer performed a hit-filled set of chart-toppers including “Sexy Back,” “My Love,” “Cry Me a River,” and “Mirrors,” there was no sense of grandeur that we’ve come to expect from the Super Bowl stage.
Timberlake has set his own bar as a phenomenal, electrifying live performer. Here, his dance moves weren’t as lithe and spritely as they once were, almost as if he was marking the choreography—like it wasn’t rehearsed enough.
And, because it must be said, he was wearing what might have been the ugliest outfit I’ve ever seen. Baggy camouflage cargo pants. A red bandana handkerchief around his neck. A button-up shirt with a still life of deer in a field screened on it. The assault on the very idea of fashion became a grenade to the eyes when he then donned a matching blazer for “Suit and Tie,” the debonair anthem and ode to suaveness, performed here in a camouflage suit.
Listen, we like Timberlake’s hits. He’s a charismatic performer. When that song from Trolls comes on while we’re at Duane Reade, we smile and sing along and fondly remember that time we spilled wine on ourselves while dancing to it at our sister’s wedding. But, momentarily absolving all his thinkpiece-fodder sins, the thing that ruined Timberlake’s halftime show was a naked lack of ambition.
There was no political statement, sly as they might have been when Beyoncé performed with only women on stage with her when she sang “Formation,” and then had a dance battle of the sexes against Bruno Mars (that she killed, obviously), or when Lady Gaga opened her show with a patriotic medley saying “this is what America means to me,” and then proceeded to put on a freak-flag-flying-fantasmic-supernatural-LGBT-empowering spectacular. (And in the first weeks of Trump’s presidency, to boot.)
There was no feat of athleticism akin to the sense that Beyoncé, Gaga, and Mars trained like a Super Bowl player for their shows, expending every ounce of energy they had in them in their explosive sets. There wasn’t even a sense of superb musicianship, a la Prince or Springsteen, or any sort of regal ownership of the right to be on that stage, which Diana Ross, Paul McCartney, Madonna, and Michael Jackson had reigned supremely on before.
I mean, for God’s sake, at least give us a Left Shark. Then again, maybe his entire performance was Left Shark.
No costume changes. No stunts. No guests. (Not even NSYNC!) Just warbled noise. Once upon a time, Justin Timberlake brought sexy back. Now we’d like a refund.