Justin Timberlake's halftime show tries to dance away his controversies

The latest Super Bowl performance bores more than it excites

Justin Timberlake during his Super Bowl performance of "Can't Stop the Feeling".
Justin Timberlake during his Super Bowl performance of "Can't Stop the Feeling".
Credit: 
Screenshot from YouTube

It’s the day of Super Bowl 52, Justin Timberlake is preparing to take the stage as headliner of the halftime show and audiences around the world are still pretty tired of him.

This week was a milestone in the “Not again, Justin Timberlake” movement. His latest album, Man of the Woods, opened to a confused response from fans who expected a new country pivot and found more of the same. Metacritic welcomed the album with a tepid 57 out of 100 rating and a Pitchfork reviewer called it “warm, indulgent, inert, and vacuous.” Not exactly the words a man still claiming to usher a return of sexiness wants to hear.

This buildup of Timberlake-animosity continued to rise in the hours prior to his Super Bowl performance. Twitter declared it #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay — a nod to the infamous Nipplegate scandal of 2004, when the world didn't know how to handle one second of a bare breast, so they derailed Jackson's career and the FCC fined CBS $550,000.

This celebration also came on the heels of a suspected reunion between Jackson and Timberlake onstage, but fans were greeted with an official statement that indicated otherwise.

Reports also began to emerge about Timberlake's plans to honour Prince with a hologram duet. Though the idea of a tribute seems nice enough on paper — Prince was born in Minneapolis, this year's Super Bowl host city — a little research confirmed Prince's relative disdain for holograms and for Timberlake himself.

In a 1998 interview Prince gave to Guitar World, he called a performance with a hologram “the most demonic thing imaginable.” Aside from his hologram hate, Prince was public about issues he took with Timberlake. When asked about his thoughts on Timberlake's peak-2006-smash “SexyBack,” Prince responded, “sexy never left.” Timberlake took a small swipe at this comment on Timbaland's “Give it to Me” in 2007, asking “if sexy never left then why's everybody on my s**t?”

Though I personally think their “feud” was nothing more than two friendly jabs, it was enough for the internet to say Timberlake was “disgracing the idol's legacy.” With Janet Jackson and Prince fans forming a Twitter mob in the hours leading up to the show, all eyes were on Timberlake to watch the great lengths — and dance moves — he'd use to diffuse the growing tensions.

Though he brought the dance moves in spades, Timberlake's halftime show revealed his preferred method of conflict resolution is to skip over any and all controversies as if they never happened.

He opened with Man of the Woods' lead single “Filthy,” the very first line already foreshadowing the public's general opinion of the performance: “haters gonna say it's fake”. Timberlake then dove head first into a medley of hits, moonwalking through blasts from the past like “Señorita,” “Suit & Tie" and “Rock Your Body” — notably skipping the “better have you naked by the end of this song” line that unintentionally led to Jackson’s revealing wardrobe malfunction in 2004.

As soon as I watched the blinding white lights turn a deep purple, I braced myself for the Prince hologram that would finally give the internet a solid reason to let Timberlake have it. And a Prince tribute did occur, but his likeness was projected onto a large silk screen rather than hovering beside JT — a loophole of epic proportions.

Timberlake neatly wrapped his performance up with his only number one hit, “Can't Stop the Feeling.” In the show's final seconds, morning shows all over the nation breathed a sigh of relief as a young kid's impromptu selfie with Timberlake finally gave them something else to discuss.

Now, in the morning after the show, I feel — as I do with most 'morning after's — like the previous night's events weren't worth all the hype. Timberlake’s smooth moves effectively sidestepped all questions he'd left unanswered.

If this was a Timberlake concert where he was surrounded by swarms of adoring fans, his performance reviews would be glowing. But the halftime show was supposed to be the performance of Timberlake's life and, while those are impossible expectations to live up to, one would hope he could end with a little more of a “BANG!” than indulging a 13-year-old's selfie desires.

And so, the Timberlake fatigue reaches an unprecedented peak. Timberlake's reliance on his old tricks is nothing new and the strategy is currently working out very well for artists like Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran, whose last two albums are indistinguishable from each other. But from an artist known for reinventing the wheel with his “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” not raising the bar feels like he’s lowering it.

The Prince of Pop truly seems to be enjoying his laid-back, man-of-the-woods vibe and I'm happy for him. But if he wants to impress and hold onto his long-time fans, he's going to need to prove that after all this time, he's still hungry for the title of the King.

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