Justin Timberlake Played It Safe At Halftime When He Should Have Gone For It

Photo: Matt Slocum/AP/REX/Shutterstock
After all the chatter this weekend about how he was doing Janet Jackson wrong and might be doing Prince wrong if he made him into a hologram, it felt like expectations were low going into Justin Timberlake's Super Bowl Halftime performance. Which is good news for him, because it meant Timberlake only had to do the bare minimum to impress us his audience.
Despite the divisive reputation he seems to have gained around the release of his latest album, Timberlake turned in a family-friendly Super Bowl performance. His set ran like a greatest hits track listing, never touching on any one song for too long. The most unexpected aspect of it was his use of the stadium in his set; where most performers stick to a traditional stage, Timberlake began his show from inside the stadium, here he sang the new single "Filthy" in a club-like environment. It was one of the most intimate feeling halftime performances in my memory, and it perhaps reflected the scale he felt fit him.
For a guy who insists he didn't make a country album, there was a lot of fringe on his Stella McCartney designed faux leather jacket. He might have brought the visual aesthetic of Man of the Woods on stage with him, but not a single additional song from the album made an appearance in his show. Anticipating what people most wanted to see, he ran through a medley of "Rock Your Body" (while walking down a catwalk), "Senorita," gave a major remix to the start of "SexyBack," "My Love," and "Cry Me A River." Those favorites from his first two albums built up a lot of goodwill, but during "My Love," he removed his jacket to reveal a silk-screened button up shirt with an image of a prairie and a man riding a horse. My goodwill dissipated on sight, though in fairness it was being pushed down by the arduous blasts of guitars over "Cry Me A River," which he desperately tried to turn into a rock song.
Timberlake paused for a breakdown here with a troupe of male dancers. His moves have held up, which is more than many pop stars in his generation can say. If he's not as nimble as he was in his 20s, his sense of timing has certainly stayed sharp. Timberlake then segued into "Suit & Tie," for which he donned a camouflage blazer, to match his camouflage pants I assume, and worked the mic like he was living life somewhere between Fred Astaire and Dean Martin. From there he strolled over to a piano worthy of Elton John to sing "Until the End of Time."
Then, his Prince tribute. There was no hologram. It was a nice rendition of "I Would Die 4 U." It was lovely to see Minneapolis covered in purple, with Prince's symbol surrounding the stadium. I understand, logically, why the NFL would have wanted to pay tribute to Prince. I understand why Justin Timberlake would want to do that, the man was a huge influence on him. If you don't, go read his tribute to Prince after his death. That said, it would have been a much better use of the time to right the wrong on a debt he owes to Janet Jackson. And people watching at home who haven't been tuned in to the hologram scandal all weekend are probably just thinking to themselves, "That was nice."
After Timberlake urges everyone to raise "two fingers in the air for Prince tonight," he performs "Mirror." Though it felt like the emotional ending to the performance, it wasn't! He kept going, because that Trolls song was a hit, and things wrapped up with a nice, long nugget of "Can't Stop the Feeling!"
Timberlake was a safe choice for this year's Super Bowl. Like all of the commercials that aired during the telecast, the NFL wanted to avoid anything political and keep it light. Timberlake is good at that, on the surface. But having a man fills a field with mirrors to look at himself performing does not create any last impression. His performance will be forgotten quickly. Considering what happened last time he took this field, perhaps that was exactly what he was going for.
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