The blanket, cross-demo approval of the former has allowed Justin Timberlake to go relatively unchecked in his pop supremacy or the better part of two decades now, while the teeth-grinding of the latter over his privileged gaucheness has loudly crescendoed since he was first rumored as this year’s Big Game halftime performer late last year. The media backlash was exacerbated by Timberlake’s rocky, occasionally downright oblivious promo campaign for Friday’s poorly received Man of the Woods LP, and hit a fever pitch over Super Bowl Saturday with the rumored news that JT would feature a Prince hologram during his performance — a report that longtime collaborator Sheila E. shut down on the word of Timberlake himself.
So Justin Timberlake took the halftime stage at Super Bowl LII in a situation that was both a can’t-lose and a can’t-win. It would’ve been virtually impossible for him to please the critics he’d alienated over the last couple years — if not well longer, dating back to his clumsy response to the fallout from Super Bowl XXXIX that essentially submarined Janet Jackson’s career. The best he could probably hope to do is not to further enrage them. Did he succeed on those grounds? Mostly. Maybe.
To the surprise of nobody, Timberlake got his Man of the Woods material out of the way quickly, beginning with lead single “Filthy” while playing below the field in a mocked-up club — nearly an implied acknowledgment that only the truest of JT fans would care to hear or see it. From there, it was non-stop golden oldies; ten songs total, representing all his solo albums minus the 2 of 2 half of The 20/20 Experience — sorry, “True Blood” heads. Those hoping for a hail mary *NSYNC reunion would be let down — no featured performers at all, actually, minus the one not corporeally present — but Timberlake has the solo hits to avoid any pressing need for a dip into TRL-era nostalgia. Who needs guests when you have “Senorita” into “SexyBack”?
Timberlake’s audio was somewhat lacking throughout — “A DEAF-ING DISASTER,” proclaimed TMZ, though that’s certainly at least a little bit dramatic — but the choreography, live-band energy and song selection were all pretty impeccable. And while Timberlake teetered on the edge of faux pas throughout — it perhaps would have been karmically prudent to avoid “Rock Your Body” in the setlist altogether, given the context of his last Super Bowl performance of the Justified jam — he never totally stumbled over it, even wisely cutting off his “Body” performance before the infamous “Bet I have you naked by the end of this song…” lyric. The most obviously tacky part of Timberlake’s performance was his suit, a woodsy camo-like print getup — unappealing, but forgivable.
And then, the Prince thing. If you think the pettiness between the two a decade ago disqualifies JT from ever invoking the Purple One in such a high-profile performance, fair enough: Timberlake did likely lob subliminals at him in a No. 1 single (though Prince kinda started it) and crossed the line in mocking the dimunutive pop great’s height at the Golden Globes a year later. But for what it was, the tribute was well-executed — seamlessly mixing Timberlake’s most obviously Prince-indebted slow jam (FutureSex/LoveSounds’ “Until the End of Time”) with a projected Purple Rain performance jam of synth-funk classic “I Would Die 4 U,” as the city of Minneapolis went violet around him. Fault it in principle if you see fit, but also recognize that if Timberlake hadn’t saluted Prince at all — a local legend and Super Bowl halftime legacy performer, whose music JT’s career obviously owes a great deal to — he would’ve been lambasted for that, too.
A great deal of Timberlake’s halftime performance could be reduced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” the Hot 100-topping Trolls soundtrack contribution that closed the set. Depending on how you look at it, the song is either confirmation of Timberlake’s aging out of boundary-pushing modern pop into a more MOR-aimed demo, or a spectacular pop construction that’ll be a fixture at joyous occasions across the world for the next 40 years. Both are true, probably. But at a venue as inherently crowd-pleasing as Super Bowl halftime, it’s unrealistic and maybe a little unfair to prioritize concerns of vitality and timeliness over tens of thousands of attendees (and tens of millions more worldwide) who’ve got this feeling in their booooodyyyyyy. And for better or worse, you know what that means: Don’t be shocked if we have to go through this all again when JT’s turn comes back around 10 to 12 Super Bowls from now.