Within a week of meeting Justin Timberlake on Christmas Eve in 2011, Adam Blackstone was in rehearsals with the pop superstar, and since that day the two have been practically inseparable. The 35-year-old – who has served as musical director for JAY-Z, Janet Jackson, Eminem and many more superstars – has conceptualized JT’s 20/20 Experience Tour, planned the awe-inspiring Oscars performance of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and now serves as the music director of Timberlake’s acclaimed Tennessee Kids backing band. But perhaps their biggest collaboration to date came on February 4, 2018, when Timberlake played the Super Bowl LII halftime show.
The 14-minute spectacle spanned Timberlake’s 16-year solo career, covering 11 of his biggest hits, including “SexyBack” and “Cry Me a River.” Despite controversy over JT’s return to the Super Bowl stage 14 years after the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” incident with Janet Jackson, and angry Prince fans giving side-eye to a rumored hologram of the Purple One, Blackstone helped Timberlake craft a music-focused show that was just as fun to watch as it was to dance along with – and now, it’s Emmy-nominated.
Blackstone received a Creative Arts Emmy nomination for outstanding music direction, marking only the third time a Super Bowl halftime show has been nominated for the award. Though the award went to Gregg Field for Tony Bennett: The Library Of Congress Gershwin Prize For Popular Song, Blackstone is grateful to even have been considered.
“We don’t do this for accolades, we do it to be the best that we can be for ourselves, and to convey our music to the fans,” Blackstone tells Billboard. “So when an outside person recognizes it, it feels good. It was an amazing experience for us.”
Billboard chatted with the veteran music director to dive a little deeper into how Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show came together, his personal favorite moment, and – controversies and selfies aside – what it meant to be nominated for an Emmy.
Hearing JT Out
One of the things he wanted to see was that we could truncate these hit songs in enough time to make it impactful. The gift and the curse to Justin having so many hits is that sometimes the verses feel as popular as the choruses. So when you hear “Cry Me A River,” you love “You were my sun/ You were my earth.” For me, I’m like, “Yo, JT we gotta do that.” And he’s like, “Nah, I think it’s the same feeling if I just go, ‘You don’t have to say, what you did,’” and it worked.
That’s what makes him such a genius, such a true artist — he knows his fans, and knows how his music can come across even skipping a verse. And he’s taught me so much with just nailing what are deemed the important parts of the songs, or skipping people’s favorite parts of the song, but still giving it that same energy so you don’t miss it.
I think the message that we wanted to convey was: these songs give you a sense of nostalgia. These songs make you smile, these songs make you want to have a good time. That’s the entire message we wanted to convey for our 14 minutes. For that time being, escape your troubles, escape the sadness, whatever the world might be going through, and let’s party and have a good time through this gift we call music.
Preparing For the Big Show
I watched the last 17 halftime shows. I studied them and saw some things that worked, saw some things that didn’t work for us. I was able to take a lot of those same concepts and use them [to figure out] how I would come up with a killer set list for us.
I realized, coming from the live space, that breaks between songs were okay. As I watched Prince, Gloria Estefan, Bruno, and Beyoncé, Guns N’ Roses, the breaks that they were putting to stop the songs gave the audience a breath of fresh air, to kind of be prepared for the next moment. It’s strategic — where you end music is what tells a story.
I was on version 16 [of the show] by the time we got to Minneapolis. I think that when I first put our set together it was 22 minutes, and I said, “This is ideal, so now let’s strip it back from this.” Mixing, choreography and transition times were all being changed as we hit that stage [in rehearsals], because if the marching band needs an extra five seconds, or extra five steps, it’s my job to make that extra five-step mark time in our music. The way we work, and how diligent we are minute-to-minute with our music, it [wasn’t until] when we hit that stage that we were locked in.
Approaching the Janet Jackson Controversy
My musical experiences with both [Janet and Justin] happened after the Super Bowl nip-slip thing. When I met Janet in ‘08-‘09, she was way past that. And when I met Justin in 2012, he was way past it as well. Now, of course, meeting them, I definitely wasn’t thinking 2018 would have a crossroads of a Super Bowl.
When it came up that [Justin] was doing the Super Bowl, I thought about the [Janet] controversy a little bit. But, it was really just my job to focus on making him have the best show possible. And one of the things [surrounding] Janet is that people are going to talk and have negative things to say anyway, so I just wanted us to go and have the best show possible and just know that we had put everything out on the table.
Gaga had the catalog to carry it. We were totally entertained by her, and didn’t miss guests. We felt like we had enough catalog to carry out these 14 minutes — if anything, we had too much. We wanted to make sure that if we did add a guest, it would be impactful, and be warranted with what we were trying to convey. I can’t do Janet, we can’t do Coldplay, we can’t do Ricky Martin, we can just do us. And that’s what I wanted to drive home to Justin — do the best that you can do.
Incorporating a Prince Tribute
It was insinuated that we changed our show because somebody told us not to use a hologram, but that never was the case. It was all kind of hearsay – it was never gonna be a hologram.
It would’ve almost been easier to do a hologram, because what we decided to do was take raw footage of Prince singing “I Would Die 4 U” and sync it to our music — that was a harder job than just creating something from scratch. Prince has been a huge influence on Justin, and a huge influence on myself. We toyed around with how to do a Prince tribute, and how not to make it the clichéd “Purple Rain,” “Let’s Go Crazy…” We wanted to do something a little more obscure that people hadn’t heard for a Prince tribute. He was always able to tell his story through the gift of music, and he taught me to believe in your truth — learn the language of music so you can convey it to anybody.
Once we said “Die 4 U,” and make it into a ballad to make it very emotional and sentimental, I was able to reach out to Troy Carter — who was in charge of Prince’s estate — and explain to them what we were doing. They were all in for it. Troy gave us his blessing, and it was all good.
Justin, his team, Hamish [Hamilton, longtime Super Bowl halftime show director], and Nick Whitehouse came up with the live video concept. People don’t realize that I didn’t play an MP3, that was actually my band playing to Prince’s vocal. We were able to get the masters and the ISO vocal, so we actually created a musical arrangement around Prince — it was like we were backing up Prince live. It felt really good.
Celebrating the “Super Bowl Selfie”
That was a spur-of-the-moment genius moment for Justin. That has become a moment in time where our Super Bowl [halftime show] will be thought of — nobody has gone into the audience, and as prevalent as cell phones are right now, and just the term “selfie,” all of that. We’re aligned with that moment. Now, even my 3-year-old son says, “Super Bowl Selfie!” [Laughs.]
Looking Back With Pride…
My favorite part would definitely be the end of the “Cry Me A River” dance break, where I come to the middle of the stage and cue the entire stadium on the last note and the lights go out. I felt, in that five seconds, that the entire stadium was watching me, and that’s what I do for our band anyway — I was able to bring that to life at this grand stage, cue everyone, and boom, lights out.
What’s funny is that, because we’re in the moment, I’m not watching the angle of the camera or anything like that. I’m really technically just doing my job. So to watch it back and to realize the impact that the visuals, the lighting, the special effects and the video screens bring, and to be doing my job up there, I’m just blessed to be involved with such high-caliber talent.
I thought we did a good job of conveying what our future message is for after the Super Bowl, but we also wanted people to dance with us, and party with us, and make sure they knew that we have those jams. I think sometimes people forget how many hot songs [Justin] has.
The preparation, the poise that we displayed, the amount of work [put in], and then to be recognized by the Television Academy for this Emmy nomination for outstanding music direction — this would have to be my crowning achievement thus far, for sure.
…And Looking Out For Bruno
My boy Bruno Mars has put himself down as musical director for himself [for his CBS concert special, Bruno Mars: 24K Magic Live at the Apollo]. Off of name recognition alone, people could say Bruno could be the favorite or the biggest competition. With all that being said, I am a true believer that what God has for me is supposed to be for me — win or lose, the wave that I’ve been able to ride throughout this whole nominations campaign has just been incredible. And I’m so thankful. This is pushing me to work even harder to get multiple nominations in the future.
WOW… What can I say… JT… You are A Genius… a True Artist… ur work ethic is unmatched. Your effort and focus goes to another level! Thank u for trusting me with your vision & letting me MUSICALLY DIRECT this most amazing project! We worked so hard on this and now the @theacademy has recognized us. It has been such an honor to be nominated for my first #EMMY AWARD for #OutstandingMusicalDirection for the SUPERBOWL LII HALFTIME show w/ @justintimberlake!! I am thankful for this and now as voting nears to an end, We urge all academy members to vote for us! #ForYourConsideration – #emmys #televisionacademy #FYC #emmys2018 #adamblackstone #musicdirector #congratulations #justintimberlake #thetnkids #superbowl #pepsihalftime #superbowlLII #teamBBE #BBE #instagood