Justin Timberlake is fine. He’s good, even. Like the Centennial bulb in California, he’s always on: Give Timberlake a stage, and he’ll give you a show. In the fifteen years since he split from *NSYNC, Timberlake has had eighteen singles reach the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, or seventeen more than the four other members of *NSYNC combined. He’s been doing his shtick since childhood. And on Sunday night, in front of 100 million viewers, Justin Timberlake performed at the Super Bowl halftime show. It was fine.
The game itself was great: close for all four quarters, with a Tom Brady fumble, a Tom Brady bobble, and an underdog Eagles win. But the halftime show wasn’t great, it was fine. Timberlake doesn’t have the voice of John Legend, the sex appeal of Usher, the lyricism of Kanye West, or the dance moves of Bruno Mars. And that’s just among living male stars. Prince or MJ he’s not.
Unlike his last Super Bowl appearance, there was nothing especially memorable about what Justin Timberlake did in Minneapolis Sunday night. The only really interesting aspect was the very strange landscape scene on his shirt, a wardrobe malfunction for 2018. Timberlake’s performance was most notable for what it was missing. There were no surprise guest stars, like, say, Katy Perry’s 2015 inclusion of Missy Elliott and Lenny Kravitz. No impressive stunts, like last year when Lady Gaga flew through the air like a trapeze artist. No “wow” moments, like Beyoncé and her “Formation” army stealing Coldplay’s thunder in 2016.
And, no, Timberlake’s decision to duet with a projection of Prince midway through the performance doesn’t qualify. Timberlake, to be fair, probably chose to include Prince in his halftime show because it would be a slight not to — Prince is a Twin City icon who loved sports so much he wrote a song for the Minneapolis Vikings called “Purple and Gold.” But fans know how Prince felt about the prospect of being turned into any kind of digital specter (“That’s the most demonic thing imaginable,” he told Guitar World in 1998 about the idea of holograms being used to duet with the dead.) And, anyway, it created an regrettable comparison for Timberlake.
Timberlake’s performance wasn’t as bad as his newest album (I’m not sure how it could have been), but it’s the mediocrity of it all that’s so infuriating. If anyone else pulled this kind of thing, there would have been outrage! Plenty of performers have bangers. Plenty of modern pop stars are fresh off roof-raising stadium tours. So why does Justin Timberlake get to play the Super Bowl? We know why, of course. Justin Timberlake may be a man of the woods, but he’s also a man who stays in his lane. At the end of his set, I didn’t hate the performance, and I didn’t hate Justin Timberlake. I hated that he got the opportunity. I hated that his ability to be inoffensive — with his G-rated sexuality, minimal cursing lyrics, and upbeat songs — is the best we could do.
Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted her approval shortly after halftime. Just last week (almost to the minute) she tweeted her disapproval of the Grammys, saying, “Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.” Artists, this thinking goes, are here to entertain us. No need for thoughts or opinion. The same voice that says Justin Timberlake is a good choice for the Super Bowl is also the one who says that the NFL is no place for protest. Keep politics out of sports, out of music, out of the mouths of artists, it says, since it doesn’t belong here in the first place.
Timberlake performed “Rock Your Body” upon entering the stadium, an obvious callback to his 2004 Super Bowl appearance where he ripped off part of Janet Jackson’s bodice, creating one of the biggest cultural controversies in American television history and then walking away scot-free. Except this time, when he got to the line “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” he said, “Hold up. Stop,” and switched to another song. Saying nothing, what Timberlake and the NFL are really saying is that he is forgiven, while (even Timberlake admits) Janet Jackson is not, and that it’s better to use this platform for safe and uncontroversial entertainment than as a showcase for America’s best performers.
Because in February 2018, Justin Timberlake is not even close to our best. He is not as popular as Drake, or Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift. Maybe during the seven-year hiatus he took between FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006 and 2013’s The 20/20 Experience, the pop landscape simply passed him by. What Timberlake was doing in 2002 — cross-pollinating white pop with r&b and country — is no longer that rare. With his new album and the Super Bowl performance, Timberlake had the opportunity to prove to America that he could make innovative, interesting music. That he was relevant again. Instead he provided a nostalgia trip bookended by two successful singles largely unreflective of his best work.
This set could have been saved were he willing to be more self-reflective of his past mistakes; had he, for example, brought out Britney Spears or Janet Jackson. Really, any additional star power would have helped since Timberlake’s own star is fading. Most of his set leaned heavily on songs from his first two albums from 2002 and 2006. They’re still good, sure, and he’s still capable of performing a decent set. But what last night told us is that Justin Timberlake is flirting with irrelevance.