Justin Timberlake gave America a lukewarm bath of pop music on Sunday night in the Super Bowl halftime show, mixing in plenty of his hits and dancing around all wonderfully, his fans undoubtedly all clapping along nearly on beat; a nation collectively agreeing that we were just going to forget that Janet Jackson ever existed for a good 20 minutes or so.
He also paid tribute to the late Prince, not with a hologram as was rumored, but with a projection of him on a sheet, which I guess isn’t as bad, maybe? I don’t know.
Yes, this was Timberlake’s redemptive moment, such as it were. And I guess he seized it?
Timberlake was good. Timberlake was fine.
He came out in a jacket with tassels and a shirt with woods on it and led with the song “Filthy” off Man of the Woods (GET IT? HIS SHIRT HAS WOODS ON IT), his new album. It’s a subtle blend of Americana and hip hop that would have been innovative and cool had Uncle Kracker not done the same thing like 20 years ago.
Then Timberlake went back to the hits, and I was reminded that dude has a LOT of bangers. He hit us with “Rock Your Body” and then a medley of “Señorita” and “Sexy Back” and a wilded-out rock version of “My Love,” and I was happy again. Then he did “Cry Me A River” and I swooned, because damn it, that’s still a great song.
A moment at a white piano for his ballad, “Until the End of Time,” fell flat because he was trying to hit us with a ballad at halftime of the Super Bowl. Then the aforementioned Prince tribute, which, man, let’s unpack it.
The scuttle ahead of the game on Sunday was that Timberlake would not be performing by himself but would be joined onstage by a hologram of Prince. They were going to do this despite the fact that Prince made it clear when he was alive that he was mortified by holograms and was terrified that his likeness and voice would be used by people after he was gone. He went on record about that — in 1998! This is from his interview with Guitar World:
Guitar World: “With digital editing, it is now possible to create a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past. Would you ever consider doing something like that?”
Prince: “Certainly not. That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing ... it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song [“Free As a Bird”], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave ... that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.”
So instead of a hologram, Timberlake performed in front of a sheet with Prince projected on it. Is this better? I have no idea. I guess it’s clear that they were honoring him and not trying to recreate his presence in a ghostly apparition. So in that sense, it wasn’t bad.
Timberlake finished by walking up into the crowd and singing in front of an overwhelmed group of fans — including a Patriots-supporting tween who clearly did not ask for this — who were anxiously taking selfies and trying not to freak out with the realization that all of America was watching them awkwardly trying to dance along with an international pop star. They did just fine as well. Good on you, anxious fans taking selfies. Good on you.