A shrewd way to manage expectations for your Super Bowl halftime show is to spread a genuinely terrible rumor about it 48 hours prior and then bask in America’s collective sigh of relief when you don’t actually do the terrible rumored thing. Justin Timberlake bringing out a Prince hologram would, indeed, have been an extinction-level event, tacky and exploitative on a gargantuan scale, especially given the Purple One’s very explicit thoughts on such matters. “That whole virtual reality thing … it really is demonic,” Prince once told Guitar World. “And I am not a demon.”
It turns out that Justin Timberlake is not quite a demon, either. What JT served up instead was almost arrogant in its modesty, spirited and straightforward and only briefly sacrilegious, and even then only slightly. He was basically done pimping his 48-hour-old album, the confused and insular Man of the Woods, before he even physically hit the field, kicking things off with a quick snippet of the B-minus electro-funk single “Filthy” in some sort of stadium-bowels small-club-like environment. When he emerged, bathed in the bright lights of U.S. Bank Stadium, he pivoted straight into greatest-hits mode, with one notable, but far from apocalyptic, lavender-tinted exception.
Call it the Y2K of Super Bowl halftime shows: When you’re braced for world-historical disaster, it almost qualifies as a thrill to find yourself only slightly bored instead.
Timberlake switched from a leather jacket and golden-retriever bandana to a mesmerizing Great American Landscape button-down that looked like the airbrushed side of a vintage ’70s minivan. He wrapped things up in a camouflage suit. He rumbled charismatically through his solo back catalog—the carefree bubblegum of Justified, the intergalactic boudoir jams of FutureSex/LoveSounds, the mostly grown and sexy-enough electro-R&B of The 20/20 Experience. Each tune got a couple of minutes of airtime, tops: enough space to trigger various pleasant memories, but not enough running room to gather much momentum. “My Love” was particularly intense, the live aggro-funk horn section joyously blaring, the backup dancers so lively and so great in number that at times, JT almost got lost in his own onstage crowd. He seemed perfectly content to blend in.
And then he slinked over to a grand piano, solo, and did his much-threatened and preemptively dissected Prince tribute. Which consisted of a modest amount of vintage footage—mostly from Purple Rain and Prince’s own, vastly superior halftime show—projected on a giant sheet as JT mewled through a mellow version of “I Would Die 4 U.” He let Prince’s voice dominate the mix, but it felt like deference, not Black Mirror–style digital subjugation. As involuntary posthumous duets go, this was a relatively minor thing, capped off with a moderately cool aerial shot of the stadium, the surrounding buildings turning purple, a familiar symbol and beloved hybrid-gender symbol slowly pulling into focus.
The soft bigotry of low expectations, maybe. Not everybody was into it.
Okay punkass justin Timberlake. You was cool till you pulled that Prince bullshit. You dissed Prince on a track of yours and you dissed him onstage when you lowered the mic stand onstage when prince won an award. Later for ya ass— Sinbad (@sinbadbad) February 5, 2018
The plain fact is that we won’t remember much of anything Justin Timberlake did tonight: “He closed with that doofy disco song from the Trolls soundtrack” is likely as specific as you’ll be able to get 24 hours from now. Rather, tonight is the tale of what he didn’t do. Prince did not appear in some technologically marvelous but morally repugnant form: That’s the good news. But Janet Jackson, who figured catastrophically in Timberlake’s last Super Bowl appearance, and to whom JT specifically and our nation as a whole owes a huge apology, did not appear in any form, either, and that is every bit as disappointing as the no-hologram thing is relieving. (We also knew the Janet thing was a no-go far in advance.) In the end, Timberlake just skated by, playing his typically charismatic hit songs in his typically charismatic way, taking no chances and allowing for no guest stars. It was fine. He did fine. He had no aspirations beyond fine. He was determined not to go viral. And in that, if nothing much else, he succeeded.