For most performers, a headlining spot during Super Bowl halftime means a shot at attaining or cementing global superstardom. For Justin Timberlake, it meant a chance at redemption.
Or at least that was the media narrative leading up to his Sunday-night concert. But judging from his fairly pedestrian performance, Timberlake saw his performance less as a chance to redeem his last appearance on the world's biggest stage than as just another night in an arena.
For years, Timberlake didn't get much respect. Though he has been singing and dancing on television for a quarter-century, since he was a preteen on The Mickey Mouse Club, his band, 'Nsync, was mostly treated as a teenybopper product devoid of substance save for its late-stage, R&B-tinged output. Then the release of his first solo effort, 2002's Justified, and particularly his boundary-pushing album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, made him a critic's darling.
But it's been a rough week in the life of JT. His recently released album, Man of the Woods, received mixed reviews, by far the worst for any of his solo efforts to date. And in the days leading up to his halftime performance, rumors of a holographic Prince cameo set a rage-tweet firestorm ablaze. Excerpts of an interview where Prince called posthumous duets "demonic" spread on social media, and outrage continued until former Prince collaborator Sheila E. took to Twitter to claim the hologram idea had been scrapped.
Yet when it finally came time to pay homage to the late musician, widely regarded as the best Super Bowl performer ever, in his hometown, what viewers got wasn't much better. Timberlake still sang a duet of "I Would Die 4 U" with moving images of Prince projected onto what appeared to be a bed sheet strung up by clothespins. There was a nod to Prince's suggestive, phallic guitar silhouette, and the moment passed almost as quickly as it began.
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With all the controversy leading up to the performance, it wasn't lost on anyone that Timberlake had already lived through a worst-case scenario at the Super Bowl. Whether co-performer Janet Jackson's infamous wardrobe malfunction was intentional (seriously, why was she wearing a pasty if it wasn't a planned stunt?), Timberlake's last appearance on the Super Bowl stage defined disaster. America lost its damn mind when he ripped off a piece of Jackson's costume, exposing her breast during the halftime show in 2004. The FCC imposed draconian indecency fines that led to debates about censorship, MTV lost its lucrative halftime show contract with the NFL, Jackson's career derailed for years, and the term "wardrobe malfunction" became part of the pop-culture lexicon.
This past Sunday night, Timberlake went back to the scene of the crime by singing "Rock Your Body" during the telecast, prompting #JusticeforJanet to trend on Twitter for the second time since Timberlake was announced as this year's performer. Jackson had tweeted earlier that she would not appear. Timberlake cheekily omitted the line "Bet I'll have you naked by the end of this song" before launching into his next number, "Señorita."
Timberlake ran through songs, from his latest, "Filthy," to classics such as "Cry Me a River," and crowd pleasers "Can't Stop the Feeling" and "Mirrors" with his excellent band, the Tennessee Kids, who were woefully underused. The performance was visually stimulating like any other halftime show, but surprisingly, the only noteworthy moments came when Timberlake pissed off both Prince and Jackson fans in the span of a 13-minute set.
For the most part, Timberlake looked comfortable on the Super Bowl stage. In fact, being too comfortable is the overarching criticism of both his latest LP and the ill-advised faded camo pants he wore to perform in front of 114 million people last night. It's off-putting to see an artist who's made a career of pushing the sonic limits of pop music settle on a stage most performers only dream of setting foot upon. But it was the third time around for a man who's been in the public eye for twice the time he was an unknown Tennessee kid. Was it a good show? Sure. Timberlake reminded us of his superb studio catalogue and showed he's still got the moves. But was it memorable? No. When you're as big as Justin Timberlake, though, you know you have plenty more arena gigs ahead of you.