Critic's Notebook: Justin Timberlake's Super Bowl Halftime Performance Is Light on Singing, Spontaneity

The Super Bowl halftime slot is, as ever, simultaneously coveted and a trap.

Plenty of people were outraged — entirely justifiably — that Justin Timberlake got official forgiveness from the Super Bowl for the 2004 Nipplegate fiasco, while Janet Jackson remains persona non grata.

But are we really supposed to be looking at a Super Bowl halftime appearance as a chance to succeed, rather than a chance to be very publicly derided for whatever you don't do?

On the plus side, Timberlake's Super Bowl LII halftime performance won't be remembered for FCC fines and media scandal. Mazel tov!

Timberlake's Sunday night is also likely to be remembered for the absence of Janet Jackson vindication. Timberlake told anybody who would listen that she wasn't joining him in Minneapolis, and he didn't lie.

And his Super Bowl LII halftime performance will be remembered for the absence of an *NSYNC reunion. Timberlake told anybody who would listen that *NSYNC wouldn't be joining him in Minneapolis, and he didn't lie.

Returning to the positives, Timberlake's Super Bowl LII halftime performance also won't be remembered for the Prince hologram cameo that the internet had been buzzing about for the past few days. Everybody on Twitter was up in arms about the disgrace a Prince hologram would be and, instead, Timberlake just honored Minneapolis' favorite son with a giant Prince projection accompanying a cover of "I Would Die 4 You." It was a vastly better choice, playing as tribute and not exploitation. Could the tribute have been longer and better? Yes. Does it all raise questions about the role racial appropriation has played in basically every note of his musical career? Yes. Still, I appreciate a nod to Prince without a wallowing dedication to Prince, because the more Timberlake had dwelled on Prince, the more likely viewers were to remember that Prince gave the greatest halftime performance in Super Bowl history and Timberlake, here, did not.

The other thing Timberlake's halftime performance won't be remembered for is singing. For the first half of the show, up until a piano-side rendition of "Until the End of Time," I'd believe you if you told me that Timberlake didn't sing a single note live. I'd also believe you, however, if you told me that the sound mix was just dreadful and Timberlake's lead vocals were buried for "Filthy," "Rock Your Body" and "SexyBack."

That's the sort of thing that either matters to you or it doesn't. Certainly there was ample distraction in what felt to me much more like the sort of performance you're treated to at halftime of the NBA All-Star Game and not the Super Bowl, which is to say a loud, energetic set concentrating on dancing and noise and crowd energy, filmed in a glossy cinematic style that made the whole thing feel overly polished and not especially like a live performance at all. Even when Timberlake went up into the crowd for Super Bowl selfies, the cinematography did little to underline the in-the-moment liveness, emphasizing how carefully planned it was and not how spontaneous any of the crowd interactions may or may not have been.

That, in fact, would be how I would describe the Timberlake performance even at its best: calculatedly improvisational. Like they wanted us to believe that some of what was happening in Timberlake's journey from backstage to the field was live and therefore the singer could trip on a wire or stumble over a dancing extra, but it was all too smooth. The choreography, fantastically danced, was presented too smoothly. The extras surrounding his tiny stage were supposed to make us believe they were actually surrounding Timberlake and could have touched him if they chose to, but my sense was that if any of those people had touched Timberlake, they would have been electrocuted. When you have dancing extras waving reflecting cards on the field, you're supposed to be thinking, "Man, that's sparkly and wouldn't it be awkward if they blinded Justin Timberlake?," and instead I felt like he was in a hermetically sealed bubble, protected from light and vocals and former bandmates and Janet Jackson's nipples.

This even extended to Timberlake's wardrobe, a Stella McCartney concoction that was something like hobo couture, designed to make you want to spend a year's salary to look sloppy and artistic and indigent and, if you had a good year, to splurge on a $15,000 decorative bindle. [Full credit: My parents, with whom I watched the game, loved Timberlake's outfit, and I think my inheritance may go to my father purchasing something from Justin Timberlake's Dust Bowl Drifter fashion line.]

The dancing was great. I've never questioned Timberlake's aptitude in that department. The music, not that it was ever possible to hear him, was a reminder of what a deep singles catalog he has. Between the backstage intro and the march into the crowd and all sorts of business on the field itself, Timberlake used more of the stadium than many stage-bound acts who have gone before him. So give him full credit for those things, while also acknowledging that the man famous for the most notorious [allegedly] unplanned moment ever at the Super Bowl returned to the Super Bowl with one of the most over-planned, least surprising performances imaginable.

Justin Timberlake, bringing shrugging back.

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