“Super Bowl selfies!” Justin Timberlake said to the halftime crowd as he walked through the stands of Minneapolis’s U.S. Bank Stadium. He sounded like a man out of time, which should have come as no surprise to anyone who’d watched the set that had just come to a merciful close.
At Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4, Timberlake was more than just seeking a much-needed second act as a pop star; he was seeking to relive his past. Opening his Super Bowl halftime act in a crowded club-style setting, Timberlake performed his new track about his “haters,” “Filthy,” before taking the gridiron and launching into “Rock Your Body.”
That’s exactly the song Timberlake performed some 14 years ago, when he ripped off a bit more of Janet Jackson’s bustier than had been planned, resulting in a scandal that effectively halted her career while his continued to rise unabated. (Jackson announced on Twitter the day before the game that she wouldn’t be involved in the proceedings.) Timberlake sang in his opening number that “haters gonna think it’s fake.” In brazenly using the spotlight to call to mind an incident that had ruined the livelihood of someone other than himself, Timberlake’s second song proved his haters right. Something was fake indeed!
There was a great deal at stake for Timberlake, whose most recent album, Man of the Woods, was met with an exceedingly muted response. As I wrote before the album’s release, Timberlake seemed at sea in the lead-up to his new album’s release. His singles and videos failed to connect, skittering between modes (from socially conscious to raunchy to sketch-comic) that the now-37-year-old Timberlake struggled to inhabit—and making the image that Timberlake would present at his third Super Bowl halftime show appearance an open question. At the Super Bowl, Timberlake wore his new image on his back—fringed leather jacket, eventually tossed off; Cabela’s-chic flannel shirt—but put his whole body into trying to reclaim old dancefloor glory. His songs were almost to a one from his heyday, including the strikingly strange choice of “Cry Me a River.” (If there’s any song out of touch with the national mood, isn’t it the one about how a sexual liberated woman in general, and the currently resurgent Britney Spears in particular, is an unspeakable villain?)
And Timberlake’s tribute to Prince—an artist with whom he’d exchanged occasional barbs in life—felt like the sort of constituent-pleasing work a pop star isn’t supposed to have to do anymore. Timberlake paid fleeting homage to Prince during the Super Bowl—playing “I Would Die 4 U” as an image of the late singer unreeled on a fabric scrim—because Prince was a popular singer from the Super Bowl’s host city of Minneapolis, not because of any particular fellow feeling.
Timberlake may be selling Man of the Woods, but on Super Bowl Sunday he was a man in the weeds, scrambling through his archives to find any moment that might connect with an audience that, in substantial part, hasn’t lived with his music. (Timberlake’s last album before Man of the Woods was released in 2013—a lifetime ago for young-millennial and Gen Z music consumers.)
Certain aspects of Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime performance—from vexing audio quality to a staging idea, gathering fans close to the stage, that became a lot less impressive when the camera zoomed out and showed just how sparsely populated the field was—cannot be blamed on the artist. But Timberlake’s vision of himself as a pop star seems substantially less expansive than the respective visions of his contemporaries who have played this gig in recent years. Nods to something greater than a concert at the football game, something de rigeur for halftime acts, came only in nodding mentions in a brief love song to “disaster in the world.” By the time he marched around the Super Bowl stage to “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” the levity had utterly leached away. Taking the stage alone, but for a cameo from an unimpeachable star who’s no longer with us, foreclosed opportunities for connection; performing the old hits exactly as they’ve been done throughout his career, but for a Daniel Boone costume change, suggested Timberlake thinks his current persona can be perfected no further.
What a missed opportunity: Speaking to the latter case, it’s been striking to see pop stars in recent years use the Super Bowl halftime show as a pivot point, unleashing creativity (Katy Perry) or gutsiness (Lady Gaga) or political vision (Beyoncé) only previously hinted-at on music’s biggest stage. And as for the absence of guests—well, it’s the artist’s right, but the presence of someone a bit fresher on the music scene might have leavened the deadly seriousness with which Timberlake recited twelve- or fifteen-year-old pop tunes. And welcoming back a slightly more venerable star, Jackson herself, might have been a moment of humanity for a star who used thirteen minutes of airtime on TV’s most-watched night of the year to say nothing, really, other than that he loves his back catalog. You can’t stop the feeling if the feeling never started.