In the weeks leading up to tonight’s Super Bowl (February 4), there was a lot of speculation and controversy around Justin Timberlake‘s halftime performance. Should it really be him over Janet Jackson who gets another pop at appearing after 2004’s nipplegate? Would his old N’Sync bandmates join him in Minneapolis? And then, just days before the big event, a rumour emerged that he was going to use a hologram of local hero and global icon Prince in his set, sparking a huge backlash. This morning it was confirmed that that would not be happening.
But Prince did appear in some form. Towards the end of Timberlake’s big appearance, he worked his way to a B-stage and sat down at a piano. There, he began covering ‘I Would Die 4 U’, and footage of the Purple One was projected on a screen that looked like a giant bedsheet behind him. It was a short tribute – his whole performance was one big medley – but an emotionless, hollow one that had a tang of opportunism at worst, lack of thought at best, played out like a grab for headlines than out of genuine respect.
The two artists weren’t the chummiest of pals after all – they famously had a brief spat around the release of ‘SexyBack’, and Timberlake mocked Prince during the 2007 Golden Globes – so it wasn’t the most ingenuous coupling of all time. It especially felt galling considering the singer had just used Prince’s Paisley Park for an album listening party where he served alcohol – something fans have taken offence to considering the late star reportedly didn’t serve booze at the premises before he died. All that considered, why not just let his own music and performance speak for itself?
When he did do that, though, the results were underwhelming. The Super Bowl halftime show is something of a spectacle and for a long time its performers have gone all-out to keep that tradition going. Last year, Lady Gaga sang ‘God Bless America’ from the stadium roof before flying down to the pitch on a wire to kick off her impressive set. Beyoncé‘s 2013 appearance brought with it a Destiny’s Child reunion and political overtones, while Katy Perry had Left Shark in 2015 (although you could argue that the dancer’s contribution wasn’t intended to be the big talking point of the night).
Timberlake’s set started inside the stadium, singing ‘Filthy’ in a room obviously meant to have a club feel, but which just came off as stale. From there, he walked up the stairs into the stand and down a gangway to the pitch while doing ‘Rock Your Body’, which he notably cut off before the “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song” line – the lyric that soundtracked the exact moment nipplegate occurred in 2004. A burst of ‘Señorita’ later, and he was on a stand in the middle of the group doing ‘SexyBack’, backed by his The Tennessee Kids band.
After the ill-advised Prince moment, he moved to another stage for ‘Mirrors’, where a troupe of dancers surrounded him with – funnily enough – a bunch of mirrors, holding them to the sky for the stadium lights to bounce off. It looked pretty enough, but still felt decidedly average. The big finale of ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling!’ didn’t bring much more excitement, except for when the singer waded back into the stands to stand amongst the fans. Cameraphones flashed around him, but what they would have caught was not a man closing out a triumphant performance, but one that was uninspired, mediocre, and – Prince tribute aside – instantly forgettable.