Back at the big game for the first time since the infamous Nipplegate wardrobe malfunction with Janet Jackson in 2004, the man behind the new Man of the Woods album sang and danced many of hits but never really found a groove on Sunday in Minneapolis. In fact, it looks like avoidance was the motto of Timberlake’s third stint in the Super Bowl spotlight. Coming out of a first half that had the underdog Philadelphia Eagles ahead of the reigning champs New England Patriots 22-12, it was a stance that ultimately resulted in nothing special except a brief and a good-taste-avoiding duet across the ages with Prince.
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Despite the rumors and then the denials, there really wasn’t a surprise appearance by Jackson, a reunion of NSYNC’s 2001 Super Bowl halftime show or a hologram of the hometown icon today onstage with Timberlake. And while the latter clearly would have disrespected the expressed dismissive opinion of such high-tech duets with dead artists by the now deceased Purple One himself, an occurrence on the magnitude of the first two might have helped bring the fun back, if not the sexy.
As it was, with NBC showing the area around U.S. Bank Stadium aglow in purple, Timberlake’s white-piano rendition of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” with piped-in vocals and video from the maestro on a fluttering sheet was a grotesque manhandling of a great American artist. While not directly contradicting what Timberlake supposedly told Prince protégé Sheila E on Saturday, the use of the 2007 Super Bowl halftimer’s voice and image was also at best a trickster’s self-serving sleight of hand.
Family, I spoke w/Justin 2nite and he shared heartfelt words of respect for Prince & the Purple fans. I look 4wrd 2 seeing what I’m sure is going 2 be a spectacular halftime show. There is no hologram. 🙏🏽💋 pic.twitter.com/mhVXBfBa1B
— SheilaEdrummer (@SheilaEdrummer) February 4, 2018
Otherwise, similar to last year’s halftime show by Lady Gaga, Timberlake bloodlessly engineered all the required slick professionalism but not much more. After 14 minutes in front of the 66,000-plus fans packed in at the stadium and the likely more than 110 million watching on TV and online, the Stella McCartney cameo clad Timberlake’s well choreographed offerings had mere dribbles of the soul that Prince poured out seemingly effortlessly during his Super Bowl XLI extravaganza.
Starting off with an 8:18 PM ET introduction by good pal Jimmy Fallon, “Filthy” from his February 2-dropped new album, and a laser-filled nightclub scene created under the venue, Timberlake bound out to the covered field in Minnesota to whip through a medley with his Tennessee Kids band. The moves and the tunes were tight, and scripted shout-out to the crowd got the roar you’d expect, as did the ending-up-in-the-stands finale of “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from 2016’s Trolls, but you could see the motions more than you felt the music.
Now, perhaps it is cruel to have anticipated that the multiple Grammy winner could rise close to Prince’s gold standard of Super Bowl halftime shows, even if he did shamelessly try to steal some of the Purple Rain star’s stardust. Then again, Timberlake had promised in the pregame press conference on February 1 that “we’re doing things with this halftime show that they’ve never quite done before.” Also, sometimes called the “President of Pop,” the five-time Saturday Night Live host is nothing if not a showman of hyphenated abilities.
Yet, lacking even the spontaneity or sheer will power that a flu suffering Pink put out on the field earlier Sunday during her rendition of the protest-free national anthem, it might have been best if Timberlake had brought on some live guests as most past Super Bowl halftime performers have. It’s not like he didn’t have an opportunity at hand with Jennifer Lopez among The Tonight Show host, Bradley Cooper, Floyd Mayweather and other big names in the stadium watching the Eagles and Patriots’ Super Bowl rematch today.
In the end, what we saw tonight from the sometimes audio-plagued Timberlake was the Super Bowl halftime equivalent of the screen going black earlier due to “equipment failure” for around 20 seconds on Sunday during the second quarter. Just a few days before NBC shifts to another sporting shindig with the Winter Olympics opening ceremony on February 9, tonight’s Timberlake event was more unfortunately noteworthy for what was absent and abused (aka Prince’s legacy) than for what was there to be seen.
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