Justin Timberlake's Super Bowl performance was all empty energy

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment

Could Justin Timberlake have faced more resistance going into his Super Bowl halftime show? His new album, Man of the Woods, was released on Friday to the sort of widespread scorn usually reserved for an Ed Sheeran album drop. The run-up to Timberlake’s live performance served as an occasion for many unflattering revisionist think pieces about his last Super Bowl show, the 2004 extravaganza featuring Janet Jackson’s notorious “wardrobe malfunction.” Timberlake is now seen as a white-male-privileged, lucky opportunist in that scandal, and Jackson as something of a martyr. That interpretation of history culminated on Sunday afternoon with the high-trending Twitter hashtag #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay. Then there was the late-breaking almost-scandal when word spread that Justin would be performing with a hologram of Prince. Purists howled, and Prince-channeler Sheila E. spread the word that Prince was turning over in his grave at the prospect. A lesser man than Timberlake — a singer who had not been trained in the Mouseketeer ethos that the Show Must Go On — might have woken up Sunday morning and called the Super Bowl to say, “You know, I don’t need this grief: Let P!nk have my time after she finishes singing the national anthem.”

But Timberlake is not a no-show kind of guy. He is, instead, the kind of guy who tries to pull off wearing a hunter-green camouflage sport jacket on America’s biggest entertainment stage. He’s the kind of guy who revved up a rote recitation of some of his greatest hits almost entirely on the strength of his dance moves. And the funny thing is, in 2018, a lot of young viewers looking at Timberlake probably turned to their parents and said, “Who’s this man who’s trying to dance like Bruno Mars?”

Justin Timberlake performs at halftime during Super Bowl LII. (Photo: Getty Images)

Unless I missed a chorus here or there, the only bit of Man of the Woods that crept out onstage on Sunday was a snippet of “Filthy.” The rest of the 14-minute show was a very brisk trot through greatest hits including “Rock Your Body,” “SexyBack,” “Cry Me a River,” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” The Prince hologram never materialized, but a huge purple sheet did: It unfurled so that an image of Purple Rain Prince singing “I Would Die 4 You” could be projected against it — Timberlake joined in on a makeshift duet that made his voice sound thin alongside Prince’s.

As always, there’s no criticizing Timberlake as a live performer. His moves are impeccable and industrious; he exudes good cheer. The self-proclaimed “Man of the Woods” also strives to be a man of the people, as he did at the climax of this show, entering the arena stands so that fans could snap what Justin termed “Super Bowl selfies.” In the end, it wasn’t by any means a terrible Super Bowl halftime show — it just wasn’t a great one, or, most likely, not a very memorable one.

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