Justin Timberlake’s halftime show performance drew attention and controversy before he even hit the field on Sunday night, mostly because of two things: Janet Jackson, and his increasingly tenuous relationship with black people.
Last year, Timberlake caught heat when he decided to weigh in on black issues on Twitter, making an “All Lives Matter” pitch that prompted many black social media users to not only call him out but question his authenticity: Hadn’t he, after all, built an entire career by essentially copying black music, black dance, and black swag?
Then there was the infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” in which, many people argued, Timberlake managed to emerge largely unscathed while Janet Jackson’s career took a heavy and humiliating hit, partially because he failed to come to her defense in the wake of the scandal.
These things certainly did not help Timberlake’s pop culture standing. Nor did his recent rebranding as a “Man of the Woods” for his forthcoming album ― a hodgepodge of rustic, down-home Tennessee imagery of Timberlake in the nature wearing artfully weathered denims and confusing singles like “Filthy” which sound, for the most part, like watered down versions of the tracks he’s been making for the last 10 years.
Timberlake’s halftime show, then, had a lot riding on it. Not only was the performance a chance for him to reconcile with black fans and perhaps atone for his perceived sins against Janet Jackson (who, on Sunday, was celebrated on Twitter with the #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay hashtag as a kind of protest), but also to establish his new era and persona which, up until now, has been vague at best, nonsensical at worst.
Timberlake achieved none of these things in what was, for the most part, a perfectly adequate show. Adequate, teetering on forgettable. Despite the undercurrent of possible controversy, the most striking thing about Timberlake’s show was how carefully it tiptoed around anything taboo.
Dressed in a camouflage suit and red bandana , Timberlake danced and sang to all his best bangers of yesteryear, including “SexyBack,” “Cry Me A River” and “My Love” ― pop tunes infused with hip-hop and R&B cool. But the songs, censored and edited down for prime time, felt sanitized.
The show was punctuated by a much-discussed and criticized tribute: a projection of the late singer Prince singing ‘I Would Die 4 U’ while Timberlake accompanied on piano, right before a wide overhead shot of the stadium and surrounding area bathed in a warm purple light and The Purple One’s symbol.
This, too, was a gesture that was adequate, safe and just fine ― an appropriate way to honor and hold space for an iconic black performer without having to acknowledge Ms. Jackson.
The rest of the medley was a blur of less memorable Timberlake hits, including backup dancers who looked like extras from a Gap or United Colors of Benetton ad, and a final moment where Timberlake, among the crowd, bellowed “Supa Bowl Selfies!” as a young fan in the audience snapped a picture with him.
This last moment was what really cemented Timberlake’s place as the new face of dad-pop ― when every older millennial who went through high school grooving to “Justified” realized that they are officially old.
Dad-pop consists of releasing a song called “Filthy” that isn’t really filthy, mostly just mediocre. Dad-pop is lyrics like: “I’ll be the wood when you need heat/I’ll be the generator, turn me on when you need electricity.” Dad-pop is releasing a song on the “Trolls” soundtrack.
For the past several months, there’s been so much speculation about what’s going on with Timberlake’s new album, about why his popularity has seemed to wane. It’s really not that complicated. He has a great catalogue of music. He’s a talented performer. He put on an entertaining, if cheesy show. But Timberlake, like all pop stars (especially white pop stars who cull much of their inspiration and persona from black culture), got old and corny.
And that’s perfectly fine.
Many artists, from U2 to Eminem, reach this moment of dad-i-fication, when they’re at the pinnacle of their careers, yes, but also simultaneously irrelevant to the culture. They sell out stadiums and concert halls, but the people who populate these arenas are not the ones who dictate what is “cool.” This is not an indictment of Timberlake, but merely an observation.
In this way, Timberlake’s halftime show was especially fascinating. Not because of the show itself but all that it represents ― the passage of time, our changing politics, and the stark and subtle differences between 2004 and 2018.
But perhaps the most interesting thing about Timberlake’s just OK halftime show was that, for those still salty about how he handled the whole Janet Jackson scandal, this was in a way the ultimate revenge. Timberlake’s incredibly safe performance, not only mired in the past and his own awkward comeback, also highlighted the fact that the wardrobe malfunction moment was perhaps the last time he actually ever did anything exciting.