It wasn’t a Super Bowl halftime show to die 4. But Justin Timberlake’s only minimally Prince-augmented performance proved to be the fumble-free affair he needed this weekend. Yes, he wore a weird shirt emblazoned with lovingly photographed elk, proving that, no, he hasn’t been reading the comments about his much-snickered-about “Man of the Woods” album rollout. But he made everyone forget about hooves with 12 minutes of the superior hoofing that first made him America’s song-and-dance sweetheart.
It ended better than it started. Timberlake spent the first couple of valuable minutes under the stage, in a recreation of a sleazy nightclub where you can’t see the artist and everyone is holding cell phones over their heads — a vision of hell, for some of us. But he brought himself out of that “Filthy” milieu and out into the stadium open, where he was joined by what seemed like hundreds of dancers on what seemed like thousands of stages. Haters will continue to say it’s fake — as he correctly prophesied — but at least he made a fast-moving target for ‘em, moving from platform to platform on the vast field faster than Corey Clement making a 55-yard run.
He sang “Rock Your Body” — not afraid to revive the song that served as soundtrack for history’s most famous nip slip in 2004 — and then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s my pleasure to introduce to you…” If this had led to a cameo by Janet Jackson, the roar would have been heard back in the team’s respective hometowns, but of course we’d already been advised this was not to be, nor any other guest appearance, and so we were primed for the letdown of… “the Tennessee Kids!” Bringing out a 10-plus-piece band would have had more impact if every kid and grandma in the audience weren’t aware at this point in history that all the instrumentation at the Super Bowl is canned.
Also absent, for obvious reasons: a Prince hologram, which TMZ reported and turned out to be semi-fake news, as the site subsequently updated its story with a correction that it would be video of Prince projected onto a wind-swept screen. Somehow, in the delineation of the fine line between what we consider grave-robbing and what we consider tribute, most of us determined that a flat projection was fine, whereas a 3D Prince would have been grounds for canceling Timberlake’s career. Whatever. It was sweet, even if there might have been a better pick than “I Would Die 4 U,” and even if Wendy and Lisa were the guest stars he should have called in if he wasn’t going to call Janet. The unisex Prince symbol that lit up the snowy blocks surround the stadium tied a glyph-y ribbon on this perfectly acceptable homage.
Timberlake crooned of “disasters in the world” and “so much darkness in the world,” but this was not going to be the place for social commentary, obviously. This would be the place for feelings that can’t be stopped — specifically, boogie-down feelings — and the performance finally came into its own when JT stepped away from that white piano and joined the cast of thousands on the field. “Can’t Stop the Feeling” was the can’t-fail capper to his medley, an inevitable show-closer so irresistible that maybe even Bill Belichick felt less tense for a minute. Well, scratch that. But the ghosts of Up With People had to have been proud.
The amusing anticlimax to this came when Timberlake ran into the stands and… took time out to try to teach a kid how to take a selfie. Maybe the performance would have been better bookended without cell phones. But if nothing about the optics of this performance adds up to this going on a “Five Most Memorable Halftimes” list, Timberlake turned in a more enjoyably physical performance than just about anybody else who’s done the Bowl show… and if it was more a feat of athleticism than aestheticism, you can’t say that’s entirely inappropriate for the occasion. In a week where he’s had some obvious PR problems with that album launch, it might even have helped bring him out of the woods.