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Justin Timberlake - Super Bowl 2018

Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl show was so inoffensive it offended people

The beleaguered pop star turned in a particularly sanitised performance, raising the question of whether anyone cares about the Super Bowl show any more

Justin Timberlake’s return to the Super Bowl halftime show was doomed from the start. When he announced his latest album Man of the Woods four weeks ago, JT faced a backlash to his woodsy, Southern rebrand, and he’s been trying – and mostly failing – to deal with the turning tide of public opinion ever since.

It didn’t help that the record arrived amidst some hypocritical #TimesUp comments, renewed scrutiny around the infamous ‘nipplegate’ incident from his 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, and rumours that he’d be jamming along with a Prince hologram onstage (an affront to the late pop icon’s legacy, given he once described holograms of dead artists as “demonic”). A new online consensus seemed to emerge, and it was calcified by the critical drubbing that Man of the Woods received: Timberlake, to a lot of people, had become the ultimate emblem of white male mediocrity.

So when he got onstage at Minneapolis’s US Bank Stadium last night (February 4), Timberlake had a lot to prove. And yet he still ended up phoning it in. Dressed like an old-timey prospector, he cycled through a medley of decade-old hits, moving from a mock-up club to a stage made of mirrors, and eventually up to the bleachers to sing from within the audience. Prince didn’t come back from the dead, instead appearing as a projection on a banner while Timberlake covered “I Would Die 4 U”. The whole thing wasn’t bad, as such, but it was boring. Like Man of the Woods more generally, it was inoffensive to the point where it offended people, causing controversy by trying to please everyone.

The hoopla surrounding Timberlake’s Prince tribute summarised a lot about the tepid performance in general. The two stars didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye, with a beef that dated back to 2006’s “SexyBack” that, like most celebrity beefs, played out via diss tracks and pointed comments at award shows. More recently, Timberlake hosted an album listening party at Prince’s Paisley Park estate where he served alcohol, something that Prince abstained from as a Jehovah’s Witness. At the same time, JT has always been a fan of Prince’s music, having praised his ability to write songs that “draw sexuality out of people” in an interview with Dazed. Plus, the Super Bowl was held in Prince’s hometown, Minneapolis – it would’ve been weird if he hadn’t paid tribute. The fact that these discussions were even happening at all, however, illustrates how weirdly muddled and ill-considered the whole event was.

Compare last night to other recent Super Bowl performances, and the main issue becomes clear. With Beyoncé’s Black Panther outfit during the 2016 halftime show, she may have reduced the black socialist organisation’s real, often violent political struggle to a costume to be worn at a Pepsi-sponsored event, but it was still a moment. I, for one, can always root for someone who managed to piss off a bunch of police unions with a prime time TV slot. Lady Gaga clearly had the wow factor in mind, too, when she ziplined in from the ceiling last year, and Katy Perry had the good sense to bring out Missy Elliott during her show. Further in the past, the show has infamously been the source of huge controversies: Janet Jackson suffered huge damage to her career after nipplegate, while M.I.A. was asked to pay $16 million for the extremely mild act of raising a middle finger while onstage. Timberlake, by comparison, was treading water – he would have made more of an impact if he’d sunk.