Justin Timberlake led a troupe of dancers through an impeccably choreographed rundown of his greatest hits during halftime of the Super Bowl on Sunday.
Following a brief but enthusiastic introduction from real-life friend Jimmy Fallon, the musician first appeared underneath the US Bank Stadium field in a laser-lit club setting, where he performed the robo-funk track “Filthy,” a single off his recent album “Man of the Woods.”
Racing into the stadium, Timberlake — clad in a fringed camo suit, elk shirt, and bandana befitting his music’s recent, rootsy direction — launched into classic “Rock Your Body,” the same song he’d performed at the Super Bowl back in 2004 during his infamous performance supporting Janet Jackson.
Timberlake kept things moving quickly as he transitioned into “SexyBack” then “My Love,” during which he jammed out on stage with his band, the Tennessee Kids.
Dance moves were front and center and Timberlake came prepared, nailing an extended acrobatic routine on the field as he sang “Cry Me A River.” Incorporating so much visual showmanship was a canny move on Timberlake’s part, given that the broadcast audio served his high tenor poorly, sometimes rendering the song’s lyrics inaudible.
Heading back on stage, Timberlake joined a brass marching band to perform “The 20/20 Experience” cut “Suit & Tie,” grooving alongside guitarists dressed in red, but just as quickly he transitioned out of that to sit down at a piano for possibly the most interesting moment of the performance: a Prince tribute.
Social media had been abuzz over rumors that Timberlake would use a Prince hologram as part of a tribute to the Minneapolis native and late pop icon. The main problems: Prince had made no secret of his horror at the prospect of being brought back in such a form, and Timberlake, who had something of a contentious relationship with the musician during his life, was one of the last people Prince fans wanted performing an ode to him.
It turned out there was no hologram, but Timberlake still made an effort to salute the legend, projecting video of Prince onto a hanging piece of material while performing “I Would Die 4 U” as a duet and bathing the stadium in purple light. As tributes go, it was calculatedly inoffensive — some might even say selfless, given that the approach forced Timberlake to stack his own vocals up against Prince’s legendary pipes in front of millions.
Finishing out the performance, Timberlake had backup dancers hold up reflective surfaces to bounce light around the stadium during a handclap-heavy performance of his hit “Mirrors” before predictably ending on a high-energy version of his summer smash “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” As the stadium applauded, he flouted typical Super Bowl regulations by rushing into the stands to take “Super Bowl selfies,” as he gleefully proclaimed before his mic was cut.
If the performance seemed impressively well oiled, that might have something to do with Timberlake’s track record. Sunday’s turn marked the musician’s third Super Bowl performance. He first appeared with *NSYNC, performing alongside Britney Spears at the 2001 halftime show, then returned to the stage with Jackson three years later.
During that performance, Timberlake tore away a piece of Jackson’s outfit mid-song, revealing her breast to millions of onlookers and sparking a prolonged controversy. Many believe that Jackson, a black woman, was subjected to a racial double standard at the time and faced harsher treatment than Timberlake, who largely laughed off the incident.
As such, reprising “Rock Your Body” this time around — the hashtags #JusticeforJanet and #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay have been recently trending on Twitter, with many calling for Timberlake to include Jackson in Sunday’s performance — felt like a curious, somewhat tone-deaf choice. Timberlake certainly seemed aware viewers would be associating the performance with that 2004 miscue, stopping the song precisely short of the same lyrics he had been crooning when the wardrobe malfunction occurred. But if he was trying to make a statement by doing so, it’s unclear what Timberlake thought he was saying.Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @isaacfeldberg.