There was something a little leaden in Justin Timberlake’s step during Sunday night’s Super Bowl LII Halftime Show; something muted in his voice, which lay low in the sound mix and was occasionally accompanied by backing vocals. The performance ran almost 14 minutes, but felt more like 20 in its slog through eight songs from Timberlake’s solo back catalog, plus one Prince cover. It was as though Timberlake was going through the motions of multi-threat virtuosity, because multi-threat virtuosity is what he does and the marathon medley is a medium he sometimes employs to show it off.
But the Justin Timberlake who stormed his way through his discography at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards is not the Justin Timberlake who was on that stage last night. He concluded his act in the stands for a rendition of his most anonymous and recent bonafide hit, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” dancing near a young boy who filmed the encounter on his phone. “Super Bowl selfies!” is the last thing Timberlake, a dad now, said to his global audience. His Halftime Show dragged itself along, devoid of excitement, a performance of a performance.
It reminded me of the kind of perfunctory sex you have with someone right before you break up with them—functionally, it’s more or less the same as it always was, but the passion is gone and everybody knows it. In this case, one party is at least acknowledging that, and loudly—Timberlake has experienced a critical thrashing for his just-released fifth album Man of the Woods. The kind of mocking his every recent public move has received on Twitter—which largely seems fed up with Timberlake’s self-entitlement and ensuing cultural sampling—reminds me of how, last year, the tide turned on Katy Perry, who failed to display the wokeness she claimed to achieve in Witness and thus transformed into a laughingstock.
I wonder if Timberlake has been reading his reviews, if he’s aware of the backlash to his music and participation in the Super Bowl, and if that played a role in his palpably diminished energy onstage. Written into the halftime show, though, were a few indications that he, in fact, does not give a fuck about the haters. He implicitly referenced his performance alongside Janet Jackson in 2004—you know the one—by singing “Rock Your Body,” just as he did 14 years ago. Just before he got to the line that once precipitated his removal of the material covering Janet Jackson’s right breast, he paused: “Hold up stop!” he called last night, before: “Ahhhh!” Just what did he mean by that? It seemed less homage, as Vanity Fair argued, than an intentionally ambiguous callback, but the mere possibility it might be read as a punchline was a reminder that Timberlake had effectively gotten away with Nipplegate while Jackson did not. It was inherently smug, whether it knew it or not.
There was also the phantasmagoric presence of Prince, who in life seemed to think Timberlake was a cornball (when he thought about him at all) and has been the butt of a few of Timberlake’s dumb jokes. In 1998 Prince called the prospect of playing with a dead musician via technology “demonic,” and when word leaked that a “hologram” rendering of Prince would be part of Timberlake’s Halftime show, it was also met with outcry. Eventually, Prince collaborator Sheila E., announced on Twitter that she spoke with Timberlake and there would be no hologram. I’m not sure if she was lied to or if the Timberlake machine thought that the nature of the problem was technology and it could all be solved by instead just projecting Prince on a screen, but there he was on a screen, singing with a dude in his death that he likely never would have given the time of day in life. I’ll concede that I thought the present stripped-down, ballad version of “I Would Die 4 U” was nice.
That the performance seemed like both a begrudging attempt to entertain and a fuck-you to criticism rendered it wishy-washy. And that’s something pop shouldn’t be, given the form’s meticulous (sometimes diabolically so) craftsmanship.
That is exactly the problem, too, with Man of the Woods. Perhaps sensing that it is time to get a little more substantive in his artistry, Timberlake called the album “personal” in its marketing trailer. Atop its fairly conventional electronic beats, which range from yacht rocky-disco to dad-trap, Man is awash with guitars of all sorts—folky arpeggiated guitars, twangy country guitars, Spanish guitars, distorted junkyard funk guitars. It’s a pivot to so-called confessional singer-songwriter pretension, a la Lady Gaga’s Joanne. At least Joanne said something sometimes; Man of the Woods gestures at ideas that may be informed by Timberlake’s life (“Fame’s a lie”) but keeps them as vague and unexplained as any of Timberlake’s previous lyrical expression. There’s not even a real indication what being a man of the woods means (pride for your woman???). Aside from a mention of mountains, “Montana” could be about anywhere until its conclusion, in which the state is specifically named. The advice Timberlake gives to his son—whose cooing appears on the album in an attempt to make it real—is so unspecific (“You gon’ have to stand for something”), you’re left wondering if he’s really met the child he’s singing to.
My colleague Clover Hope described the conceptual shoddiness well in a review of the video for Man’s title track: “It seems like he can’t commit to whether the country narrative he’s going for should be authentic or goofy and it’s quite confusing.” At the very least, Timberlake’s responsibility here is to invest in his concept. If he doesn’t, why should we? With detectable pretense and glaring seams, Timberlake’s album-long bid for authenticity is yet another performance of a performance.
There’s also a joylessness to it all—the album, the Halftime Show—that might give you the sense that Timberlake thinks that just showing up and doing the Timberlake thing is enough, even if he wants call it something different this time around. Well, as your career enters its third decade, people start to get sick of you if you’re continually phoning it in. You know, as much as I do believe that Janet Jackson’s career sustained direct and permanent damage as a result of Nipplegate, one could reasonably make the argument that she was due for a decline anyway. Every pop star’s commercial viability ends at some point, and perhaps Nipplegate accelerated an inevitable process. Timberlake played the Super Bowl at a critical juncture in his career, where the need for him to step up his output artistically is clear and the fact that he might actually not be capable of doing so is starting to look like a real possibility. If that ends up being what he revealed at the Super Bowl last night—if that was his very own sun-clad nipple—and it precipitates the decline of his own career, well, wouldn’t that really be something?