To say people’s feelings about Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII Halftime Show performance are complicated would be understating it. There’s no question the performance was underwhelming, and it wasn’t exactly what we were expecting from the man who had recently put out a new album and had spent weeks hyping up his return to the Super Bowl doing a totally solo show (in previous years he was joined by artists like Britney Spears and NSYNC). Timberlake played things very safe on that stage, choosing to go through his greatest hits from “Cry Me a River” to “Can’t Stop the Feeling” while surrounded by dancers — all very on brand for JT. But if you could see the reactions from the crowd in the stadium, not on the field itself, then you would have seen that all this pomp and circumstance fell on deaf ears.
Y’all it is SO quiet in here. Only the fake crowd y’all see on camera cares about Justin. pic.twitter.com/V01zFCeLbE
— Chaos and Disorder (@onlychyld) February 5, 2018
Over on Twitter, reactions to Timberlake’s show were just as harsh.
Big Justin Timberlake fan, but this is terrible. Just terrible.
— Cardinals Rant (@CardinalsRant_) February 5, 2018
Before the game, the hashtag #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay trended hardcore on Twitter, showing that people have definitely not forgotten about the 2004 Super Bowl show when Timberlake and Jackson were involved in their now-infamous wardrobe malfunction, exposing Jackson’s breast during the show. The hashtag seemed to also act as a criticism of Timberlake’s continued sidestepping of the incident (which only led to his career skyrocketing while Jackson was all but shunned from pop music) right up to Sunday’s big performance as well as an attempt to remind the public that Jackson is just as great an artist.
Then, there was the fact that Timberlake performed “Rock Your Body” during halftime, stopping just short of the line, “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song,” which only drew more attention to his non-acknowledgment of the Jackson incident. In 2004, this line was the infamous line that led to him ripping off Jackson’s bodice. Instead of singing the line last night, he yelled, “Stop!” and gave a sly smile to the cameras. As to be expected, Jackson’s fans were not having it on Twitter.
— Elgin Charles (@ElginCharles) February 5, 2018
— Adam B. Vary (@adambvary) February 5, 2018
Many wondered before Timberlake took the stage whether Jackson would make an appearance alongside him. Inviting her onstage would have been a solid step toward making things right, though it’s not really surprising it didn’t happen considering Timberlake’s 14 years of public indifference about his role in the scandal. What he did do was dedicate a portion of the show to Prince, whose hometown of Minneapolis was hosting Super Bowl LII. That didn’t go over too well, either.
Prince’s longtime friend, collaborator and one-time fiancée, Sheila E., spoke out after the show about Prince’s wishes not to have his likeness used for performances after his death. From the interview she gave to Entertainment Tonight, it sounds like Timberlake originally wanted to use a Prince hologram for the show, but she shut that idea down.
“I just said no. I just felt that it was too soon,” she said. “The hologram was weird, and Prince did tell me [to] make sure nobody ever does a hologram of me. ‘If you’re still here, make sure nobody does a hologram.’ He thought it was very demonic and that’s his spiritual beliefs.”
Still, as Timberlake performed a cover of “I Would Die 4 U,” videos of Prince flashed on a giant screen alongside him, seemingly directly defying the late singer’s wishes.
— John from Alabama (@JohnLPender) February 5, 2018
After all the backlash, Timberlake defended his decision during his post-Super Bowl appearance on The Tonight Show, saying he got permission for the tribute from Prince’s friend, Questlove.
“Questlove is the encyclopedia on music, but I also feel like a gatekeeper on Prince, so if I got the thumbs-up from Questlove, I’m good,” he said.
Still, Prince fans don’t seem appeased by that, and they shouldn’t be. Overall, the performance and the tribute were underwhelming and mediocre, and we know Timberlake is capable of so much more. The show was a missed opportunity in so many ways: to make things right with Jackson, to put on a tribute worthy of Prince’s memory and to perform a show that reminds us why Timberlake is one of the most enduring voices in pop music. In all regards, he fell short.