Justin Timberlake performing at Superbowl LII


Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show never had a chance

The tide turns on Timberlake after a limp performance.


Ramon Ramirez


Posted on Feb 5, 2018   Updated on May 22, 2021, 2:03 am CDT

My own Justin Timberlake boiling point during the Super Bowl halftime show was his performance of “Mirrors.” The choreography on Sunday called for the fans on the field to hold up giant mirrors. It was literal, and on the biggest stage in pop music, indicative of an uninspired performance.

In fact, most of his show struggled to get off the mat. Timberlake shuffled decade-old hits onstage in Minneapolis, seemingly trying to find a frequency that stuck. The new song about sex robots? The bubble-gum gloss of “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from kids’ movie Trolls? The futuristic synthesizers from his best work with Timbaland circa 2006? The swing band-backed 2013 single where JT bragged about wearing a tuxedo? Nothing landed, and his catalog seemed anemic and bygone.

Especially on Twitter, where the tide of social justice turned on Timberlake. It wasn’t enough that Timberlake oversaw a Prince tribute in front of the late legend’s hometown—something Prince would have hated, according to his ideas about posthumously arranging music—Twitter’s woke crowd found his apolitical entertainment inherently offputting. He was a straight white man, singing without prominent women onstage, and borrowing moves and vocal stylings from Black culture. In the era of #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and President Donald Trump, he never stood a chance.

One viral thread made the case that Timberlake is more than just a bland pop star who missed an opportunity to amplify others, but that he’s a bad person. The user, a self-described Britney Spears fan, offered a compelling case for the power dynamics that allowed Timberlake to flourish throughout his career. He cheated romantically on famous people, benefitted from the slut-shaming of Spears, sparred publicly with Prince, and let Janet Jackson take the fall for the infamous wardrobe malfunction of Super Bowl 38.

The thread is full of false equivalents that are more circumstantially insidious than personally malicious, but it’s an interesting response. As pop culture rewrites norms and fights for more a more equal and inclusive field, Timberlake is its first mainstream casualty. Friday’s Man Of the Woods album was not only critically panned, but it landed quietly on social media and was less of a conversation starter than, say, Migos’ Culture 2. (On Friday, while ardently scanning tweets and Google Trends, our entertainment reporters barely noticed its arrival.)

It’s not that the kids don’t know who he is. It’s that they see a square. Coldplay isn’t known for subversive anthems about economic inequality, but Chris Martin’s lot was smart enough to share the Super Bowl stage with Beyoncé in 2016. Lady Gaga’s 2017 halftime show featured a protest anthem by a guy who wrote for a communist newspaper. In shutting up and playing the hits, Timberlake inadvertently stood for Trumpland’s Kaepernickian disdain for mixing entertainment and social justice.

Sure, Justin Timberlake is talented. But in 2018, that’s simply not enough.

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*First Published: Feb 5, 2018, 10:57 am CST