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Justin Timberlake's Return to the Super Bowl


Image: NBC

Justin Timberlake took the stage at Super Bowl LII to perform the halftime show. For weeks leading up to the big night, speculation about what Timberlake had up his sleeves for his performance ran high, as he turned out to be a polarizing half-time performer for many.

Fans of Justin Timberlake of course were happy when he was announced as the performer, but leading up to the event they seemed to be more and more in the minority. The major grievance against Justin Timberlake performing the halftime show, stems from his infamous performance with Janet Jackson otherwise known as “Nipplegate,” in which Justin ripped off a piece of clothing from Janet Jackson’s costume thus exposing her breast and nipple on stage at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. Following Nipplegate Janet Jackson faced intense criticism, while Justin Timberlake went on to greater heights in his career and shouldered almost none of the backlash from Nipplegate. In 2004, Jackson burdened the most weight of the Nipplegate scandal because of accepted racist and sexist double standards of that time, Justin Timberlake to his credit was not blindly unaware of this, and spoke about it:

“I probably got 10% of the blame, and that says something about society … I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”

2018 is not 2004, and in 2018, Janet Jackson would never be vilified by networks or society, as she was then. This is because in the last couple of years much awareness has been put on the need to reform sexist and racist practices in society. This is not to say that if Nipplegate had taken place in 2018 people would not care—they would—but the blame would have been dispensed more evenly. Although, the years after Nipplegate saw Timberlake continue to be successful in his career, the legacy of Nipplegate has always been in the back of many people’s minds—put away for now, but most definitely not forgotten. So when talk of who might perform with Timberlake this year, Janet Jackson was the name most came back to. Other names like Britney Spears, JAY-Z, and of course Justin’s former boy band *NSYNC were other contenders, but none of the choices were as emotionally charged as Janet Jackson.

Days before the event it seemed Justin would not have any guest performances, which is a definite break from recent tradition. During their recent Super Bowl halftime shows, Madonna had as guests M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj, Bruno Mars shared the stage with The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beyoncé brought out Destiny’s Child, Katy Perry did a medley with Lenny Kravitz and Missy Elliott, and Coldplay performed during their set with Bruno Mars and Beyoncé. But, Justin Timberlake announced before Sunday’s game he would not have guest performers.

As the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriot’s took a well-deserved break, the U.S. Bank Stadium slowly dimmed, as the crowds cheered in anticipation, because Pepsi’s halftime show was beginning. Justin Timberlake opened the show, with a rendition of his new song “Filthy.” “Filthy” is the first release of Timberlake’s new album “Man in the Woods,” the track is one of three recent releases from Timberlake, and the best of the three. Reviews for “Filthy” have been modest, and his other releases have generally been lukewarm or worse. You cannot blame Timberlake, an artist with a lengthy catalogue of hit songs, to want to promote at least one of his new songs at the Super Bowl, because he will soon be embarking on a tour for “Man in the Woods.”

After “Filthy,” Timberlake performed a string of his other hits that included “SexyBack” and “Cry Me a River.” Justin Timberlake has always been a great dancer, with smooth choreography to his hit songs, and on some other stage, good singing and dancing makes a great performance, but the Super Bowl halftime show requires a much more higher level of showmanship and stage design and theatrical elements to make a performance special and memorable—Katy Perry arrived in a massive golden lion as comparison. Minutes into the set Timberlake changed gears, and sung alongside a projection of Prince. The Prince tribute was loudly applauded and enjoyed by the audience, which is of course no surprise since the late Prince has always been a beloved figure in his hometown of Minneapolis.

After the Prince tribute, Timberlake went into his hit song “Can’t Stop The Feeling!” which seemed like the perfect song from his catalogue of music to closeout the halftime show, as it is a catchy and uplifting song, similar to how Katy Perry chose “Firework” to close out her Super Bowl halftime performance. Everything seemed to be going fine with the song until Justin danced into the audience. The moment that at first seemed “cool” for those that got to see him so up-close, quickly turned awkward as Timberlake instructed a 13 year old kid to take a “selfie” with him right then and there. The exchange seemed like nothing more than Timberlake fishing for a memorable moment, like the one Ellen DeGeneres had at the Oscar’s in 2014—and with that Justin’s halftime show came to a serviceable but odd ending.

Immediately after the performance, reviews for Justin Timberlake’s halftime show came in. One chief complaint people had with the halftime show was the poor audio, that prevented Timberlake’s vocals from being heard during many times. Timberlake’s wardrobe was as well another focal point of disapproval by social media who found his brown army camouflage fringed suit paired with a forest landscape designed shirt an unfortunate and unflattering choice of outfit. Then of course is the real meat of the after show complaints, those who found the show to be boring and way too scaled down a performance for the Super Bowl. There are some positive reviews about Justin Timberlake’s halftime show but these are far and few between a lot of passionate negative criticism.

With hindsight there are certain changes Timberlake could have made to his performance such as changing the wardrobe for him and the dated outfits worn by his backup dancers, utilizing the space much more, ensuring the audio works, have sung a Prince song but not sing with a video of Prince, and of course revisiting the issue of whether or not to share the stage. Similarly to how Beyoncé reunited with Destiny’s Child, he too should have reunited with *NSYNC, and had he done that everyone would now be focused on *NSYNC’s reunion, instead of wondering if the audio people for the halftime show are on team Janet. Janet Jackson undoubtedly is the person Timberlake should have performed with, by which granting Jackson an opportunity for Super Bowl redemption, and reminding his naysayers that whether they think it or not he does remember and care. Of course that opportunity Justin ripped and threw away like Janet’s costume on that fateful day back in 2004.