Justin Timberlake Gave Us a Halftime Show Devoid of Meaning

As Super Bowl Sunday dawned, America woke up to dire news: Pink had the flu. "I’ve arrived at another one of my dreams which is slowly becoming a sort of nightmare," everybody’s favorite coiffed diva posted on Instagram. Rehearsals for her rendition of the National Anthem at U.S. Bank Stadium had apparently ended up mainly celebrating the land of the Vicks and the home of the Sudafed. From that moment on, a nation was holding its breath—or else, maybe, coughing rackingly in solidarity.

Adding to the Francis Scott Kleenex drama, Philadelphia, from which Pink proudly hails, was Super Bowl LII’s underdog. That made every omen count. “To Eagles fans, this is almost like Carson Wentz getting injured,” one anxious Philly devotee texted us, and we’re pretty sure she wasn’t kidding.

As you presumably know, Pink came through in the crunch. Sure, she missed the show-off high note at the end, but that was just likable human frailty. Even so, the way her state of health was briefly as newsworthy as Rob Gronkowski’s jaw underlined the Super Bowl’s uniqueness. It’s the one football game of the year that forces NFL addicts to uneasily share sofa space with people who wouldn’t know a wide receiver from a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred, but feel equally impassioned.

It’s one of the funnier paradoxes of our time that the Super Bowl is now primarily a cultural event while the Oscars are primarily a sporting one. Even academics recognize a payday when they see one. “The halftime shows are, in fact, ideologically loaded because they aim to be culturally relevant,” Adrian College’s Andrew D. Linden prof-splained in the Washington Post on game day. “By attempting to create a national identity, the halftime show becomes a battleground over what social and cultural values should be celebrated as American.”

Prince’s 2007 halftime show is reckoned as the greatest Super Bowl musical performance ever; triggering the memory wasn’t the shrewdest move.
Way to put pressure on Justin Timberlake. So far as we could tell, the only American value Timberlake managed to celebrate was incoherence—or, to be more charitable about it, indecipherability, thanks to a stinko audio mix that got the Twitterverse surly right off the bat. These days, we do watch the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show as if it’s an unofficial State of the Union address. (Beyoncé in 2016 is the gold standard). But JT isn’t much good at advocating anything except the continuance of his own career.

Once the rumor that Janet Jackson might show up turned out to be just that, Timberlake couldn't even figure out a smart way to allude to his own bit part in Super Bowl history: the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” that gave viewers a flash of Jackson’s breast when he peeled back her costume in 2004. Even though Timberlake was the perp, Jackson got the blame, apparently for having breasts in the first place. In a time of #MeToo, the fallout now seems both hilariously and frustratingly irrational. And Timberlake's choice to omit a key line in “Rock Your Body” during his performance—“I bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song”—doesn’t qualify as any sort of atonement. Instead, he plugged his new single and lurched into a banal, high-energy medley abetted by some of the most cluttered choreography in Super Bowl history.

The only part of the show anybody will remember—hell, many forgot the entire thing by the game's end—was JT’s beyond-the-grave “duet” with Prince on “I Would Die 4 U,” which Minneapolitans, not to mention Prince fans, didn’t take kindly to. After all, the Purple One himself once called this sort of technological necromancy “demonic” and you could practically hear him chirping “This I did not 4C” from the great beyond. Since Prince’s own 2007 halftime show is widely reckoned as the greatest Super Bowl musical performance ever, triggering the memory even obliquely wasn’t the shrewdest move.

Partly because few advertisers wanted to court controversy after the backlash over last year’s overtly political ads, even the commercials were kind of a bust. Budweiser, whose pro-immigrant spot during Super Bowl LI drew Trump fans’ ire in 2017, did risk provoking them again with a disaster-relief spot plugging water, not beer, and citing Puerto Rico along with Texas, Florida and California. Toyota’s “We’re All One Team” ad featuring a priest, a rabbi, a Buddhist monk and an imam all piling into a truck together to get to the game on time, was as polemical as things got, and you couldn’t help noticing that the Muslim got relatively short shrift in the cutting.

In other words, Pink getting through “The Star-Spangled Banner” despite the flu turned out to be the right metaphor for SB LII, since that described the muddled state of the union the whole shebang reflected. On the other hand, the game itself was a wowser, especially for those of us who live to see the New England Patriots get dusted. At least in football, justice delayed isn’t justice denied.

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