Justin Timberlake is among the very few performers to ever do multiple Super Bowls, and in a way, now so is Prince. But for a sense of how Prince, if alive today, would have approached the task of following up his 2007 performance—a strong pick for the best halftime in history—you can read this 2016 account from his production manager Patrick Whalen. It features the terrifying anecdote of Whalen trying to tell his boss that some fabulous idea was undoable, and then after a less-than-warm reply from The Purple One, finding a way to do it anyway. “He always demanded the best,” Whalen remembered. “He never settled.”
Can anyone imagine “he never settled” being said about Timberlake after his set on Sunday? It was a monument to underachievement. Quite literally the most-viewed concert of the year, the Super Bowl show can easily mint iconic moments—whether joyfully tacky or politically potent—as seen in Katy Perry’s dazed shark, Beyoncé’s “X” formation, Prince’s phallic silhouette, and, yes, Janet Jackson’s starburst boob. Even the less controversial parts of the better halftimes used blockbuster set design and choreography to awaken America from its nachos coma. But Timberlake, unconscionably, squandered the platform. The highlights, as they were, included that one song from Trolls, the angering of Prince nation, and a selfie.
Starting under the stadium stands on a small stage with a small crowd, Timberlake telegraphed that his show would be a more intimate, looser affair than usual. Fair enough. But the effect was that, right from the beginning, the focus was not on him but on all the audience members holding their phones up (those phones would, bafflingly, turn out to introduce the show’s one big motif). You couldn’t even hum along: The audio presented a garbled version of “Filthy,” the already garbled single from his extremely garbled new album, Man of the Woods. It was the night’s last taste of that album—a good call, but also a tellingly safe one (by all means, sell us on “Flannel”!).