Why Justin Timberlake's Halftime Performance Was A Flop

In 2004, Justin Timberlake was part of the most memorable Super Bowl performance of all time. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons, as you no doubt recall, since it involved his co-star Janet Jackson's scandalous "wardrobe malfunction," which effectively sapped her career, and resulted in several high-profile court battles between the network that aired the show, CBS, and the Federal Communications Commission.

14 years later, only one half of that disastrous duo got the invite back to the big game for a much-anticipated performance. What kind of surprises would he have in store? Would Jackson come out? Surely, NSYNC would make a cameo, right? Turns out Timberlake had less than nothing up his sleeve, and his lukewarm, safe performance is already being regarded as one of the most disappointing halftime shows ever.

The Purple One's fans did not approve

Timberlake's performance was shrouded in controversy before he even took the stage thanks to the rumor about the possibility of a hologram Prince, who died in 2016, making an appearance. The problem with that — in addition to the "Purple Rain" singer's apparent distaste for the practice in and of itself — is that he and Timberlake had something of a feud starting back in 2006 that resulted in a few public jabs at one another. Prince shaded Timberlake's song "Sexy Back," and Timberlake mocked Prince for being short, then called him out on a diss track the following year.

However, Timberlake apparently secured the blessing of The Roots drummer, Questlove, whom he described as "like a gatekeeper on Prince," for the performance, which ended up featuring a projected image of the Purple One, rather than a hologram. On top of that, Prince's family even tweeted their support for the performance afterwards, using a thumbs up emoji.

Fans still weren't feeling it. According to Metro, who rounded up some of the more scathing digs, the Prince legion was quick to hit Twitter, accusing Timberlake of everything from cultural appropriation to ruining both Janet Jackson's career and Jordan 3s. Seriously, JT, you couldn't have rocked Yeezys with that camo suit?

Is that a woodland-themed button-down?

Super Bowl fans could not have cared less about the designer tag — Stella McCartney, by the way — on Timberlake's camouflage suit, red neckerchief, and dress shirt featuring deer climbing a canyon. According to People, McCartney "drew inspiration from Timberlake's new album, Man of the Woods," but everyone else just felt like it was, at best, inappropriate for the occasion, and at worst, just laughably ugly.

Twitter, of course, had all the jokes, including multiple Bob Ross references, more than a few users accusing JT of ruining Jordan 3s, and Aisha Tyler, who wrote, "Justin Timberlake is wearing an outfit he found in Johnny Depp's Goodwill donation bag."

It was a huge gaffe for anyone doing such a high-profile performance, and particularly for the guy who has a whole song dedicated to the importance of dressing fly.

He tore out NSYNC fans' hearts

For fans of a certain age, the ultimate disappointment in Timberlake's halftime show came when every beat drop, cut to black, or dramatic pause was not followed by the words, "Bye, bye, bye!" Thirty-somethings everywhere just needed a few bars of that song (and probably some "I Want You Back," and if we're being honest, all of "Tearin' Up My Heart") and this whole thing could have gone a different way.

Sure, Timberlake tried to get out in front of this massive disappointment at a press conference a few days before the show, flat out saying "No" at the possibility of a reunion. But then he also said, "To be honest, I had a ton of grand ideas about special guests ... from NSYNC to Jay [Z] to Chris Stapleton to Janet, but this year, I'm just excited ... my band, The Tennessee Kids, they're my special guest."  

"Wow, The Tennessee Kids will be there?" — Said no one, ever.

Too little, too late?

Vanity Fair points out that Timberlake offered a "subtle nod" to Janet Jackson while performing "Rock Your Body," the song during which their scandalous moment happened years before. Just before he got to the lyrics, "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song," which were apparently the cue for the 2004 bodice tear, this time Timberlake yelled "Stop!" (And didn't bring out NYSNC— still can't believe that.)

So, was that good enough for Jackson? We're not really sure, but we're confident some of her family members would have liked a little more. "If he's such a gentleman, he'd make sure Janet [Jackson] is there," her father, Joe told The New York Post. Another unnamed family member also said, "Justin's solo career took off after that and Janet was blackballed. He says they are good, but let's see him prove it and bring her out."

Obviously, that didn't happen, but it's cool, we're sure the Jacksons are also really huge fans of The Tennessee Kids.

Just sort of 'meh'

Aside from having beef with specific parts of the performance, critics had a general dislike for Timberlake's tepid production. Deadline went with as much of a backhanded compliment as they could muster, describing JT as having "bloodlessly engineered all the slick professionalism required to Super Bowl LII but not much more."

Rich Juzwiak of Jezebel was less kind, likening the show to "bad breakup sex," and saying its 14-minute run time "felt more like 20 in its slog through eight songs." He also described Timberlake as having "palpably diminished energy onstage," and viewed his Janet Jackson homage as "inherently smug, whether it knew it or not."

Juzwiak even went so far as to say that combined with the release of his new "joyless" album, Man of the Woods, Timberlake's halftime show could be the start of the sad twilight of his career. Geez. Look, we wanted to see NSYNC too, alright? We could cut the guy a little slack here.

Is this thing on?

Alright, what have we got so far? The questionable Prince tribute; The confusing Janet reference; No NSYNC; and just kind a general "Meh" towards the whole thing. What else could there be? Oh right, technical problems. Anyone with a working set of ears knew that something was a bit off with the sound. At times it was clear Timberlake's mic wasn't working. At other times it was over modulated and buzzy. Put more bluntly by The New York Post, quoting a Twitter critic, it was "absolute dog s***."

Vox was a bit kinder in their criticism, although they also said the audio was noticeably "muddy" right from the beginning of the show. But they also pointed out that it just could have been a poor execution of Timberlake's new electronic dance song, "Filthy," which led to "a curious, chaotic beginning, and it set a strange tone for the rest of the show."

The big moment was technically a fraud

The wow moment from the show was clearly designed to be just after the Prince tribute, when the camera cuts to a stunning aerial shot high above the U.S. Bank Arena. Suddenly, every building surrounding the arena starts to light up purple until the entire city appears to be bathed in the ethereal glow, and Prince's symbol appears. If you're like us, you were sitting at home with your mouth open, thinking "IS NYSNC COMING OUT NOW?!" "Wow, how'd they do that?"

The answer is: They didn't. According to Vox, it was the result of a "an effect that turned the streetlights and buildings surrounding the stadium purple." Another word for that would be "fake," just as Timberlake himself predicted in some of the very first words he spoke into the mic that night, "Haters gonna say it's fake." Yep, JT, they did, and it was. 

A selfie finale

Just as quickly as Left Shark became a meme during Katy Perry's 2015 halftime show, so did Selfie Kid, the lucky young fan who got to snap a photo with Timberlake as the finale of the show. Just in case you missed that — Justin Timberlake ended the Super Bowl LII Halftime Show by walking into the stands and taking a selfie with a random kid.

As if that wasn't underwhelming enough, the kid seemingly had no clue who Justin Timberlake was, has never seen Trolls, or just could not wait to post the selfie, since he stood there looking down and tapping away while Timberlake closed the show.

It turns out Selfie Kid, who is a 13-year-old named Ryan, is actually a huge JT fan. Speaking with Good Morning America, he said he was looking down because he "had a video going and his phone shut off." So, there you go. Even the viral moment that had us all going, "Hah! Even that kid didn't care about this crappy show" was nothing but a tease.

Upstaged by everyone, including a dead guy

Given his complicated history with Super Bowl halftime shows, Timberlake had almost no choice but to play this one completely safe. In fact, it's kind of remarkable that he even got a second chance, given the repercussions of his first go-round, but he still could have pulled out a few more stops to give the world audience a stunning, yet controversy-free show.

After all, everyone expected Lady Gaga to make some sort of huge political statement in 2017, but instead she just showed up and jumped from the ceiling like a boss. Okay fine, she faked that, too, but at least she left it all on the stage after that. Even Katy Perry in 2015 was nice enough to ride into the stadium on a giant mechanical lion, then bring out Missy Elliot when absolutely nobody was expecting it.

Unfortunately for Timberlake, he's already making it to the bottom of halftime show ranking lists, like this one from High Snobiety, which suggests, perhaps poetically, that he was upstaged by the very performer who never wanted to share a spotlight with him in the first place.