It's music's biggest 12-minute gig, every year. It can make or break a career.
But this year's Super Bowl halftime show was always going to be more than a high-profile promotional spot for an already huge artist seeking a postgame sales bump. This is 2018.
#MeToo, the Resistance, the Colin Kaepernick-led civil protests during the singing of the national anthem and the absurdly strident and tone-deaf reaction to that expression of free speech in some quarters.
The whole country, and every bitter faction within it, would surely be watching the game and the halftime show, looking for something that might resonate within their particular bubble.
For Justin Timberlake, this year's featured performer, there was also the added pressure of the Janet Jackson issue. When the two appeared together during the halftime show in 2004, a scandal ensued after Timberlake ripped Jackson's bodice and revealed her breast, and many feel that Jackson bore the brunt of the snafu via radio boycotts and bad publicity, while Timberlake simply skated, his Teflon image intact.
Rumors have been bouncing across the ether for months, most of them suggesting that Timberlake would bring Jackson onstage for a makeup appearance, but Jackson squelched those rumors via Twitter on Saturday.
That same day, another rumor trended, this one claiming that Timberlake would perform alongside a Prince hologram, in a tribute of sorts to the late genius, whose Paisley Park Studios is not far from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. That plan was scrapped by Timberlake himself, following a social media reaction that was far from positive.
In the end, Timberlake threw shade at haters and rumormongers alike, without offering any obvious political stance.
Timberlake hit the stage – well, he hit the backstage, and then one of several satellite stages he would visit throughout his set – and simply did what whatever forces created him surely intended him to do. He got funky. He danced. He moved with seamless soulfulness through a medley of new and old tunes, something that many are called to do, but few are chosen to pull off convincingly. Oh, and he did what he said wasn't gonna do. He jammed with a Prince hologram. And somehow, he did so tastefully.
Former Prince drummer and longtime friend Sheila E. tweeted this Saturday:
Family, I spoke w/Justin 2nite and he shared heartfelt words of respect for Prince & the Purple fans. I look 4wrd 2 seeing what I’m sure is going 2 be a spectacular halftime show. There is no hologram. 🙏🏽💋 pic.twitter.com/mhVXBfBa1B
— SheilaEdrummer (@SheilaEdrummer) February 4, 2018
That seemed like an authoritative word, and from the Timberlake camp, the word was that Sheila E.'s word would be treated as gospel. Yet, halfway through his set, Timberlake made it to one of his satellite stages, sat at a white baby grand, and broke into Prince's "I Would Die 4 U." Then, here it was – a "Purple Rain"-era Prince as a hologram, jamming along with one of his musical progeny. (But then, we are all Prince's musical progeny, if we ever tried to get soulful and funky any time after, say, 1982.)
As a serious Prince fan, I was unsure how to react. And then that cut to an aerial view above the stadium, and as it panned back, it appeared that all of Minneapolis was bathed in a purple glow, in tribute to not only that city's most talented son, but one of the world's. And then I was fine. I polled the people at our party. "That was the best halftime show I've seen since Prince," said several.
Timberlake pumped his freshly released "Man of the Woods" album with opener "Filthy," he looked in the rearview mirror for "SexyBack," he offered a nod to "My Love" and "Cry Me A River," and he found time in this uber-strict set length to shine a light on a massive marching band, to get real with his live band, and to take a knee for one of the greatest musicians in pop music history.
It would've been nice if Janet Jackson showed up. But that aside, this was nigh on flawless.