In point of fact, Justin Timberlake kept his word to Prince’s former bandmate and friend Sheila E. when he said he would not duet with a Prince hologram during his 13-minute performance at the Super Bowl LII halftime show at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sunday.
That was an image of Prince projected on a video screen — not a hologram — with which Timberlake sang a duet to “I Would Die 4 U.”
You might call that splitting hairs, again getting Timberlake in hot water for a foul-up at a Super Bowl, following the “wardrobe malfunction” with Janet Jackson in 2004.
But here’s the thing about the Prince part of the performance on Sunday night: It was the best part of the show.
Better than the duet itself between Timberlake and Prince, which actually flowed out of a perfectly effective ballad-singing moment on “Until the End of Time.” The most moving part of the show was when the NBC camera cut away from what was going inside the stadium and showed overhead images panning across Prince’s home city of Minneapolis, lit purple in his honor. That was cool.
The rest of Timberlake’s performance ranged from adequate to severely marred by technical difficulties. With Jackson announcing on Saturday that she would not be performing — thereby denying the hopes of those #JusticeForJanet hashtaggers — Timberlake and his Tennessee Kids were on their own on the world’s biggest stage.
The strategy of the staging was to make the show seem as intimate as possible. It began with Timberlake entering through the crowd, and ended with him moving — and taking selfies — among his people.
The problem was that as he kicked off with Man of the Woods’ twitchy, robo-pop lead single, “Filthy,” his vocals were inaudible or lost down in the mix, creating that creepy effect that happens when a performer is actively emoting and expressing himself but can’t be heard.
The high-energy show, which found Timberlake constantly moving with a phalanx of dancers, and at one point getting down at midfield on top of the NFL logo, regained its footing somewhat with a quick-moving medley of his biggest hits, such as “SexyBack” and “My Love.”
But those songs date to Timberlake’s 2006 album FutureSex/LoveSounds. That wouldn’t be a problem if the former ‘N Syncer had come into this gig as a vintage pop or classic rock artist, like Super Bowl headliners such as the Who, Bruce Springsteen, or Madonna. But the 37-year-old Timberlake is supposed to be a player in contemporary pop — like recent halftime-show headliners Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. And the overall effect of his performance was to show him needing to reach back into his past to please.
The pregame music at Super Bowl LII was thoroughly Philadelphian, with patriotic singing duties divided up between East Oak Lane’s own Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. and Doylestown native Pink.
After the Eagles and Patriots took the field — with the Birds entering to their chosen hype song, incarcerated Philly rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares” — Odom sang “America the Beautiful,” accompanied by the members of two Minnesota youth choirs.
Odom delivered a version that was quiet and understated in his first pass through the lyrics, then soared with the choirs on a second go-round, intermingled with a shot of the Liberty Bell for good measure.
“Get the Party Started” star Pink followed with the national anthem.
She’d been candid during pregame interviews about struggling with the flu. But there was little sign of weakness or fatigue in her delivery of the famously difficult-to-sing “Star Spangled Banner.”
She built to an impressive crescendo and hit her high notes well enough. She raised her fist high at the song’s conclusion before fighter jets streamed above the enclosed stadium. It was a cautious but credible performance.