Pepsi Super Bowl LII Halftime Show
Credit: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Justin Timberlake has a history of being upstaged during Super Bowl Halftime shows. In 2001, the collective star power of NSYNC and Aerosmith looked shrimpy next to last-minute cameos by Mary J. Blige and Britney Spears’ arm-sock. In 2004, Timberlake himself was the guest-star, joining Janet Jackson onstage, rocking saggy khakis and the last puke-green shirt ever seen in public after 1995. He beatboxed, and then some more stuff happened — and the Cloverfieldian conspiracy theories about Timberlake’s role in “Nipplegate” are vastly more interesting than the actual filmed performance of “Rock Your Body.”

I’m being cruel to be kind here. And, look, we should all be so lucky as to get overshadowed at the Super Bowl twice. Two decades of zeitgeist later, Timberlake has maintained some middle foreground space in pop culture and is the kind of babyfaced legend who has already won MTV’s Vanguard award. The medley he performed at the Super Bowl on Sunday was less definitive than the energetic, endless career retrospective he staged a few years ago at the VMAs. He celebrated his history, and dodged it. There was “SexyBack” and “Rock Your Body” from long ago, “Mirrors” from a more recent long ago, a track off the new album, a duet-from-beyond with Prince. There was no Janet Jackson, which would have been mindblowing, and no NSYNC, which would have been as profound/depressing as a fourth Before Sunrise movie. In fact, he was the only living star performer onstage, though to me he felt buried. Start with the clothes: His outfit was a catastrophe of stylistic intentions and resembled that time on Friends when Joey wore all of Chandler’s clothes. I guess the look was “Cowboy Hipster Chic,” though it looked specifically like Madonna’s cowgirl phase had a baby with Chris Martin’s French Revolution phase.

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“Haters gonna say it’s fake,” Timberlake said, one of the few lines I caught through the audio fuzz. That’s a line from “Filthy,” and maybe a pre-emptive strike against criticism. But the first half of his performance did feel fake. The weirdest thing about Timberlake is that he can clearly do the basic things that many pop stars cannot—sing, dance, look relaxed mid-overexertion—and my favorite part of the whole performance was when he sing-dance-walked around the circular stage. But you mostly could feel how badly he wants to compete with the synthboppers, a real boy who wants to be a puppet. So then we lost him amid the laser-hurricanes, running from one elaborate set to another. At one point, he danced in front of lots of big TV sets, and fire lit up on the screens: The pyrotechnics were, literally, flat.

There was something too dutiful here. It felt a little bit like last week’s State of the Union, where you felt that the primary mission statement was to sidestep outrage. I thought it was electric when Timberlake danced on the NFL shield, and you could try hard to scan some deeper meaning in his kneeling choreography. He performed “Rock Your Body” but never quite got to the part about having you naked by the end of this song—an invisible homage to Jackson that also felt like an act of revisionism, even erasure. (And it turns out that “Rock Your Body” is 22.7% lamer without that lyric.) The Prince homage was sincere, whatever your thoughts on the weirdness of posthumous duets. But here again, Timberlake was upstaged: The cut to Minneapolis lit up Prince-ly purple was more invigorating than anything happening on the field.

I’m not sure the medley-mashup structure of the Halftime Show played to Timberlake’s strengths. You wanted him to zero in on a single song, make a single moment, and instead we got costume changes: A jacket for “Suit & Tie,” so many mirrors for “Mirrors.” He wrapped up with that epidemically catchy Trolls song, and dutifully raced into the stands for a dutiful selfie. He played it too safe; he took Sexy away. C