Justin Timberlake, Playing It Safe, Seeks Super Bowl Redemption


Regardless, he didn’t much use it here, during a 13-minute performance that was heavy on dance spectacle, light on vocal authority. Often, it sounded as if Mr. Timberlake were merely providing accent riffs to his own songs. He leaned heavily, and rightly, on his first two albums, plowing through digital funk smashes like “Cry Me a River,” “SexyBack” and “My Love” (and also the non-smash “Suit & Tie,” from “The 20/20 Experience”).

Only on the ballad “Until the End of Time,” during which he sat at a white piano, did he lean into his singing, allowing its natural tenderness to serve as a pyrotechnic.

Mr. Timberlake got his start in a boy band, ’N Sync, and he has a natural gift for grand-scale presentation. (This was actually his third halftime performance, including 2004 and also ’N Sync’s appearance in 2001.) The dance routines, including an exuberant tuxedo-clad brass section and a phalanx of bodies holding aloft mirrors that refracted light throughout the stadium (during “Mirrors”), were effective without being ostentatious. Shows of this size are light work for Mr. Timberlake, even if he was working at about three-fourths the intensity of his backing troupe.

That Mr. Timberlake, who has had a smattering of hits in recent years — including the “Trolls” soundtrack anthem “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” which he performed near the end of his set — was offered this halftime-show slot is a reminder of the wide-scale cultural cachet he once corralled. Though he released a new solo album — “Man of the Woods,” his fifth — on Friday, Mr. Timberlake is, in effect, a heritage act. (The heritage of the early-to-mid-2000s, but still.)

His booking also displays the differing ways forgiveness is deployed in public life. That Mr. Timberlake was deemed fit for this rehabilitation has less to do with contrition on his part than the presumption that whiteness is resilient armor, and also the convenience of having a nonwhite scapegoat. In a year in which the N.F.L.’s bumbling relationship to race has been at its most visible, this whitewashing has a particularly acrid smell. On Sunday, in anticipation of Mr. Timberlake’s performance, Twitter and Instagram were flooded with photos and videos of Ms. Jackson, often posted with the hashtag #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay.

In the days before the Super Bowl, there was also a minor conflagration at a report that Mr. Timberlake would be joined onstage by Prince, in hologram form, causing offense to Prince fans (who knew he rejected such spectacles); to those who recall Prince’s 2007 halftime performance — one of the greats, full of range, attitude and carnal verve; and to those loath to see another black body handed over to a performer who had so famously mishandled one in the past.

As it happened, there was no hologram, just a projection of Prince onto a gargantuan scrim as the lights turned purple, and a quick, inoffensive duet of “I Would Die 4 U” that served more as an exaltation than a musical performance. In that moment, Mr. Timberlake was small, of secondary importance: 14 years later, he’s learned when it’s best to be hands off.

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