The week after the Super Bowl was supposed to be the Best Week Ever for Justin Timberlake. The singer-songwriter just dropped his latest album, Man of the Woods, teased by a viral social media video with Chris Stapleton. Then, Timberlake was the featured musical act for the Super Bowl halftime show, the most coveted concert opportunity every year.
Timberlake came into the show as a veteran, having already been on that massive stage two times. And his fifth album was highly awaited by legions of fans. It was the perfect set up for a massive PR boost and a huge payday for Timberlake.
Then people listened to the album and watched the performance. Things didn’t go exactly as planned. Critiques for the album were brutal.
The New York Times said, “We are now approaching the 12th year of the national delusion that Justin Timberlake remains an essential pop star…” Stereogum called Woods a “noncommittal shrug…” Pitchfork, though, offered perhaps the most graphic and cringe-inducing response: “There’s no refuge from the lyrics, which in many places engender the same mix of emotions you’d confront upon walking in on your parents having sex…”
And that was just the commentary on the album. The Super Bowl performance fared even worse.
Time Magazine said, “He was a man in the weeds, scrambling through his archives to find any moment that might connect with an audience that, in substantial part, hasn’t lived with his music…” The Washington Post offered this: “The show is almost over. And then it is. And a feeling of togetherness washes over us, a feeling of certainty that we all just witnessed something unambiguously underwhelming…”
Sure, the standard set by Prince, Michael Jackson, and U2 is staggeringly high. And no one wants to have a bad Super Bowl performance or to be upstaged by a jitterbugging shark as Katy Perry was a few years back, but potentially the worst reaction is the one Timberlake is now dealing with. In a word: “meh.”
People are calling his performance uninspired, boring, disconnected, and forgettable. Others are giving it slightly higher marks, tagging the show, “kind of disappointing.” And that was only the comments from relatively civil critics. Once the fans made it onto social media, things went from rough to downright cruel.
Who knew there was this much lingering discontent over Timberlake and his relatively long career, both as part of a group and as a solo act. The critical consensus that the performance wasn’t that great seemed to inspire all the people who don’t like Timberlake to fire shots. And these people turned out to be legion.
Now, let’s step back and offer a little bit of perspective. Is it likely that Timberlake will still sell a ton of records? Yes, it is. Is it likely that his long-time fans loved the performance? Definitely.
But Timberlake needed a better showing to finally cut away a lot of the criticisms that have dogged him for years. Fans still remember how he handled the breakup with Britney Spears or the hubbub after the infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” in which Janet Jackson seemed to take most if not all of the blame.
The lackluster performance didn’t banish the specter of past shows, and it didn’t reintroduce Timberlake to fans who hadn’t thought about him much in years. In short, it got all the wrong people talking.