Throughout his 16-year solo career, Super Bowl LII halftime headliner Justin Timberlake has scored repeatedly by making calls from Prince’s playbook.
“He’s somewhere within every song I’ve ever written,” the pop superstar wrote in a heartfelt Instagram tribute to “The Purple One” after he died in April 2016.
With Timberlake owing such a big debt to the late music legend — channeling him on everything from his 2006 smash “SexyBack” to his current single “Filthy”— many are taking bets on whether JT will pay homage when he takes the stage at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Prince’s Minneapolis hometown during Sunday’s showdown between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if JT throws in a Prince medley. I mean, it would be appropriate,” says Jon Bream, longtime music critic at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, who wrote the 1984 biography Prince: Inside the Purple Reign.
“It’s kind of become cliché for just about everyone coming to perform in Minneapolis since Prince passed to acknowledge him. When U2 played at the same stadium where the Super Bowl’s going to be at, Bono added little snippets of four different Prince songs in four different U2 songs. I think it would be a cool tip of the hat.”
Appearing in the Super Bowl halftime show for the third time and the first since the infamous Nipplegate controversy in 2004, Timberlake knows that he’ll be in purple territory — and not just because that is one of the colors of the Minnesota Vikings (who lost the NFC championship game to the Eagles). “Not only does he have to get over that whole Janet Jackson [wardrobe malfunction], but also there’s a lot of pressure being in Prince’s place,” says Ellen Stanley, executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota Music Coalition. “I can’t imagine they won’t honor Prince in some way. He deserves it. First Avenue, [the club] where Purple Rain was filmed, is just blocks away from the U.S. Bank Stadium.”
When Justin Timberlake was announced as the Super Bowl halftime show performer last October, the Twin Cities were “jazzed,” says former St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman. “He’s come a long way from ‘The Mickey Mouse Club’ and ’N Sync,” says Coleman, who is now running for governor of Minnesota in the 2018 election. “He’s really evolved into something amazing. It’s a huge international event, so having someone like Justin Timberlake is a great choice. And his wife [actress Jessica Biel] is from northern Minnesota!”
Before he even gets to the big game, Timberlake will be embracing Prince’s legacy when he holds a listening party for his new album, Man of the Woods (out Friday), at His Royal Badness’s Paisley Park on Thursday night. From funky dance tracks to falsetto soul ballads, Timberlake is one of the few artists who can credibly carry on Prince’s spirit.
“He’s certainly a significant influence on what Justin has done. A song like ‘SexyBack’ definitely has the coy sexiness of Prince, without being raunchy,” Bream says. “I think Justin and Bruno Mars are the closest people in the next generation to do what Prince did, which is write the music, produce the music, perform the music and be a great dancer. They may not have the depth of talent of Prince, but they have a vision, they play multiple instruments, and they’re dazzling showmen. I think Prince would be proud of them.”
So how exactly does Timberlake honor local music royalty on such a global stage (while mixing in a few of his own hits, of course)?
“I think the question is: Will he have guests?” Stanley says. “I would love to see some of the musicians that actually played with Prince — some of those acts that were really associated with him — be a part of the show, like Sheila E. or Morris Day and the Time. That would be a nice nod to Prince and also a true local connection.”
Don’t expect the Revolution, Prince’s “Purple Rain”-era band, to be backing Timberlake, says Bream: “I don’t think that’s likely to happen at all.”
As for which Prince song(s) would be good for Timberlake at the Super Bowl, Bream warns that he should avoid the predictable: “He better not do ‘Purple Rain.’ That’s sort of a cliché, and it’s not a song that fits easily into the flow of a show.
“‘Let’s Go Crazy’ is a good party song, but it’s too obvious and it’s also the song they play every time the Vikings score a touchdown, so that’s kind of played out, at least in Minneapolis.
“I say do ‘Delirious.’ I think that’s the easiest song and the most fun to dance to.”
Coleman, though, has other dream requests: “I think a great tribute to Prince would be ‘Nothing Compares 2 U.’ He could do a helluva version of that. Or ‘Controversy’ could be a good song, given everything that’s going on right now.”
Another way to feel Prince’s presence during the halftime show could be decidedly more visual. “I think it would be cool to actually have some video of Prince as part of the show, actually have a moment where you could feel the ghost of Prince right there,” Stanley says. “I think that would be really powerful. I’m getting chills thinking of that.”
But whatever he does to salute Prince, Timberlake should be careful to remain respectful — and avoid controversy. “I hope he doesn’t pull out a Prince hologram. I think that’s way too soon; it’s still way too fresh,” says Bream, who ranks Prince’s own Super Bowl halftime show in 2007 as the best ever. “Good taste is important, especially after the wardrobe malfunction. Justin doesn’t want to fumble in any way. No turnovers.”
Chuck Arnold is a freelance music journalist.
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