Justin Timberlake Should Have Never Performed at Super Bowl LII

"Pop is dead. Better off to have a hip-hop act," writes Bob Lefsetz.
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"Pop is dead. Better off to have a hip-hop act," writes Bob Lefsetz.

Reprinted with permission from The Lefsetz Letter, subscribe via Lefsetz.com.

You never want to be upstaged.

Justin Timberlake was selling entertainment. The NFL was selling drama.

Once upon a time the game was lousy, it was about the commercials and then the halftime performance. As for new groundbreaking commercials, that paradigm is dead. Steve Jobs and Apple established it, a few others rode on the coattails, and then it was done. Kinda like Radiohead's In Rainbows promotion and release; once you've seen the trick it can't be repeated. Kinda like SNL. It pushed the envelope 40 years ago, with its original cast, when we all lived in a monoculture and television was safe, but now almost no one gets the references, there are no punchlines and the only ones who care are in the mainstream media trumpeting efforts the rest of us don't care about.

That's the story of today: how the younger generations have broken free of the constructs of the older and the older just don't get it, despite convincing themselves how hip they are by using iPhone X's and driving Teslas. Just ask them how to use Snapchat, which is already passé. As for Instagram, which they're bragging on, they don't know it's cooler to have a private account. Argue with me all you want but never has the older generation been so out of touch with the younger one since the generation gap back in the '60s, only now the baby boomers are holding the wrong end of the stick.

As for football itself, when the right-wing establishment paper of record says that millennials don't care, then you know it's spiraling down. It's oldsters who are cheap, who don't want to pay; youngsters know everything costs, and if they want it, they pony up, otherwise, they ignore it.

So you've got a 37-year-old Justin Timberlake trying to sell tickets and a new album. What you must focus on here is his age. You think he's young, whereas he's a married over-the-hill dad selling a formula that dried up years ago. Pop is dead. Better off to have a hip-hop act. But that would offend too many viewers. But that's what art does—it makes you feel uncomfortable, makes you question your preconceptions, makes you wonder if it's you or them.

In this case it was definitely Justin Timberlake. If you thought his performance was significant you must be a young 'un who never lived in an era where music drove the culture as opposed to being a sideshow. Timberlake was a highly rehearsed cheerleader, but the last I checked none of the sideline jumpers has ever become famous. He ran around on a field populated by coached "fans" and it was noisy and raucous and if this is your idea of entertainment, so be it. If you want to go to the show and jump around and feel good, so be it. We all need an escape, but the truth is we live in challenging times and he or she who speaks to this wins in the end. Those who play it safe ultimately lose out. This ain't sports, this is art.

And when art is done right there is drama. That's why you listen, to uncork feelings, to follow the story. There was no story in JT's performance other than "I'm cute, I'm rich, LET'S CELEBRATE!"

I'm not in such a celebratory mood, most of our country is not. That's how we got into this mess. Trump appealed to the left out, and so did Bernie, but Hillary and the establishment refused to believe times have changed. But I know this is true. Which means no matter how much you said you liked JT's performance, I'm sticking to my belief that it was meaningless, other than the Prince interlude—especially when they overlaid the "symbol" atop Minneapolis. That had gravitas. But it also served as a reminder of how Prince always came to kill and did. Anybody who followed him had to live up to him, and so far no one has.

So it was a great game. With a great story. Backup quarterback defeats the big bad Brady. Belichick doesn't smile. It's almost unbelievable. But when done right, that's what sport delivers, it's a metaphor for life.

Too often this has not happened in the Super Bowl. But this year it did. It made Justin Timberlake look small. Like our entire music business. The GRAMMYs, the institutions, they're all in peril.

What makes hip-hop work is it's not beholden to any of it. Radio, major labels, press—it can succeed as a result of its own culture. Not so different from when classic rock triumphed in the first place. Hit? What is that?

Last I checked choreography has nothing to do with music. Just because they danced on MTV that does not mean your record is worth listening to.

Justin Timberlake should never have done this show. But his manager couldn't turn down the offer, to be in front of all those people, to sell tickets. And that's where music resides, in the marketing era. Where salesmanship eclipses art. Go to the show if you want to. Drink your tequila, shake your booty, but when you come home I'm gonna ask you what it was all about. And you're gonna say "a good time."

But music used to be more than that.

By Bob Lefsetz. Reprinted with permission from The Lefsetz Letter, subscribe via Lefsetz.com.