Did Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl Performance Defy Prince’s Wishes from the Grave?

Justin Timberlake performs during halftime at the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots,Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Justin Timberlake, making more than doves cry.

 

The Super Bowl audience any given year is normally divided into camps. While most are watching the game others concern themselves with the commercials, and still others are interested primarily in the halftime show. This year Justin Timberlake was the performer for the commonly-misbegotten interlude, delivering a heavily choreographed performance that took place in numerous areas within U.S. Bank Stadium. Beginning in an almost nightclub setting below the stands he emerged, danced in a crowd, took a stage, and culminated up in the stands with fans.

 

I was watching for a segment that was alluded to days earlier as it came to fruition. In the middle of his performance, after dancing at midfield, the singer made his way to a glistening white piano on a black stage. As he sat at the keys a large white banner unrolled behind him, and this commenced his tribute to Minnesota’s most famous performer, as the Steinway became bathed in violet-hued lighting.

 

When Timberlake began his rendition of “I Would Die 4 U” a video of Prince was projected and his voice came up, so a virtual duet was being performed for the masses. The tribute seemed fitting, given where the NFL Championship was being played, but there is a significant amount of questions surrounding the decision.

 

The concept being floated before the weekend was that Timberlake would perform alongside a hologram of the deceased singer. When the posthumous performance was announced as a possibility days earlier longtime Prince collaborator Sheila E came out against the idea:

After speaking with Justin on the plan, Sheila softened her stance on the matter and effectively gave him her blessing. However there was one other individual who was in direct opposition to this kind of staging — Prince himself.

 

An interview with Guitar World Magazine, back in 1998, had the singer asked directly about the practice of virtual performances involving those artists who have passed away. This was probably more in reference to the relatively recent occurrence of Natalie Cole having a song with a virtual duet with her passed away father, Nat King Cole. Still, his position is rather clear on the matter.

 

GUITAR WORLD: With digital editing, it is now possible to create a situation where you could jam with any artist from the past. Would you ever consider doing something like that?

PRINCE: Certainly not. That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing… it really is demonic. And I am not a demon. Also, what they did with that Beatles song [“Free As a Bird”], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave… that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.

 

The question now would seem to be surrounding the acquisition of the rights to stage this performance. In a post-game appearance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon he was asked about that particular segment. Timberlake detailed they seemingly had permission to use the elements, gaining access to both recordings and video footage to use for the segment.

 

“We got the actual vocal stems from ‘I Would Die 4 U’ and the actual recording, and then we got uncut footage from his performance of it in Purple Rain and somehow, someway, by the grace of — probably Prince looking down on us — it synced up and it was this crazy, serendipitous moment…and I just wanted to use that opportunity to do something special for this city but most of all my favorite musician of all time.”

 

As many outlets and some users on social media are pointing out, there was actually some contempt between the performers.

While many had expectations that Prince would have been honored in some fashion in his hometown, there may have been better methods. Timberlake singing a medley of Prince hits, or possibly performing songs with collaborators, like Sheila E, would have been proper honoraria. Considering the firmness of the purple performer’s stance on the matter this seems rather beyond proper taste.