Justin Timberlake Uses Prince in Super Bowl Halftime Show, Owes the Artist and His Fans an Apology

Justin Timberlake needs to purify himself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.

For most of Timberlake’s painfully boring Super Bowl LII halftime show—boring song selection, boring Las Vegas–worthy set design, boring Springsteen-via-Target outfit—it was easy to imagine you were just watching a rerun of those safe boomer acts programed post-Nipplegate acts.

And then he grave robbed Paisley Park.

In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, TMZ reported rumors that Timberlake would employ a Prince hologram for his performance. It was a way to honor the legendary artist, who died in 2016 of an accidental fentanyl overdose, at a game played in his hometown of Minneapolis. (And, not for nothing, he delivered arguably the best Super Bowl halftime show performance ever in 2007.)

It was also a legendarily bad idea that rankled Prince fans and those closest to him. “Prince told me don’t ever let anyone do a hologram of me,” drummer and Prince confidant Sheila E. tweeted on February 3. “Not cool if this happens!”

Her message got someone’s attention, because a few hours later Sheila E. took to Twitter again to promise everyone that, in fact, a Prince hologram was not part of the show:

But that didn’t stop Timberlake from riding the Purple One’s coattails.

Sitting alone at a white piano, Timberlake started plinking out the notes of “I Would Die 4 U,” from Prince’s megahit Purple Rain. And then a giant white bed sheet dropped down featuring slowed-down footage of Prince performing the song from the Purple Rain film as his version of the song overtook Timberlake’s. A few moments later, the footage gave way to a different image: a silhouette of Prince playing his Love Symbol guitar taken from his 2007 halftime show performance.

It might not have been a hologram, but it was just as tasteless—not to mention a crass act of ignoring a dead man’s wishes.

Prince was notoriously protective of his image and material. He kept meticulous tabs on YouTube, filing copyright claims to shut down anyone who posted music videos or concert footage. He zealously prowled the internet and sent cease and desist letters to websites trading bootlegs. And he was known to enforce strict rules at shows when it came to photography.

But he also understood that he would need to protect himself after death. In a Guitar World interview from 1998, Prince was asked about the burgeoning fad of bringing dead musicians back to life through computers and other technology. (Think John Wayne selling beer, Fred Astaire shilling vacuum cleaners or holograms of Sinatra selling out a room.) Let’s just say he wasn’t into it.

“If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age,” he said. “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’],” he continued, “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.”

Whoever approved the use of the Prince footage—whether it was his estate, Warner Bros. or some other entity—clearly violated Prince’s wishes. But, hey, who’s going to stand in the way of making a quick buck?

But Timberlake comes in for a special kind of blame. It wasn’t enough that he held a Man of the Woods launch party at Prince’s Paisley Park pad. He needed to shill his music on the talent and reputation of Prince, too? Maybe this was all just JT’s way of getting back at the man who, in life, wasn’t keen on paying him much attention.

Whatever the case, whatever the reason, the moment should never have happened. It was embarrassing, disgusting and ensured what would have otherwise been another boring halftime show will, instead, live in purple infamy.

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