It’s lucky Prince isn’t alive to see his Superbowl “duet” with Justin Timberlake

All we can do is sit and wait while music executives dig up Leonard Cohen for a duet with Ed Sheeran

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Objectively, the most iconic thing Justin Timberlake has ever done is shroud himself in denim. The year was 2001. Fashion was in crisis. Timberlake showed up to the American Music Awards with then-girlfriend Britney Spears who wore a matching evening gown of luscious, flowing denim. Seventeen years later, his music – background-ish and sometimes catchy – is entirely beside the point.

Then you have Prince. An artist so innovative and genre-defying that, in 1993, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, while the world looked on and said, “Yeah, that seems about right.”

This week, at the Super Bowl, an event known (outside of the US at least) more for its gargantuan musical halftime show than for actual American football, the two artists “performed” together. Or, more accurately, Timberlake engaged in a fourteen minute-long robotic medley of his greatest solo hits, while Prince was unable to look on with Old Testament godlike fury, because (having died two years ago) he was a projection. While Timberlake covered Prince’s I Would Die 4 U, images of Prince loomed in the background, singing along. This, despite the fact that in life, not only did Prince not particularly like Timberlake (joking once, “For whoever is claiming they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!”) but, in an interview with Guitar World in 1998, he also referred to the idea of jamming with a digitised version of a dead musician as “the most demonic thing imaginable”.

Timberlake’s “duet” with Prince wasn’t the first time a hologram of a dead artist has been used in a living one’s performance. In 2012 Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg shared the stage at Coachella with the long-dead Tupac. Even further back, in 2007, Celine Dion was slated for her digital duet with none other than Elvis, on American Idol. So although this trend is hardly new, it has at least something of “deepfake porn” – in which mostly female celebrities’ faces are digitally superimposed onto those of porn actresses – about it. Performing with a dead artist, although far less disturbing and potentially harmful, still involves two of the same key elements: digitisation and lack of consent. Many of Prince’s hardcore fans have stressed, although admittedly they have no way of knowing for sure, that The Artist would absolutely no way in hell have chosen to perform with Timberlake.

And if the abysmal reviews of Timberlake’s new album, Man of the Woods (because apparently he’s Father John Misty or something now) are anything to go by, then yeah, Prince would be pretty insulted. Man of the Woods, the tragic ending to a story about white, male, hetero mediocrity, could really not be less Prince-like. From it’s tit-achingly hetero dudebro title, to the absolute “WHAT EVEN IS THIS”-ness of the title track, it’s probably a mercy that the man who brought us Purple Rain isn’t alive to hear the state of the guy he just “performed” with in front of millions of people.

Meanwhile, all we can do is sit and wait while music executives dig up Leonard Cohen for a duet with Ed Sheeran. Or digitally forces David Bowie into a performance with Sam Smith. The options are terrifying and endless. And none of them involve creating anything new and/or exciting. Just a string of corny, rejected Black Mirror premises.

As Prince once said, “The music industry is a matrix that is counter to what is natural and right.” 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.