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How will ‘oblivious’ Justin Timberlake handle return to Super Bowl halftime show?

All eyes will be on Justin Timberlake Sunday

All eyes will be on Justin Timberlake Sunday night. Credit: Invision / Amy Harris

Justin Timberlake thought he was being clever.

“Random question: Can someone please explain the saying, ‘You just want your cake and to eat it too’,” he tweeted a couple of weeks ago out of the blue. “What else am I about to do with a cake??”

One answer came in like a fastball to the head: “The saying means, for example, you can’t support #TimesUp and praise sexual predators at the same time,” replied Dylan Farrow, who has accused her father, Woody Allen — who Timberlake has praised after working with him in “Wonder Wheel” — of sexually assaulting her as a child. “You can’t retain your credibility as an activist (i.e. — retain the cake) and, at the same time, praise a sexual predator (i.e. — eating the cake).” (A monthslong investigation by child-abuse specialists at Yale-New Haven Hospital in the 1990s concluded there was no molestation, as did a separate investigation by New York State child welfare services.)

For those who think that escalated quickly, just wait until Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII halftime show on Sunday night. Bringing a flak jacket will be more important for him than bringing sexy back.

“He may well be our most oblivious living pop star,” writes Chris DeVille in Stereogum, reminding us of when Timberlake named his good-time single “Take Back the Night” without knowing that name belonged to an organization dedicated to stopping sexual violence.

However, if Timberlake, who doesn’t seem to understand how quickly and deeply the #MeToo movement is changing the world, doesn’t handle his return to music’s biggest showcase in front of 100 million or so people exactly right, “oblivious” will be a charitable description for him. After all, his Super Bowl appearance is the centerpiece of the rollout of his new “Man of the Woods” album and arena tour, raising the stakes even more, especially considering the lukewarm response to the album’s first two singles, “Filthy” and “Supplies.”

“What I really want to do is take the opportunity to put together a performance that feels like it unifies,” Timberlake said when his choice was announced by the NFL. “I feel like that would be the ultimate accomplishment. Then, the icing on the cake is, at some point within that 12 minutes, that everybody is shaking their booty.”

In recent interviews, Timberlake is careful to say that there will be no “wardrobe malfunction” this time — no chance of a repeat of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show incident where he mistakenly ripped off too much of Janet Jackson’s costume and left her breast exposed. He even admits that he made mistakes in how he handled what became Nipplegate, which led the FCC to require networks to add a five-second delay into all live broadcasts.

“I stumbled through it, to be quite honest,” Timberlake told Beats One DJ Zane Lowe. “I had my wires crossed, and it’s just something that you have to look back on and go, like, ‘OK, well, you know, you can’t change what’s happened but you can move forward and learn from it.’ ”

However, as those who started the #JusticeForJanet movement on social media are quick to point out, why did Jackson take more of the blame for the incident than Timberlake? Why did her career suffer the bigger setback? And, more important, why was he invited to come back to the Super Bowl halftime show before her?

Yes, none of those questions are really Timberlake’s to answer. But he does have to know that they exist. One question that is appropriate for him, though, is more nebulous: Why would anyone choose to be the poster boy for double standards in the current political and cultural climate?

Of course, Timberlake has the right to accept the huge opportunity of headlining the halftime show. And yes, he should try to advance his career however he wants.

He is clearly showing his ambitions on the “Man of the Woods” album, which he says is inspired by his family and his hometown of Memphis. While his first single, “Filthy,” doesn’t quite seem to fit with the outdoorsy, rootsier theme he has laid out for the album, the third single, “Say Something,” which features Chris Stapleton certainly does.

Timberlake seems to want a new direction, with many saying that reunions with NSYNC and Jackson are unlikely during the halftime show.

In a video for Pepsi, which sponsors the halftime show, Timberlake explains his expectations for the event.

“I believe it’s also the place where there’s nothing wrong with giving people what they want,” he said. “It’s going to go by quick . . . For 12 or 13 minutes, we’re going to have a real good time.”

The bigger question, though, is will it be a good time after that?

WHAT The Super Bowl LII halftime show

WHEN | WHERE Around 8 p.m. Sunday, U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

INFO Airing live on NBC

JUSTIN TIMES

One of the hazards of being a child star is that you end up growing up in public. For Justin Timberlake, that means he has already been through many career changes, even before his new “Man of the Woods” stage. Here’s a look:

POP INNOCENT

YEARS 1993 to 2000

Timberlake was part of the cast of Disney’s “The All New Mickey Mouse Club,” along with future girlfriend Britney Spears and future bandmate J.C. Chasez. Even when he left to pursue NSYNC with Chasez and the group broke records with its second album, “No Strings Attached,” his image was still squeaky clean.

TELLTALE HIT “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time On You”

YOUNG SOUL MAN

YEARS 2001 to 2004

With the release of “Celebrity” and Timberlake turning 20, he began to take more control of his career. When he went solo, he teamed with producer Timbaland to create an updated R&B sound and image to match. Until the Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction.

TELLTALE HIT “Cry Me a River”

ACTOR

YEARS 2004 to 2006

After the Super Bowl furor, Timberlake focused on his acting career, working on a string of movies, from “Alpha Dog” to “Shrek the Third.”

TELLTALE HIT “Shrek the Third”

GROWN POP SUPERSTAR

YEARS 2007 to 2017

When Timberlake returned from his musical hiatus with “SexyBack,” he established himself as one of music’s biggest stars, collaborating with everyone from Jay-Z to Madonna. His acting career also flourished, appearing in the Oscar-winning “The Social Network,” and, most recently, Woody Allen’s “Wonder Wheel.”

TELLTALE HIT “Suit & Tie” — GLENN GAMBOA

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