Seth MacFarlane, as host of this year’s Academy Awards, wore a tuxedo. Justin Timberlake’s unfortunate shtick right now is a tuxedo. A suit and tie, as he likes to call it. South Park, in its 2006 two-part ethering of Family Guy, suggests MacFarlane’s animated show is actually written by manatees that push around “idea balls”; that’s the only explanation for jokes that rely on random cultural references rather than, like, fully developed characters or plots.
Justin Timberlake did double-duty as Saturday Night Live‘s host and musical guest Saturday night, and as his track record of previous SNL appearances would predict, he was pretty good at both. Especially by recent SNL standards: It isn’t really saying much that Timberlake has more personality than Adam Levine and makes savvier musical decisions than Karmin. With this hosting appearance, Timberlake joined the “Five-Timers Club,” so previous five-time hosts or guest Alec Baldwin, Candice Mergen, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Paul Simon were on hand to make for a festive episode. Timberlake did his best Elton John to mock the late Venezuelanan leader Hugo Chavez; it was funny. (It also ushered in the show’s highest ratings since Janaury 2012.)
But one of the most musically relevant Timberlake sketches, where he plays a guy in a tofu costume singing reworked versions of hit song as jingles for a restaurant called “Veganville”? Well, it has the distinct scent of manatee about it. As Timberlake sang to backing tracks by Rihanna, Trinidad James, and others, before inevitably leading SNL‘s version of the “Harlem Shake,” the joke was basically “hey guys here’s this song you know except now he’s singing about vegan food for some reason.” Like, if future civilizations ever watch this, it will be a preemptive I Love March 2013 time capsule, but little more. “Just saying,” as they say.
Timberlake’s musical performances, too, were imminently competent but could also just as easily have been written by manatees. What actual human being thinks comparing someone to a mirror, as an expression of romantic feeling, is so powerful it deserves not only a song that’s relatively long even when cut down for TV, but also a full-house clap-along every time it’s performed? Who hears “Suit & Tie” anymore and think it’s part of the show and not one of the many commercials set to “Suit & Tie”? Jay-Z was there, the backing band was superb, and Timberlake’s apparent Kanye West retort (“My hit’s so sick, got rappers acting dramatic”) was so smoothly unremarkable it could sell Bud Light Platinum — or, wait, was that a trip to Target?
JT is a phenomenal performer in any medium he has tried. But let’s not mistake what we saw this weekend for Peak Timberlake. He might be vying for Rat Pack status these days, but he’s way too young to be consigning himself to being an elder statesman while pop culture moves on without him. The guy who did “Dick in a Box” is better than “Boob Song.”