Justin Timberlake, Performative Whiteness, and the Spectacle of Authenticity
'Man of the Woods' isn’t a pivot to whiteness, but feels more like a calculated pander to it.
John Shearer/Getty Images for M2M Construction
Justin Timberlake single-handedly hijacked the start of 2018, but this wouldn’t surprise you if you were paying attention. Last October, Timberlake was announced as the performer for this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, 14 years after the wardrobe malfunction with Janet Jackson. It was unlikely that he’d be performing the Trolls soundtrack, so on January 2 he announced the release date for his new album, Man of the Woods, with a 60-second trailer. On the surface, it was woodsy and rugged. There were cornfields, flannel, and he dramatically waded in water—a completely different aesthetic than we’d seen from the singer who crafted an aesthetic of futuristic R&B funk. It seemed like a deliberate derail from his solo career which had been adjacent to blackness, and elements of black culture, for the better part of 16 years. In the trailer, he dubbed Man of the Woods his most personal album, one that would explore his Memphis roots. It wasn’t long before he was on the receiving end of backlash for his “pivot” to whiteness—a move that a slew of other notable pop stars leaned on. What was unclear was after a career spanning 20 years, what exactly did Timberlake’s pivot mean now? After releasing one single each week until the Super Bowl and it was clear that we’d been trolled. Sonically, the songs weren’t much different from his signature style, seemingly disparate from the outdoorsy visuals. But why was he willing to let us think this was “Wild, Wild, West… but now”?
Man of the Woods isn’t a pivot to whiteness, but feels more like a calculated pander to it. Where FutureSex/LoveSounds solidified his place as a solo artist, 20/20 Experience elevated his craftsmanship of his fusion of pop, soul and R&B. Man of the Woods tries too hard to be different, without making a lasting impression. The conversations ignited by the mystery surrounding the album read not only like an effort to distance himself from his involvement in 2004’s Nipplegate, but an exploration of his interpretation of white masculinity. Timberlake’s marketing of Man of the Woods challenged the idea of who has agency over which narratives. Fans saw a rural landscape and married that with the idea of a country album, although Pharrell Williams and Timbaland were named as core collaborators. The 2016 election put rural America under a magnifying glass, and it’s a pretty damn interesting time to want to appeal to traditional aesthetics of Americana.
As a child of the 90s who was more into pop than hip-hop at the time, my mother complained about the lack of black artists plastered on the walls of my room. I would tell her Justin Timberlake didn’t count; he was a natural dancer, dabbled in AAVE, and had a head full of curls that he mistakenly cornrowed from time to time. For all intents and purposes, if there were any pop star from the early aughts who was invited to the cookout, it was him. I didn’t seem to be the only one to think so. He was one of the few white artists who not only infiltrated video countdowns like TRL, but BET’s 106 & Park, too. Before the politics of being problematic, Timberlake was able to seamlessly transition from N’SYNC’s cookie-cutter image by borrowing elements of R&B and soul into his pop aesthetic.
Justified, Timberlake’s debut solo album, was released in 2002 and helmed by Virginia’s biggest producers The Neptunes and Timbaland. On opener “Señorita,” listeners are met with a co-sign by Pharrell, a friendly introduction to let people know that Timberlake was “down” by association. Aside from standouts “Rock Your Body” and “Cry Me a River,” Justified was light on features. One was from Virginia rap group, Clipse, who were having a monumental moment with “Grindin’.” The other was from a woman from Gary, Indiana: Janet Jackson.
Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake didn’t always have a complicated history. N’SYNC opened for her Velvet Rope tour in 1998, so it wasn’t shocking for Timberlake to come out as guest during Jackson’s halftime set in 2004. Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” bleeds into “Rock Your Body” and Timberlake ascends from under the stage. The two play a cat-and-mouse game across the stage for the duration of “Rock Your Body.” Timberlake rips at the breast of Jackson’s bustier, exposing her bare breast as he sings, “Bet I’ll have you naked, by the end of this song.” Jackson and Timberlake denied the intent of nudity, but the repercussions were harsh. Although Jackson’s breast was only visible for 9/16 of a second, it cost a hefty $550,000 fine after the FCC received over half a million complaints. Timberlake aired his grievances on Access Hollywood: “I’m frustrated that my character is being questioned. I don’t feel like I need publicity like this.” The optics of Nipplegate are still difficult to reconcile, 14 years later. Jackson, then 38, was essentially blacklisted from the industry for her involvement, while 23-year-old Timberlake, was not. That year, Jackson, who was a part of a tribute to Luther Vandross, was uninvited to the Grammys. Timberlake, on the other hand, went on to win Best Male Pop Vocal Album and Best Pop Vocal Album. It’s difficult to separate race and gender from Nipplegate, and the announcement of his return to the Super Bowl stage reignites the notion that Timberlake’s ascension was a direct result of America’s need to use Jackson as a scapegoat, something Timberlake’s privilege as a white man would allow him to ignore publicly for the last decade.
Given Timberlake’s history with the Super Bowl, one could see why he would use Man of the Woods as an opportunity to distance himself from Janet Jackson and what she represents. But, it’s the notion that Man of the Woods is what he deems “authentic” that is troublesome (he’s openly professed how Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye have influenced his style on 106 & Park). It plays into the group of pop stars, like Miley Cyrus, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, who fetishize the Western aesthetic in an effort to return to their authentic selves. In an interview with WNYC Nadine Hubbs, author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, says country music “takes the music of the working class seriously in a way that no other major culture form in America does.” And while Timberlake himself is begging you not to call this album country, he is benefitting from the appeal of that creative direction. The ability to be able to disrobe these costumes and act on different parts of themselves, is a privilege afforded mostly to white artists. Not only did the Grammys reject Beyonce’s “Daddy’s Lessons” as a nominee in the country field, but the Lemonade singer received major backlash for her performance at 2016’s CMA. R&B singer K. Michelle, who is also from Memphis, revealed a passion for country music, but feels typecast to R&B as a black artist.
In his interview with Timberlake, Zane Lowe calls “Filthy” a diversion tactic, and it certainly feels that way. His 20/20 Experience seemed to be the most appropriate blend of Timberlake’s roots in Memphis, married with his love for R&B and soul. On the record, he plays with the idea of a group called JT and the Tennessee Kids, which feels like a page out of Stax Records’ playbook, with their roster of musicians like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. The second installment of 20/20 Experience included “Drink You Away,” which Timberlake performed in addition to “Tennessee Whiskey” at the 2015 CMA with Chris Stapleton, which now feels like a prelude to this moment.
The first half of the album fits more into his trademark sound, with cuts like “Midnight Summer Jam” and “Sauce” complimenting the integrity of singles “Filthy” and “Supplies.” His feature with Chris Stapleton, “Say Something,” begins the journey of experimentation, seeing just how far he can contort the boundaries of his own music. He does this stretched over the last half, including an interlude, “Hers” voiced by his wife Jessica Biel, and its reminiscent of a parody more than using Memphis as a muse.
Man of the Woods, named after his son, is Timberlake’s attempt to “dance to the mountains.” He credits Pharrell for the direction of the album, wanting Timberlake to take advantage of the “sonic real estate” of otherwise uncharted territory. The idea, according to Timberlake, was to shine a positive light on the South. And while it’s a noble use of exploration, Man of the Woods does little to prove that this was a lane worth traveling. Moreover, JT is putting this record out a year into the Trump presidency, but I'm not sure there's enough words in the English language to unpack what that means.
There’s a lot about the intersection of Man of the Woods and a Super Bowl halftime show possess that makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the fact that JAY-Z reportedly turned down the halftime show to stand in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and a month later Timberlake, who owes much of his career to his proximity to black bodies, was secured as its headliner. Maybe it’s because Timberlake, who has been on-camera since Mickey Mouse Club in 1995, is dedicating an album to a city he hasn’t lived since he was 14. For the better part of the last two decades, he’s been able to make timeless music that defies genres, but Man of the Woods isn’t that. It’s the first sign that suggests Timberlake’s finger isn’t on the pulse of what’s current. For the first time since Nipplegate, Janet Jackson is headlining music festivals, like NYC’s the Panorama Music Festival in July. Throughout his career, Timberlake’s talent is his ability to remain unscathed, and it feels like his time is up.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.