For a “Man of the Woods,” Justin Timberlake is culturally rudderless

Cover art for Justin Timberlake's "Man of the Woods" album.

Cover art for Justin Timberlake’s “Man of the Woods” album.

Justin Timberlake is having a rough time. Much of it is self-inflicted. And if he actually follows through and uses a Prince hologram for his upcoming Super Bowl performance, some of it will happen to him from beyond Prince’s grave.

At the time of this post, the internet is having a field day dragging Timberlake for even daring to suggest he’d bring a Prince hologram on stage with him to rock out. Never mind the fact that Prince himself said he hates the idea of holograms. When asked about if he’d ever perform with a hologram of a music idol long past, he called the practice “demonic” and related it to his ongoing conversation about an artist’s control of their image and music.

“That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age,” he said in a 10-years-old Guitar World interview (as reported by Fader). “…Also, what they did with that Beatles song [“Free As a Bird”], 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.”

Even without ever knowing Prince said his final word on holograms, anyone who’s a Prince fan would have tacit knowledge that Prince would hate this. Of course, us fans would hate it because 1) what’s the point of seeing Prince if it’s a fake one? 2) Prince was always clear in how he wanted his image to be used, and anytime someone else did invoke the Purple One, it was at his rare, expressed consent. Timberlake, who is supposed to be a student of black music and black artists, should know this. So why doesn’t he?

As The Huffington Post’s Jamil Smith wrote Saturday on Twitter, Timberlake’s reported decision to use a hologram Prince is just another chapter in American pop culture chopping-and-screwing black art for the sake of white mass consumption.

This is most definitely one of America’s go-to forms of modern colonization–“finding” and “restoring” black art in a white context, i.e. Miley Cyrus putting on a black “ghetto” caricature or Iggy Azalea, who has a new song out with Quavo, altering her body and voice to look and sound artificially black without any of the substance. But whether or not Timberlake actually follows through and uses a Prince hologram, this form of colonization is also something he has yet to reckon with within himself, seeing how much black artistry is part of his career and, indeed, part of how he’s leveled his success.

I’ll be honest and say that I’d forgotten about a lot of Timberlake’s problematic moments, mostly because he’s good at staying silent–I’ll venture that a lot of us had been lulled into a stupor by Timberlake simply putting out good music and shutting up. But the time for shutting up isn’t now; with more and more stars speaking out about racial and gender inequalities, sexual misconduct and abuse, and physical abuse while on movie sets, Timberlake has unwittingly put himself in the middle of the fray by not speaking out on his work with Woody Allen in Wonder Wheel. He’s also not addressed Dylan Farrow, Allen’s adopted daughter and victim, who tweeted him directly about his hypocritical support of the Time’s Up Movement and #MeToo despite his familiarity with Allen.

As Ira Madion III wrote for The Daily Beast:

“This is the first time Timberlake has been questioned by other celebrities about his actions. He’s been able to mostly dip in and out of the public eye whenever he has an album or appearances on SNL and Fallon. Perhaps people don’t consider him to be serious when they discuss his acting so they don’t bother interrogating his decisions when it comes to which films he’s in.”

Timberlake has stepped in it again by agreeing to perform at the Super Bowl, the venue where he nearly wrecked Janet Jackson’s career. Jackson was blacklisted by Viacom and for a while, it was hard to find Jackson anywhere on TV. Meanwhile, instead of doing the honorable thing and sticking with his on-stage partner, Timberlake got off scot-free by acting innocent and, even worse, putting the entire blame on Jackson’s shoulders. Some would be right to assert that Timberlake was able to get away unpunished is because of race.

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Now, Timberlake chooses to come back to the scene of the crime, adding insult to injury to a moment in time a lot of wished never happened and were reminded of in these months leading up to his Super Bowl performance. It’s only been to Timberlake’s gift of keeping silent that we were able to forget about it. But now that the moment for talking–and probably talking one’s way into a mea culpa–is here, Timberlake can’t seem to get his thoughts together.

In a recent Vulture interview, Timberlake talked about the online movement #JusticeForJanet in the wake of his Super Bowl announcement. Timberlake said he and Janet have made up, but he won’t entertain any more speculation on the incident, since, to paraphrase him, there’s nothing more he can do.

“I stumbled through [the aftermath], to be quite honest,” he said.“I had my wires crossed and it’s just something that you have to look back on and go like, ‘Okay, well you know, you can’t change what’s happened but you can move forward and learn from it.’”

But how he went forward is what’s currently in question. They way he went forward was to foist blame and ignore the consequences while he went on with his lucrative career.

“Timberlake’s refusal to partake in the larger conversation around Janet Jackson’s post-halftime show blacklisting is characteristic,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Amy Zimmerman. “Instead of taking responsibility and reckoning with the implications of his actions, Timberlake cites a personal relationship with Jackson, as if her graciousness excuses his ignorance or makes any of this OK. If Timberlake was truly sorry, he wouldn’t return to a stage where Jackson is seemingly unwelcome—but issuing a non-apology is a whole lot easier than actually taking a stand.”

This isn’t the first time Timberlake has chosen silence over engagement in tough conversations about race and the differences between appreciation and appropriation. After Jesse Williams’ moving speech at the 2016 BET Awards, Timberlake tweeted what he thought was an innocuous tweet about being “inspired.” The response he was met with was one I’m sure he didn’t expect; tons of Twitter users–mainly black users–telling him how his career has been built on the back of appropriating black culture for his own ends. As The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern put it, Timberlake was accused of being “a prominent artist who’s appropriated considerably from black culture yet been relatively quiet concerning the Black Lives Matter movement, threw Janet Jackson under the bus after exposing her breast during their Super Bowl performance[.]” After belittling the initial response, Timberlake apologized.

But even his attempts to talk about race and his place in it leave much to be desired. According to an interview with Beats I’s Zane Lowe (as reported by Fader), Timberlake said his song with Chris Stapleton, “Say Something” was directly inspired by “recent misunderstandings,” which you can assume includes the fateful Twitter interaction. “We wrote the song almost a year ago, so a lot of weird things were happening, and they still are, in the world,” he said. But to just call the current cultural shifts and the conversations they’re spawning “misunderstandings” or “weird things” is Timberlake still not fully realizing the context of his infractions, or the direction America is headed towards.

The lyrics of “Say Something” are also indicative of Timberlake’s reticence to get messy in these discussions and his fear of even having these discussions in the first place. “Everybody says ‘Say something,’…but I don’t want to get caught up in the rhythm of it, but I can’t help myself.” This is a literal line in the song. Timberlake knows he probably should say something honest about his tenuous relationship with black music and black culture, but he can’t bring himself to. Probably because he has no idea of what to say.

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Similarly, his music video for “Supplies” is another version of him casually and passively looking at the world and its changes pass him by–instead of engaging and standing for something, he just watches TV screens featuring Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, the #MeToo Movement, and Black Lives Matter protesters fighting on the front lines for their rights. Instead of getting on those front lines, he finds a girl and they go traipse through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Everything’s going to hell, but it’s fine as long as Timberlake can wear cool beanies and flannel and sing some hot tunes. From Banksy nods to cultural movements, once again Timberlake is regurgitating marginalized art and commentary for his own gain.

With all of this said, what can Timberlake do? He seems to think of himself as a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t person. I’d suggest his apathy isn’t the right course of action. There are plenty of things he can do right now, the first step being owning up to his part in Jackson’s blacklisting all the way. 2018 doesn’t accept half-stepping anymore. The next step is to actually take some time to learn more about why people are annoyed with him. Sure, he makes good music, Man of the Woods notwithstanding–I listened to the album as I wrote this article, and it’s a corny mess–but nowadays, more is required of our stars, especially stars that make a living in the spaces between race and culture.

Perhaps this is Timberlake’s biggest mistake–if you’re going to be a person who plays in the playground of another culture, some nuance and intelligence are required. You can’t just passively be a part of black culture and not have something to contribute back to it, and that includes having some knowledge about black issues. For someone who hangs out with Timbaland and “Uncle” Charlie Wilson, you’d think Timberlake would have a little more to say on black issues other than radio silence. As I wrote about pop group BTS a few months ago, they too are finding their way in an international space built on a black musical heritage. Surprisingly, it seems like a group of 20-year-olds from Korea are managing it better than a 37-year-old American so far. Timberlake apparently needs to do a crash course himself on black musical history and how it connects to issues like Black Lives Matter, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and other inequalities affecting black people today.

Another huge mistake Timberlake’s been making is believing he can ride on the cultural coattails of movements like Time’s Up and not have to address his past indiscretions. As Farrow said in her tweet, Timberlake can’t have his cake–wearing Time’s Up pins and talking the talk–and eat it too by working in an Allen movie. The time has come for Timberlake to start taking responsibility for his actions and weighing future actions with regard to the consequences they can have and who gets affected.

Maybe this time of substance has just proven what might have been true all along–that Timberlake’s career lacks the ability to morph and transmute in these times of social empowerment. We’re no longer in a time in which someone like Timberlake (or a Miley or a Taylor or an Iggy) can coast on cultural shorthand. There is a way for Timberlake to come back to form and even be better than he ever was. But it’s a path full of hard talks and a insurmountably hard look in the mirror. Can Timberlake handle it? For right now, it seems that path demands too much of him. ♦

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