On Justin Timberlake And The Tragedy Of White Male Pop Stars In The Era of Trump

All white guys aren’t Trump, but when “black” dudes go white…

Marcus K. Dowling
Feb 4, 2018 · 7 min read

As opposed to what is apparently the entire total of public opinion, I’ll state that Justin Timberlake’s Man Of The Woods is objectively not a bad album. Instead, it’s problematic not from a musical standpoint, but from the place of being the first album we’ve heard from Timberlake that shows him as a fully grown middle-aged man and not a teenaged electro-titan or iconic MTV-ready sexpot. Moreover, it’s the first time that Justin has ever, in a quarter-century as a performer, revealed himself as foremost — and moreover shockingly as he’s likely always been deep down inside — a white man. Brazenly, he’s a white man singing country songs at a time where white people who stereotypically like country music are cast as evil, enraged rednecks who made a decision last November to set free conservative American sins upon the liberal, hyper-intellectual universe. Let’s be honest. A Justin Timberlake album in 2018 is supposed to be the pop cultural canonization of a magical alt-left grown adult meant to be the heroic figure upon which we could cast all of hopes and dreams of backing down the scourge of Trump-ism. Instead, JT’s apparently letting us down as a white dude with a guitar, a wife, a kid, and a bottle of booze, who on this album has impressively said both all of the something, but sadly also “nothing at all.”

Foremost, before diving into any lyric that Justin Timberlake has recently released, it’s imperative to note that black folk and white folk alike must lay off on the thirst for discovering the “Trump Killer.” 2016’s Republican Presidential nominee engineered a victory by awakening racial and social hatred in people that extends back four centuries in North America, invoked scripture-as-law that’s 1000% older than the United States, and called upon the aid of our most vaunted and feared national foe. That level of premeditation almost immediately cancels scoring touchdowns, shooting three-pointers, or yes, singing pop ditties, as pre-requisites for effective leadership of the resistance.

Let’s note something else here about Justin Timberlake. For two-thirds of his life, he’s been less of a man and much more of a hit-song automaton, a man-robot with No Strings Attached, bringing sexy back while dressed in a suit and tie. It’s entirely possible that while having a part to play in selling 80 million albums and charting nearly 40 top 10 singles in the past two decades, he became unhinged from the reality in which pretty much everyone else is living.

Yes, I know. November 8, 2016, was a terrifying day for everyone. But, presuppose that on November 8, 2016, you woke up in Big Sky, Montana, staring out at mountaintops that were snow-capped in a manner most idyllic. You’re in bed next to Jessica Biel, your wife, who for the past fifteen years has been universally considered as one of the most physically attractive people on the planet. You then change the diaper on your 18-month old son that you procreated with Jessica Biel to birth. From there you listened to music produced specially for you by people who were actual musical geniuses. Yeah, getting that push alert on your iPhone that Donald Trump is President and that “the whole world is about to collapse in upon itself” probably won’t feel so immediate as to have to make 16 protest songs regarding this occurrence.

Man Of The Woods is an album based in truth from a guy who didn’t necessarily tell lies for 25 years, but presented a fanciful take on “truth.” Placing the onus of telling us our best truth on a guy who, before this point, was perceived as being at his truest in his career when placing punitive harm on the body and soul of Britney Spears, is a lot to ask. Asking the guy who sang “Cry Me A River” and “What Goes Around…Comes Around” to dip his toe into sociopolitical criticism isn’t necessarily something that we want.

Instead, Justin Timberlake is the guy we want soundtracking our most mindless fun, our most entertaining times. He’s best when wooing our girlfriends. The trouble is, when our minds are politicized instead of lovelorn, his skill as an entertainer being a skill-set best held by black artists becomes potentially problematic. Thus, when we look around the world and see black people in a woeful state and a white man who has “unlocked” blackness in such a profound way outing himself as a white man with a metaphorical cowboy hat yelling “yee-haw, yawl,” it’s more than a bit jarring.

Also potentially jarring is that Man Of The Woods is an album that sounds delightfully old. The most significant deception about The Neptunes and Timbaland is that they are relevant modern producers. They’re not. They’re nostalgic craftsmen now, the final level of music makers from the last era where people bought physical copies of music and computers were used for sending emails and making GeoCities web pages. Justin Timberlake is striking an MPC pad to make bleeps and bloops in the video for “Say Something.” Head to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture these days, and they have a similar one of those machines — owned by the legendary J Dilla — under glass, an artifact of a legacy. “Say Something” is a wonderfully crafted ballad. Most amazing is that it’s not a tremendous modern ballad, it, in its brilliant anachronistic fusion of outlaw country-soul and late 20th-century electro-pop hip-hop, becomes an unexpectedly great ballad representing every era.

Continuing regarding the “odd” folk-soul aspects of the album’s sound, Pitchfork derisively refers to it as an “hour-plus Blue Ridge Mountains mood board” while also giving Man Of The Woods a mockingly low score of 3.8 out of 10. In said review, there’s constantly a sense of wonder at how the folk-soul pop-hybrid sound of the album is an “audacious fusion of Southern sounds.” However, turn back the clock to Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals’ 1999 soul/funk/rock fusion album Burn To Shine. It’s in how not audacious, but rather steeped in the study of where artists famous in 2000 making an album 20 years later have their core creative concept rooted wherein we find the problems inherent in the not so “audacious” Man Of The Woods having its most significant pop cultural disconnect.

Moreso than a fascinating artist, in the context of understanding sociopolitical and socio-cultural background in pop music, Ben Harper is a fascinating person. Harper, as opposed to Justin Timberlake being a white guy who excels at making “black music,” is a musician whose blend of African-American, Cherokee Indian, and Russian-Lithuanian Jewish heritage is ever-present in his creativity. Thus, the context of his music has never needed the artificial human meaning that we as American pop music lovers enjoy in music.

Ben Harper has sold one-quarter as many albums in roughly just as much time in the music industry as Justin Timberlake. 20 years ago, Harper released “Steal My Kisses,” a Rahzel beatbox and bluesy guitar-featuring folk-pop single where, if you close your eyes and open your mind when you hear JT’s eponymous Man Of The Woods album single, stunningly appears. Of course, it also bears mentioning that Ben Harper’s album was also deemed as being 57.8% better than Timberlake’s release by Pitchfork. In that percentage lies a certain organic honesty tied to race, culture, and experience that makes Harper’s desire to tap into well-worn and country-fried Americana feel far more honest.

After 25 years of masquerading as a music-industry made James Brown-meets-Michael Jackson robot-boy, Justin Timberlake has “suddenly” leapt to adulthood after embodying an 11-year-old boy from Memphis, Tennessee for quite some time. Before his industrial evolution, he was a human not too far removed from the body and spirit of say, album collaborator and country mega-star Chris Stapleton, and familiar with R & B songs that sound like those sang by other album collaborator Alicia Keys. On this album, he’s merely himself again, but older.

Man Of The Woods is best reviewed via using a hackneyed idiom. When the “old dog” of the 11-year old boy that’s now appearing in Timberlake combines with the “new tricks” that defined so much of the life that, now in his rear-view mirror at 37 was apparently not his own, problems ensue. We currently live in an age where the world is looking for a superhero to counteract to many, the literal embodiment of white male evil. On Man Of The Woods, Justin Timberlake surprises us as a superstar boy-man finally emergent in a way adjacent to, but not uniquely different than said evil. In absolutely no way, whatsoever, was the stereotypical black culture-inspired man who brought sexy back de-evolving into a stereotypical white culture-embodying man from the woods something that a country primarily unified by fear of a singular white man wanted to experience. Ultimately, what may have proven to be the right record for Justin Timberlake’s conscience is the wrong record for America’s soul.

Marcus K. Dowling

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Creator. Curator. Innovator. Iconoclast.

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