Full disclosure: I’ve been a Justin Timberlake fan for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I plastered my bedroom walls with posters of him and daydreamed of one day having his last name… which I still use in at least one of my login passwords. Embarrassing? Sometimes. But I’ve always felt justified (no pun intended) in my love for JT because, without effort, he’s always been able to produce everything from an insane dance hit to a sultry love song, with the moves to match. Until, that is, Man of the Woods. Timberlake’s latest album is an ill-advised foray into “country” that was marketed as a “return to his roots.” The supporting tour, which kicked off in Toronto last week, was my fourth time seeing him in concert—and the sad part is, it was also the first Timberlake show I was unsure about attending.
Like many devoted fans, I was totally blindsided by Man of the Woods… and not in a good way. Since he began promoting this sudden change in sound earlier in the year, we’ve witnessed a few seemingly Bon Iver-inspired teaser vids and heard plenty of v. rustic buzzwords like “mountains,” “trees,” “campfires,” “Tennessee roots,” and, lest we forget, “wild west” (lol, thanks Jessica Biel). It was an odd departure from his signature sound, which so heavily borrowed from Black culture that critics have accused Man of the Woods of being a deliberate and problematic return to whiteness. Rain is wet, right?
Yet, as his singles came out, titles like “Filthy” and “Supplies,” were reminiscent of his old sound, and their accompanying music videos weren’t particularly country—both hip hop-slash-dystopian in theme, he humps robots in one and fights for both gender equality *and* the end of racism in the other. If that screams Tennessean roots and family bonding, then I have about 1,000 more questions. It all made for a confusing mix of genres, the equivalent of a musical identity crisis. None of this boded well for the tour, which would be the first live display of Timberlake’s “country” departure—aside from a certain Superbowl performance that, even as a fan, I could barely watch.
But despite my confusion over JT’s new direction over the last few months, I knew I’d be going to the Toronto show. It has become a tradition for my aunt and me, which meant buying tickets even though I’m pretty sure he’s only embarking on this strange rebranding for the cash. As I made my way to the (sold-out!) show at a huge downtown stadium, I didn’t feel as excited as 13-year-old me would have been. JT’s missteps were just looming too large in my mind, even when I reminded myself that he was responsible for some of my favourite songs, ever. “Senorita”? THE best bar tune to date. “My Love”? The only romantic gesture a girl needs! “Until the End of Time?” Not only a heart-wrenching profession of love, but an even better duet with Queen Bey.
Plot twist: I ended up having an amazing time. BUT I defs caught myself having some serious SMH, LOL and WTF moments along the way. Whether you were there for the concert or watched it on Instagram stories, I’ve got you covered with my biggest thoughts from the opening night stage.
SMH: Please God, can someone burn that rural landscape-printed button up?
After seeing Timberlake’s Superbowl attire and God-awful tour merch, one of the biggest things I had braced myself for ahead of time was the onslaught of camo and country prints. Sure enough, he appeared on stage in a short-sleeve button up with a rural landscape print AND a camo bomber on top. Cringe. Much like the moment Miranda Priestly met Andy in The Devil Wears Prada, I could barely look at him. Eventually he did change though, TG.
WTF: A bunch of these people don’t even know his old tunes… WHY ARE THEY HERE?
Just as I’d hoped, Timberlake didn’t forget his older music. But I was brutally offended upon realizing that most of the people around us clearly didn’t appreciate “Summer Love” for the absolute banger it is, nor did it seem they’d ever heard the FutureSex/LoveSounds record in their lives. If you weren’t there for 2002 through 2013 Timberlake, WHY were you there?! No joke, the girl in front of us was taking videos of *herself* during his biggest hits, while she and her date stood silently for the rest of the show… and left early. But maybe that makes sense, because tbh, when I walked into the venue I saw a noticeably different crowd from the last three JT concerts I’d been to, all of which were here in Toronto. And let me be straight with you: It was a whiter crowd. Clearly Timberlake has succeeded in appealing to a broader audience than ever before.
SMH: Another Man of the Woods song? Time to go pee!
Any song that was post-The 20/20 Experience might as well have been white noise to me. While I’ll admit that “Filthy” has slowly grown on me as a certified bop, a majority of the album is sincerely lacking. The chorus of “Flannel” for example, has the kind of tinny sound that’s so nettling it could be a form of discipline if left on repeat. So, like clockwork, I made sure to take my bathroom breaks during Man of the Woods tracks—and with the amount of drinks I had, there were *a lot* of breaks.
LOL: Why are we sampling Drake rn?
Pretty early in the show, Timberlake pulled out Drake’s verse from Big Sean’s “Blessings,” which he mashed up with “My Love.” Along with a shout out “to mother f-cking Drake,” it was the perfect homage to Toronto’s hometown boy and the crowd went nuts, including me. (Though very few fans around me actually knew the words, so…) But as I enthusiastically rapped along, I started to wonder why he was sampling the tune in the first place, other than the fact that we were in Toronto. Part of me was praying Drake would actually show up, while another part felt like I was witnessing a crumbling mess unfold on stage amid the giant fake trees and Timberlake’s questionable choice of rural-inspired wear. I mean, at one point he was singing in a grass field with his acoustic guitar (not kidding), and then he was rapping the G-Eazy line “F-ck with me and get some money” in the middle of Summer Love. Am I wrong for being a tad confused?
— Kris Pangilinan (@KrisReports) March 14, 2018
WTF: Who are these background singers and can we hear more from them??
One of my favourite moments was when Timberlake gave the stage to each of his back-up singers. They busted out tunes from artists including Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles and Lauryn Hill and killed it so much that it felt like JT was interrupting when he took over afterwards. Here is where I must also note one glaring aspect of the show: almost every single person on stage with him was Black. From the singers, to the dancers, to his band The Tennessee Kids, the vast representation of Black people was wonderful—but also stood as a reminder that no matter what message he put forth about this new country image, his career still heavily relies on Black culture.
SMH: Yep, there’s a literal campfire on stage.
I forgot to mention that those solos took place around a campfire. Yep, a campfire. And he def sang “Flannel” around it, guitar in hand.
— Asif S (@apachesif79) March 14, 2018
LOL: Regardless, I’m having a great time
This realization basically sums up how I’ve felt about Timberlake over the last few months. As much as I dislike his new music and the problematic ways he’s presented it (and continues to present it) I question if this is just a passing dip in his career. Or maybe that’s just the pubescent Mrs. Timberlake in me hoping for the best. Whatever the case… good luck, JT. And thanks for an ~interesting~ time.
Justin Timberlake’s “Return to Whiteness” Is Super Problematic
We’re Still Waiting on Justin Timberlake to Give Janet Jackson the Apology She Deserves
We Fancast the Super Bowl Half-Time Show: 5 WAY Better Alternatives to Justin Timberlake