It was 2002, and Justin Timberlake needed a breakthrough.
The era of boy bands was on the way out, and his NSYNC-approved, white boy-next-door image was expiring. The paradigm of what was popular was shifting. Timberlake had to go solo and become interesting beyond just a tolerable falsetto and cool charm. Yes, he was arguably the most talented and popular member of NSYNC, but popularity doesn’t guarantee success. He needed to mature in order to last; if his sound and aesthetic didn’t evolve, neither would his career.
Enter Black culture.
Timberlake found a sound crafted for him by producers like Pharrell Williams and Timbaland and released Justified. It was hip-hop. It was R&B. It had sounds influenced by Prince and Bobby Brown. Timberlake was no longer just a pop singer. He used slang that is most connected with Black people and culture. His dancing was clearly influenced by Michael Jackson and James Brown. Justified was a hit and Timberlake used Black culture to keep him looking like he was on the cutting edge of music and not just some ex-Mickey Mouse Club member from Tennessee.
He followed up with FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006, which Pitchfork declared had a “more pronounced hip-hop edge than its predecessor.” After that record’s success, Timberlake released the two-part project The 20/20 Experience in 2013 to average reviews and faded—if not into obscurity at least into the background of today’s pop culture landscape. Since Timberlake’s peak, the landscape of culture and music has shifted. Musical projects today are expected to be conceptual and introspective, as seen by Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade and Katy Perry’s Witness World Wide livestream. Since Timberlake’s hiatus, the pop landscape has gone deeper. In order to make a successful comeback, Timberlake needed another breakthrough.
Enter Timberlake’s newest record, Man of The Woods.
Out February 2, Man of the Woods is a severe departure visually from the man who brought SexyBack. In promo material, Timberlake is seen with horses, in denim and plaid, with bonfires burning on top of a country mountain landscape. These images and sounds remind people of when America was simpler—for some, greater—and definitely whiter. In a short video posted to his Instagram, he says: “This album is really inspired by my son, my wife, my family—and more so than any other album I’ve ever written—where I’m from. And it’s personal.”
This is the place many white content makers go in order to captivate white consumers and reinvigorate careers: “their roots.” But Timberlake’s recently released first single off the record, “Filthy,” is sonically not a far departure from the music he has been making for the past 16 years. It plays with disco sounds and has an awkward pop melody reminiscent of Prince—who Timberlake openly idolizes. This makes Timberlake’s visual rebrand even more interesting. If his “new” sound doesn’t align with the country persona he’s been marketing—as Complex recently pointed out—it would appear his visual return to Americana is just a ploy to not alienate consumers who feel more empowered (and more American) since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Even though Timberlake has been called out for using Black culture, he is not unique in doing so. A plethora of white pop stars vacation inside of Black culture for significant times in their careers in order to perceived as edgy and culturally relevant, and abandon it when the style goes stale. Usually, this abandonment results in a return to whiteness. Stars need to once again seem wholesome and familiar. This is what will ensure them that they can secure that Oscar-worthy role, co-host that popular television show, or get an endorsement with that great American brand.
Miley Cyrus was notoriously able to depart from her squeaky clean image by using 808s, twerking black women and hip-hop collaborations in effort to appear bold and innovative back in 2013. When Cyrus released her album Younger Now in 2017, she found herself with blonde hair singing in a field about Malibu and even denouncing hip-hop, the very genre of music she used to give herself a second wind. Once the pop queen persona went stale for Christina Aguilera, she teamed up with Lil’ Kim and Redman in 2002 and started wearing fashion—and braids—ripped straight from Black culture. (Aguilera has since returned to her more “wholesome” white image.) More recently, Lady Gaga put on cowboy hats, sat in grass fields, took pictures on horses and used folk sounds in order to reel herself back from the culturally insensitive places she had gone before her 2016 record, Joanne.
When political trends happen, cultural trends happen. The election of President Trump signalled a return to a Bush-era America where the conservative, Middle American consumer feels empowered. It’s hard not to see rebranding one’s self as American and white as an attempt to stay profitable during a time where folks sporting “Make America Great Again” hats hold cultural relevance and power. This is not because all artists like Timberlake necessarily align with such politics, but because all artists in capitalism are taught to centre on what speaks to the majority. Or, at the very least, they’re taught to not alienate people. Sometimes, this looks like a Roseanne reboot. Sometimes, this looks like your favourite blue-eyed soul singer coming back as a Man of the Woods.
It’s a shame many white artists must do it on the backs of Black culture. It will be interesting to see if Timberlake will find a balance between who he used to be and who he needs to be seen as now. And it will be even more interesting to see what culture Timberlake adopts next time he needs a breakthrough.
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