The Selling of Two Timberlakes

A look at Justin Timberlake's rare flexibility in self-fashioning—a flexibility that his idols didn't always enjoy.
By Hanif Abdurraqib ,

Justin Timberlake performs in Austin, Texas, on October 21st, 2017. 

(Photo: Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images)

I.

The first Justin Timberlake wakes up in a cabin but tells his friends it's a tent. He puts on a fleece-lined shirt and then a fleece-lined jacket and then some fleece-lined pants, all flannel. He holds his children in front of a fire, which is roaring below a photo of horses trampling some wild terrain that Timberlake imagines "could be anywhere" but is really a remote part of Montana. The first Justin Timberlake holds a cup of steaming hot coffee but doesn't drink it. He just lets the steam rise into the air while he stands on a porch and lets a slow "mmmmm..." exit his lips while he overlooks some wealthy enclave. His wife narrates every moment of this. True country is in your heart, he imagines. If he closes his eyes, he can smell what he imagines to be the woods, somewhere off in the distance, over the hum of sprinklers wetting the grass.

II.

The second Justin Timberlake is still young, but not as young as he was once. There is something fascinating about being a pop star in the way that Justin Timberlake is a pop star. He's now officially been a worldwide star for over two decades—since the release of the first 'N Sync album in 1997. More than just the length of time he's been in the pop music spotlight, he's now traversed so many styles and sounds that it makes a relatively young musician feel significantly older. Timberlake is now at a crossroads: He could become a legacy act, retreating to the safe haven (and safe paychecks) of Vegas, while releasing the occasional album largely free of risk.

The first Justin Timberlake wants an audience to imagine that he's taking risks, but the second Justin Timberlake wants to sell records the same way he sold records before. The second Justin Timberlake can still sell sex, and knows that sex will chart higher than The Great Outdoors.

III.

It does bear mentioning—all jokes aside—that there is nothing inherently white about wheat fields or horses or flannel shirts, and there is certainly nothing inherently white about acoustic guitars or the sounds they produce. The album trailer for Justin Timberlake's Man of the Woods album has all of these elements. Much of the immediate response had to do with the visual aesthetics of it, with critics writing about Justin Timberlake pivoting back to face his white base, comparable to what Miley Cyrus spent 2017 doing: denouncing her past as a hip-hop panderer and committing fully to the country music lineage that she acquired by birthright.

The biggest difference is that Justin Timberlake hasn't vocally denounced anything in his musical past. And I find myself less interested in the broad imagery of the trailer, and more interested in the choices in language and tone. Timberlake's voice, talking about family, and his roots. Jessica Biel's voice talking about how the album feels like "mountains and trees" while Timberlake immerses himself in water or kneels in fields. None of these things feels particularly alarming to me, but I do find myself asking what it means for a white artist—particularly this white artist—to talk about "returning to roots." To immerse himself in the land and sell us on the idea that he and his music have become one with it, as opposed to whatever was happening before.

Timberlake has a relationship with black music, though it is safe to say that almost all musicians working today have a relationship with black music. Some cash in heavy, some don't mention it, some quietly pay homage and keep moving. The problem with conversations about appropriation in music tend to be that we are so often discussing it as though Elvis built the house and then invited every white artist into the neighborhood. Black people's contributions to this country's music predate radio. African-derived rhythms and instruments were being lifted from the hands and mouths of slaves and incorporated into parlor and minstrel music in the early 1800s, and there isn't much turning back from there—all the way to country, rock and roll, jazz—and so, look, I fall in line with the great Chuck D in saying Elvis ain't no hero of mine, and that he and his cohorts simply had their hands in an already pilfered bag. There are some doors that can't be shut once they're opened, and the conversation is a lot more interesting if it turns to how musicians can honor the history of the music they’re taking on, and the histories of the people who made a path to that music possible. If we acknowledge that almost all music has roots in black music, it seems that the question should be less about who "can" or "can't" make black music, and instead about what it looks like to honor craft.

Timberlake is an appealing crossover artist because he has always sold well in any context. You can sell Timberlake on a ballad the same way you can sell Timberlake on the hook of a rap song the same way you can sell Timberlake in a movie for kids the same way you can sell Timberlake on a club anthem. Not only has this been true for most of his career, but he's also made malleability look effortless. He has, to this point, been sexy enough and charming enough to find a balance in nearly every world. At the height of his powers, it stood to reason that his career would age flawlessly.

"Filthy" is the first single from Man of the Woods, released in the wee small hours last Thursday night. It is another in a long line of collaborations between Timberlake and producer Timbaland (co-produced by Danja.) Unlike the visual and tonal aesthetics of the album's trailer, the song itself is a dry, exhausting, half-hearted attempt at Timberlake trying to revive the sex-drenched heyday of his mid-late 2000s run, highlighted by the 2006 album Futuresex/Lovesounds and its Timbaland-helmed hit single "Sexyback." Unfortunately, listening to "Filthy" feels like reminiscing about an exciting and fulfilling meal from your past, only to be served a microwaved gallon of ice cream. It begins with Timberlake issuing the decree, "I guess I got my swagger back," in a tone that doesn't even sound like he believes it himself. The song drags on for nearly five minutes of re-fried electro-funk, Timberlake's voice distorted and ineffectual.

Fitting the song, the music video is robotic, quite literally. Timberlake does his best Steve Jobs cosplay, selling a robot concept to a captivated audience. The sound and imagery are all futuristic, far from the Timberlake we see in the trailer for the album, with his rugged beard and his bare hands gripping the snow-flecked ground. I don't know what the rest of the album will sound like, but it stands to reason that the single choice was intentional, Timberlake trying to place a firm foot at each edge of two extremes: his idea of a rootsy, gritty sound but also a funky, soulful sound. In the context of the album's trailer, the single might seem a bit baffling. But Justin Timberlake has made a career out of being a chameleon, and who's to say you can't try to balance "aging family man" with "soulful sex icon," even if the two extremes seem like blatant attempts at selling two different bills of goods to two different audiences. That's the trick to believing you can be anything.

IV.

Justin Timberlake is from Memphis and considers himself a disciple of Al Green, and I hear that influence as much as I hear anything else in him, even when he slicked back his hair and put on a suit to play with the boys at the Country Music Awards in 2015.

Mary Woodson White was a married woman who fell in love with Al Green in 1974 because I imagine it was easy to fall in love with Al Green in 1974, when he was at his most iconic, in the middle of an early-1970s run that saw him release a run of five flawless albums. Mary Woodson White wanted to marry Al Green, despite already being married. She proposed to him one evening in 1974, after he walked into the kitchen in his Memphis home where White was stirring a pot of hot water, preparing to make grits. Green told her they'd talk about it in the morning, and went to his bathroom to prepare for bed. White, enraged, entered the bathroom and threw a pot of hot grits on Green's unclothed body, resulting in third-degree burns on his back. The pain was so intense, Green said, that he felt himself blacking out. While he was being held under a cold shower by his friend Carlotta Williams, with the blisters on his back growing to the size of eggs, Green heard a gunshot from down the hall. White had found his gun and turned it on herself.

Al Green spent eight months in the hospital, and it makes for a good story to say that Al Green found God while he was immobile and the skin on his back took the shape that it had been before it was burned off that night. But Al Green insists that he'd found God years earlier; he just didn't feel pulled to renounce secular music until the end of the '70s, after soul searching.

There are black people who are of the belief that every black person in America is always walking the thin tightrope of The World, trying to balance themselves, before they eventually fall into the waiting arms of their Lord and Savior. I imagine soul singers of a certain era—Al Green's era—definitely believe this, because of the church and its hyper-close association with what it often considered sinful music. Black people sang in the fields, and then in the church, and then sometimes into microphones on stages in front of thousands of people, and only some of it was gospel, but all of it was holy. There are black people who are of the belief that, if you are singing R&B, you're praying, and if you're singing rock and roll, you're praying, and all of those things will some day lead you back to where you first began, whether through trauma or through choice.

Al Green preaches in Memphis now, has for years. In 1979, he fell off of a stage in Cincinnati and decided it was God telling him to give his full self to the church, and so he spent most of the '80s singing gospel. It is fascinating, the ways we convince ourselves that we are weary of worship.

In 2008, Al Green released Lay It Down, his greatest album since he started making secular music again in the late '80s. He teamed with young producers and guest vocalists to craft a classic album of old-school soul and funk. Lay It Down is fascinating in the way it balances the excitement of youth with the craftsmanship of age. R&B was born in the church, but it was raised in far more sinful corners, and somewhere in the middle rests the wild ambition of the singer who imagines himself singing songs that might displease his God, but still please the world.

Justin Timberlake is an Al Green disciple, by which I mean he is a disciple of transformation. The comeback is a tricky art, and when pulled off well, it can be the most exciting thing in music. Timberlake is old only by dint of how long we've seen him, and how many different ways we've seen him over that time, but it does feel like the stakes right now are high for him. And with that, I must say that it couldn't matter any less whether or not I like "Filthy" because what I'm invested in is the art of the comeback. And not just for Timberlake, but also for Timbaland—Timberlake's primary architect, who is still gifted beyond belief, but far removed from his mid-to-late-2000s pop dominance. One way to imagine the distance between imagery and sound so far in Timberlake's album rollout is simple: He's looking to keep one foot in his sins, and another foot planted in something he considers holy.

V.

Justin Timberlake is from Memphis and he maybe grew up on some Stax records like any singer trying to figure out how to beg like Otis Redding or ride a groove like Isaac Hayes. Timberlake was born in 1981, the same year when the Stax recording studio was sold by Union Planters Bank to the Church of God in Christ for $10. Stax had gone bankrupt in 1976, and the studio had been sitting largely unused since. All of the master recordings from Stax were sold at auction. Sometimes God arrives in black music, and sometimes black music is given over to God, kicking and screaming.

The church allowed the studio building to deteriorate, so that the city could tear the building down in 1989. The neighborhood the building was in had seen better days by the late '80s, and the Church had second thoughts about setting up shop there, plus the city saw an opportunity for mass revitalization, and so the Stax Recording Studio was torn down. Reduced to rubble, the sounds of soul still echoing from the concrete.

It's a museum now, erected in 2003 after two years of construction. But I think of the time in between, and how easy it is to erase an entire legacy of black music by developers who don't have the best interests of history in mind. How, for years, no one in Memphis could go to the site where all of those hit records were made and point to a building. Memory doesn't require a landmark, but it's nice to have one if you can.

Isaac Hayes went bankrupt in the late '70s and spent most of the '80s mired in financial struggles. As a result, he had to give up his iconic and beloved gold-plated Cadillac, first given to him by Cadillac as a tribute for his 1971 Black Moses album. The car now sits behind a square of velvet ropes at the Stax Museum. That which is taken will later become an artifact.

VI.

Since Justin Timberlake is from Memphis and we're talking about Elvis anyway, I will say that I have touched the grass at Graceland and I have breathed in the air and I have also seen the movies that Elvis starred in during the '60s, after he got back from the war, and this is how I learned to love Elvis most. I learned to love Elvis when his performance didn't look easy. Because he was already immensely famous when he began acting, the work of his performances was mostly to convince an audience that he was someone different than he actually was. Walter Gulick in Kid Galahad, or Rusty Wells in Girl Happy. It's not that Elvis was an outright awful actor, he just was clumsy inside of the machine, stumbling through the process of separating the star he was from the character he needed people to believe in.

I also like watching Justin Timberlake struggle in films. Timberlake at his best is a more skilled actor than Elvis ever was, in part because of his years on camera as a child in the Mickey Mouse Club. Timberlake as a comic is a much more easy and delightful experience. It comes naturally to him, but his serious roles are where I enjoy watching Timberlake try and stretch the distance between what we know and what we see: his turn as a sympathetic villain in Alpha Dog, say, or as the ambitious Sean Parker in The Social Network. There are several ways in which I think Timberlake is more like Elvis than he might imagine himself, and it has less to do with a proximity to what we call black music, and more to do with an ethos that transfers from the screen to the stage to the studio: the idea that immortality is making an audience believe that you can be anything.

In 1957, Elvis said: "A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock 'n' roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people." And I guess the thing about that is: It ain't about what you can sing, it's about what you can sell.

VII.

In the early summer of 2016, the Justin Timberlake tweet which provided a fresh cycle of blacklash read: "Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye."

In tweets prior, Timberlake had been praising a speech made by actor Jesse Williams at the 2016 BET awards. Williams' critical remarks had spanned race, activism, and cultural appropriation. A Twitter user took aim at Timberlake, suggesting that the parts about cultural appropriation should especially resonate with him. Timberlake responded the way he did.

It isn't that I care much about white people who imagine that we are all exactly the same—particularly rich white people. I wasn't offended or outraged at Timberlake's tone-deaf response because I wasn't surprised enough to be. But I did take issue with the intellectual dishonesty required for Justin Timberlake to insist that there were no cultural differences between himself and, say, Ne-Yo. Sure, the idea of privilege is that you have so many different ways to grow outward that every corner of the Earth feels comfortable, but this instance of obliviousness struck me as particularly disheartening. The rollout of Man of the Woods (so far) would suggest to me that Timberlake knows quite well that there are cultural differences, and he's playing directly to them. I don't have a problem with someone in pop music playing the hand they've got; I've only got a problem when the person holding that hand lies about what's in it while shielding their cards against the table.

VIII.

In 2009, Levi's used Walt Whitman's poem "Pioneers! O! Pioneers!" to sell jeans. The poem isn't about jeans, though I don't have to tell you that. The commercial features short, choppy clips in fast bursts: young people running to places undefined, some of them holding torches. Young people jumping through forests and woods. Young people hooded and holding each other. A landscape before all of them, begging to be traversed by their feet. Whitman himself, echoing above the scenery: "We must march, my darlings. We must bear the brunt of danger."

Levi Strauss & Co. was started in 1853 in San Francisco, where the company is still headquartered today. Whitman's poem was first published in 1865 as an ode to people rushing west to California on the hunt for gold. "Fresh and strong the world we seize," Whitman writes.

Levi Strauss sold denim overalls to some of those pioneers who rushed west, just after the dream of gold had begun to fade. By the early 1850s, settlers had driven the indigenous people of California out of their lands, and, to protect their homes, many of the Native Americans attacked the miners. They were massacred, being outgunned and outnumbered by the growing mass of whites. Those who escaped starved to death, without access to their ancestral hunting grounds.

With this in mind, Whitman's ode to exploration hasn't aged well, but one would perhaps do well not to imagine massacres when enjoying the poem's swelling romanticism, and the way that, under the right light, the poem can make anyone feel heroic. The thing here is that what we're being sold isn't always what we're being sold. The hand reaching out is sometimes distracting from what's held in the hand behind the back. Justin Timberlake isn't doing anything menacing, as far as it seems. He's simply taking a different angle: holding both hands in front of people at once, and asking an audience to choose one, or perhaps both. He's spent a career doing this, just never as blatantly as now, when he can't afford for an album to shrink.

Levi's knew the Whitman poem wasn't about jeans as much as you and I know the Whitman poem wasn't about jeans. Levi's was selling jeans, but more than anything they were selling what was underneath the poem. The idea that everything outside is yours. That everything you touch can be bent to your own ambition.

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