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Justin Timberlake and the White Open Spaces

On Man of the Woods, Timberlake's flirtation with woodsy iconography is an uncomfortable reminder that certain kinds of authenticity are reserved for white people.
Justin Timberlake Man of the Woods

Justin Timberlake, who has spent his whole career pretending to be black, has decided, for his forthcoming album, to pretend to be white.

Whiteness, in contemporary American pop, means country music, and Timberlake's trailer for Man of the Woods spews out the familiar signifiers like a stream of tobacco spit. Rural highways, fields of crops, horses running free beneath the big sky. He even poses waist-high in a baptismal creek as his voice-over rattles on, saying the album is about his family and about where he's from, and someone else says of the album, "it's like wild west ... but now!" You can almost feel the wind blowing through Timberlake's earnest facial hair as you imagine his idol, Johnny Cash, looking down from heaven with a pained expression.

Marketing is inevitably ridiculous. And Timberlake does have some right to the Southern rural iconography: He was born in Memphis and sang gospel and country as a child before his big break with Disney's Mickey Mouse Club. Still, the Man of the Woods trailer is jarring—not because Timberlake can't be country, but because his current project inadvertently makes it so clear what being "country" means. Timberlake in the past has emphasized his hip urbanness by borrowing from black performers like Michael Jackson and ... well, Michael Jackson. Now, though, he's a rural white dude in a country music video. He's free, he's pure, he's American. "It feels so earthy," as producer Pharrell Williams says.

Pharrell is black—and in the video you see him only in the recording studio, not racing around the cornfields. In the American imagination, musical and otherwise, black people are associated with cities and modernity. Hence the "modern" in the title of Ray Charles' 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music—and also why, despite blockbuster sales and a longtime commitment to the genre, Charles doesn't often show up in lists of America's greatest country artists. He doesn't quite fit the country niche because he's black. It's only white people who bathe in clean creeks and stare out over dramatic canyons. It's white people who own the open spaces and the open roads, and it's white people who constitute the "real America" of Donald Trump voters, economic anxiety, and family values. It's white people who make country music.

Or so the propaganda goes. The truth is that black people live in rural areas and are inextricable from the history of country music. The banjo, that quintessential country and bluegrass instrument, originated in Africa. Moreover, as Patrick Huber documents in an excellent essay in the 2013 collection Hidden in the Mix: The African-American Presence in Country Music, early hillbilly music sessions were often integrated. Record companies deliberately split their catalogs into hillbilly and race records in deference to segregation. But whatever the labels said, black rural music and white rural music in the 1920s and '30s simply weren't that different. Jimmie Rodgers, often named as the father of country music, performed blues songs with Louis Armstrong and St. Louis bluesman Clifford Gibson; Rodgers' distinctive yodel influenced Howlin' Wolf's famous moan. Mississippi John Hurt played in a country style that led some collectors to think he was white for decades. The white Allen Brothers had a blues recording accidentally released in a race records series. Western Swing performers like Bob Wills covered material by Duke Ellington and Bessie Smith and called it country, while Otis Redding covered Western Swing and called it soul.

Musicians always listened to and performed all kinds of music. But segregation in marketing had an effect on how performers were perceived. Black musicians did occasionally play with rural authenticity, as in Clarence Carter's literal rags-to-riches 1970 ballad "Patches," or in the magnificent 1967 Stax duet "Tramp," in which Carla Thomas sneers: "You're country! You're straight from the Georgia woods!" To which Otis Redding responds: "That's good!" More often, though, rural realness was a stance reserved for white singers—often in ways that conflated whiteness and poverty, or whiteness and authenticity. Merle Haggard's "I'm a White Boy" lays out the racist logic with straightforward dyspepsia. "I wasn't born and raised in no ghetto," Haggard declares, and continues: "I don't want no handout livin' / And don't want any part of anything they're givin' / I'm proud and white and I've got a song to sing." Reporters seeking the heartland incessantly interview white Trump voters for the same reason that Haggard presents rural self-sufficiency as part of white identity: Certain people are seen as more in sync with American values than others.

The conviction that country isn't for black people explains the ugly response by some performers and fans when Beyoncé played the Country Music Awards in 2016. "Apparently, the CMA thinks Beyonce is as relevant to country music as Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, or Patsy Cline," singer Travis Tritt groused. "As a country artist I'm insulted that the CMA thinks we have to have a pop artist on our award show to appeal to big crowds." Tritt insisted that his comments had nothing to do with race. But he and others didn't launch into Twitter rants when Timberlake joined Chris Stapleton onstage at the CMA awards in 2015. Something about Beyoncé made Tritt particularly uncomfortable and particularly angry.

The country music establishment does open its doors to some black performers: Eric Church was joined by a number of black musicians, including the wonderful Rhiannon Giddens, at the 2016 CMAs, and, of course, Charlie Pride was a staple of the Grand Ole Opry and the country charts back in the 1970s. But it's generally only white people—Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Timberlake—who get to move back and forth between country and pop without too much pushback. Bob Dylan, a Jewish kid from Minnesota, adopted the mantle of rural Okie Woody Guthrie and was praised for his realness; the Band sang about the tragedy of the Southern lost cause, and no one cared that they were Canadian. As Geoff Mann argued in a 2008 essay, country serves to "recruit white people to their 'whiteness.'" Any white person can perform authentic country ruralness. By the same token, country means that any white person is authentic and American.

Timberlake's first single from the new album, "Filthy," isn't rural. Instead, the video casts Timberlake as a tech guru demonstrating his latest wares at a near-future conference in Malaysia. The be-sweatered singer performs a different kind of whiteness as nerdy genius, jogging across the stage and sweeping out his hand as his miracle robot dramatically descends a flight of stairs. "Haters gonna say it's fake/So real," he declares over a stock electro-funk beat. Pop stars always play with different identities, and there's nothing particularly unusual about Timberlake switching from man of the woods to man of tech while insisting he's just being real. But Timberlake's flirtation with woodsy iconography is an uncomfortable reminder that certain kinds of authenticity are reserved for white people.