When the now infamous Janet Jackson ‘incident’ happened at the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake’s reaction was illuminating. As Janet overnight became a whipping post for the moral majority (and her career has never recovered), Timberlake hastily distanced himself from her, declaring himself “shocked and appalled”, invoking the outrage of his “own family” and going as far as he could in saying “SHE DID IT” without actually saying the words. He would have to have been spectacularly dense to be unaware of the gender and racial politics at play in the responses and the fact that his statements played up to the idea of Janet as “a contemporary Jezebel” still seems unforgivable; even more so because from the safety of three years’ later he felt able to observe that “I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” Gee, thanks Justin – Janet must have appreciated that.
For me, the incident neatly summed up Justin’s musical career: he’s become rather ridiculously successful and admired by appropriating black music, stripping it of everything vaguely ‘risky’ and presenting it to audiences as ‘innovative’, all the while coasting on his image as a wholesome white boy (the kind who tickles America’s tummy regarding its demonisation of Hugo Chavez just days after his death). Justified is a hugely derivative album of warmed-up Prince and Michael Jackson retreads – heck, ‘Rock Your Body’ was even originally written for the King of Pop. The singles aside, it’s absolutely atrocious. Prince looms even larger over the follow-up FutureSex/LoveSounds yet all of his perversity, his religious ecstasy, his danger, is gone. Even the ostensibly raunchy SexyBack offers little more than a self-conscious swearword. Hilariously, this album offers a ‘socially conscious’ song where the former Mouseketeer sings about a man addicted to crack – it’s not only dreadful but inadvertently highlights how his songs are almost never actually about anything. Still, by singing about crack he’s at least being urban, or something.
Of course many pop stars appropriate black culture but it particularly grates with Timberlake for two reasons: firstly, his entire musical career is based on it yet, as with the Janet incident, he is very careful to remain removed from any aspects of it which may prove difficult and actively promotes himself as this banal, clown-like Hollywood filmstar who just happens to have loads of black friends who want to make music with him. It’s an odd but important dichotomy. Secondly, I can think of no other pop star for whom the gap between their reality and the hysterically overblown guff written about them is so large. This piece from this week is a perfect example. He DOES EVERYTHING! Clearly singing r&b, having black producers, singing about crack and appropriating big band imagery is enough for this white man to be the natural successor of the renowned victim of racism and support of civil rights, Sammy Davis Jr. The fact that anyone would even write that piece highlights the central problem of Timberlake’s career – there is no sense that he’s had to work for this status, no sense that he is questioned or challenged in any way.
The largely positive reaction to The 20/20 Experience further underlines this. It is a deeply odd album, not least in the fact that its songs typically run 6-8 minutes long. There are two observations arising from this: firstly, that Timberlake has clearly been paying attention to Channel Orange (and to its rapturous reception) and its stand-out track, the almost-10 minutes long Pyramids. Secondly, that Timberlake has stated the song lengths were influenced by bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen and Bob Dylan. The latter artist is actually frequently cited by him as an influence but I defy anyone to find any of those artists present in any way in his music. No, what Timberlake is concerned with here is the appearance of authenticity and of ambition. Serious artists make long songs! The unfortunate thing is that he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and this woefully exposes the agenda – the songs are long solely to draw attention to their own length and what that signifies. Every song is a highly conventional 4-5 minute pop track bloated by 2-3 minutes of self-conscious beats and ad-libbing. The single edits are clear and it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would mourn if the songs were shortened. Furthermore, the lyrics are almost entirely forgettable and terrible – these are more songs about nothing but what they can be said to reveal about the creativity of the man on the album cover. This makes the album seem deeply cynical. Indeed, it’s a surprise that any ‘Poptimist’ would claim Timberlake as ‘their Bowie’ when he is clearly deeply concerned with the notions of authenticity, talent and ambition which they so scorn. It’s no accident that the video for Suit & Tie begins with Timberlake playing the piano, just as it makes perfect sense that there is apparently a second instalment of The 20/20 Experience coming later in the year (nothing says ‘creative’ like a double album after all). This is what people who don’t actually listen to pop think of as ‘ambitious’ – it doesn’t matter that it has zero emotional resonance and is a chore to listen to as most of the critics praising it will never listen to it again for as long as they live.
The sense given by his musical return, then, is that he’s popped back to ‘remind’ everyone that he’s a renaissance man. It seems obvious that he will again disappear from music for a long period afterwards – at least then he’ll have the four albums to base his ludicrous status on. Instead he’ll return to being a Hollywood film star – a sphere where there is little cultural cachet in appropriating blackness (for a leading man, anyway). As this astute review notes, his career seems like a succession of role-playing. The Janet Jackson episode was the biggest and clearest example of his trying on a role and then fleeing it for safe privilege when it didn’t work. Such insincere fluidity may make him a pop star for our times, certainly – but not a pop star worth celebrating.