Exploring JT’s search for authenticity in the woods.
It’s easy to make fun of Justin Timberlake‘s album trailer for his soon-to-be-released Man of the Woods. The album title itself is so generic and yet evocative of Timberlake’s shifting position in the world of pop music. This move from his usual brand of sleek R&B is hardly surprising. It’s become an inevitable pitstop for popular white musicians to step away from their base in R&B and produce a “back-to-the-basics” country album. These “basics” are oftentimes aligned with a pared-down musical style (less synth, more banjo) and a return to childhood roots. Pop musicians that repudiate hip-hop and rap in favor of country music have drawn a lot of criticism in recent years. For instance, Miley Cyrus was chastised last year when she distanced herself from hip-hop, a genre that she has reaped the benefits of. White musicians are celebrated when they make hip-hop and celebrated when they criticize it. For many white pop stars, hip-hop is phase — like emo or horses — that they can outgrow and than laugh at years later.
But Timberlake hasn’t yet shown the same tone-deaf ingratitude. And judging by his first single, he also doesn’t seem to be making the album he thinks he’s making. Both the track, “Filthy,” and its accompanying music video feel less like a return to his roots and more like an outtake from “FutureSex/LoveSounds.” Perhaps he’s well aware of the industry algorithms: sex sells, campfire jams don’t. Thus he feels the pressure to lead with a familiar (but ultimately boring) single. His voice is distorted and the electro-funk beat manages to feel more robotic than the dancing robot in the video. “Haters gonna say it’s fake/So real,” Timberlake asserts as if preemptively defending himself from the very criticisms that the single has drawn.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with a white artist “returning to their roots.” But assigning too much cultural capital on the “Wild West” is dangerous. In her voiceover, Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel, describes the album as “the Wild West, but now.” Can we expect a critique of the mythology of the Wild West, or a country album with synth beats?
After all, the Wild West is in need of some revising. It’s American myth that relied on the exploitation of indigenous peoples and perpetuated a machismo that is still rampant today. And the fantasy that the album video and its track list seem to be alluding to is ultimately one of privilege. Timberlake seems to long for the authenticity that comes with living off of the land, of chasing after wild horses and building a campfire with one’s own calloused hands. The track list includes song titles such as “Flannel,” “Supplies” and “Sauce,” all of which sound more like Ron Swanson’s shopping list than a country album. In fact, the track list and its album video feel like a parody of what many yuppies dream of doing: quitting their day job in the city and “livin’ off the land,” which also happens to be a song on the album. But what does it mean to long for the Wild West in today’s cultural and political climate? Who is that longing reserved for?
Judging from the album trailer and the single, it would seem that Timberlake is trying to do what Beyonce did, but with Bon Iver’s musical aesthetic: exploring his heritage while staying true to the sounds that made him famous. Sure, Lemonade ventured more into country than Beyonce’s previous albums with songs like “Daddy Lessons,” but the album doesn’t feel like a departure from her sound so much as a graduation to a more complex one. In fact, Beyonce played the CMAs a year after Timberlake and drew heavy amounts of criticism from country fans. Timberlake’s performance, of course, was not quite as divisive.
Lemonade was partly successful because it delves deep into Beyonce’s roots in Southern America and her experience as a black woman, and yet it explores the continuum of hip-hop, soul, R&B, blues, etc. She did not limit herself to one sound or one visual language. In the visual album Lemonade, she uses African iconography in her clothing and face paint in an almost archival way by repurposing them. By mixing both African and Southern American traditions, she dug deep into her roots, blurring the boundaries of upbringing and ancestry. She challenges us to look anew at black womanhood and its history.
Above all, Lemonade manages to be both deeply personal and political — a cathartic revelation and a battle cry. It’s significant that parts of Lemonade, particularly the last chapter “Redemption,” are set in rural, antebellum architecture. They look like shots pulled directly out of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. In the mainstream consciousness, black musicians are associated with the city, not with nature. Though much of blues and country finds its origins in black culture, when we think of black musicians today, we cannot divorce them from urban aesthetics and politics.
So seeing Beyonce walking through wheat fields in an African printed dress has a historical significance that dwarfs Timberlake walking through a field in a jean jacket. White artists can move in and out of genres and landscapes alike, without much pushback from fans or critics. But most black artists are encouraged to stay within their racially defined boundaries like hip-hop or rap. It is interesting that the only instance in which we see Pharrell Williams in the video is in a recording studio with Timberlake, not in the countryside with him. Black artists are not often permitted to go “into the wild” and relish in the authenticity of doing so.
Timberlake’s latest video for his single “Supplies” capitalizes on the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March. Unlike Beyonce’s music videos and visual album, Timberlake’s “Supplies” video appears to have little to do with the lyrics of the song. It feels more like an opportunity to present himself as “woke” to his young audience base. Just as the trailer for ‘Man of the Woods’ read more like a parody of urban Thoreaus, this music video is a smorgasbord of activist iconography. There’s a black woman wearing a “Pussy Grabs Back” t-shirt, a cluster of TVs showing images of Weinstein, Spacey, and protests. It’s the Pepsi commercial of music videos, in which Justin Timberlake is the can of Pepsi.
In his voiceover in the album trailer, Timberlake speaks over images of tobacco crops and creeks. He says that this album is inspired by his son, his wife, his family, and where he’s from. “And,” he says, “it’s personal.” This feels a little redundant given that he’s just said it is inspired by his personal life. But the need to clarify is an interesting one. Does he assume that the degree to which an album is personal is any indication of its quality? Or just of its marketability? Beyonce didn’t need to say “it’s personal,” because everyone who was listening knew.
Perhaps these meta-narratives that artists impose on their own work mean very little if the music itself doesn’t hold up.