Justin Timberlake: Put up-Britney scandal, are pop followers able to forgive him?


Within the 12 months 2024, the title Justin Timberlake comes with a number of baggage.

His Tremendous Bowl halftime present efficiency six years in the past — which coincided with the discharge of his final album, Man of the Woods — kicked off a severe spherical of discourse about his 2004 halftime present efficiency and the wardrobe malfunction that tanked Janet Jackson’s profession whereas leaving Timberlake unscathed.

Then there was the best way he dealt with his extremely publicized 2002 breakup with Britney Spears, feeding into the sexist commentary surrounding her — the main points of which resurfaced within the 2021 documentary Framing Britney Spears. In Spears’s 2023 memoir, The Lady In Me, she revealed extra embarrassing revelations about Timberlake, additional igniting fiery discussions about his privilege as a white man in an business that unfairly punishes his Black and feminine counterparts. There have been cries of appropriation and of infidelity.

Now, after years away from the highlight (and one Instagram apology), Timberlake is releasing a brand new album titled Every thing I Thought It Was. To date, its lead single (“Egocentric”) and promotional observe (“Drown”) level to a extra mellow, R&B-lite route for the singer — aside from the gospel-flavored music “Sanctified,” which previewed on Saturday Night time Stay. And the album’s paintings, influenced by 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Manufacturing facility and Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 ½, hints at an emphasis on visuals.

It appears as if Timberlake is able to reclaim his title because the millennial king of pop. However in a tradition that’s now in search of to reckon with the sins of the ’90s and early aughts, can he rise above being considered as a cultural misstep? Or is a decline in relevance the one pure trajectory for an objectionable, 43-year-old white dude in our present pop panorama the place “delicate” male artists like Dangerous Bunny and Harry Kinds reign supreme?

Justin Timberlake’s “unhealthy boy” picture at all times had an expiration date

Justin Timberlake’s present picture — dancing on stage in khakis and selling songs for the Trolls soundtrack — is a far cry from the model the singer put forth after breaking out of NSYNC.

By the point of his 2002 solo debut, Justified, Timberlake had begun to shed his boy-band identification and embrace an edgier posture in his music and romantic life. Like many white pop stars within the early aughts, he additionally experimented with road style, cornrows, and different Black aesthetics. In The Lady in Me, Spears alleged a cringey interplay between Timberlake and R&B singer Ginuwine that signaled a need for Blackness. Finally, his iteration of a “unhealthy boy” learn as manufactured and comparatively protected. As Pitchfork contributor Julianne Escobedo Shepherd explains, “His masculinity was couched in a nonthreatening, boy-next-door persona that relied immensely on his whiteness, at the same time as he was drawing on Black music and collaborating with Black musicians.”

Timberlake’s affinity for Black music and soulful vocal styling is usually attributed to his Southern Baptist roots — he carried out in his church choir — or his upbringing in Memphis, Tennessee, a breeding floor for soul and rock ’n’ roll. As a member of NSYNC, he dabbled in a commercialized type of pseudo-R&B. However his work on Justified was the beginning of his gaining acceptance in Black areas and establishing decades-long relationships with producers like Timbaland and Pharrell Williams. In contrast to the marginalized artists he was usually attempting to emulate, his whiteness afforded him an look of innocence and goodwill within the public eye that would simply be weaponized.

“He was very efficient at utilizing his boy-band previous and white, blond, blue-eyed appears to shore up the final sufferer narrative that was central to his early profession,” Escobedo Shepherd says. It was the tactic he used within the 2002 video for his hit single “Cry Me a River,” during which he not-so-subtly indicts Spears as a cheater whereas inserting himself within the position of a man who has revenge intercourse in his ex’s residence and continues to stalk her afterward.

Justin Timberlake in a white sweater and Britney Spears in a black dress smile while leaning into each other.

Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears on the MTV Film Awards on June 3, 2000.

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

“Justin Timberlake was the person within the early 2000s,” says Kelli Williams, co-host of the podcast Past the Blinds. “He broke up with Britney. He’s courting Alyssa Milano. He’s [rumored to be] courting Scarlett Johansson. But it surely’s like what Jennifer Aniston stated about Brad Pitt: There’s a sensitivity chip lacking.”

That lack of sensitivity would solely actually be interrogated years later. Many important analyses on the time had been targeted on Timberlake’s distinctive stardom in an period in any other case flooded with rappers and getting older male rockstars. Some music writers had been excited to call him the inheritor to Michael Jackson and Prince for his spectacular vocal vary, slick dance strikes, and proficiency performing Black music, whereas others had been nonetheless determining whether or not he was a hack.

Following the Grammy-winning Justified and a detour into appearing, he amped up his persona as a intercourse image with the extra experimental 2006 album FutureSex/LoveSounds. The document noticed Timberlake play with construction — incorporating reprises and interludes — in addition to totally different genres, together with funk and techno, and a few annoying beatboxing. Critics had been impressed, or a minimum of awed, by his boldness and what they noticed as his ingenuity as an artist.

“It’s like what Jennifer Aniston stated about Brad Pitt: There’s a sensitivity chip lacking”

Timberlake would retreat to Hollywood once more after his sophomore album. Within the early 2010s, he booked roles in a sequence of buzzy films. In The Social Community, he gave a deliciously dirtbaggy portrayal of Napster founder Sean Parker; in Buddies With Advantages and In Time, he was positioned because the horny main man. He additionally appeared on Saturday Night time Stay quite a few instances, showcasing himself as a charismatic, well-rounded expertise. When he returned to music in 2013 with the primary half of the double album The 20/20 Expertise, he appeared to have attained some self-awareness in regards to the unsavory fame he had gained as a youthful man. “I don’t need folks to assume I’m a self-obsessed intercourse machine,” he advised British GQ in 2012.

His third document noticed a softer, extra romantic aspect of Timberlake, with sultry serenades that mirrored his private life, together with his marriage to actress Jessica Biel. His newfound maturity was finest represented within the album’s blockbuster single “Mirrors,” which — regardless of its arguably narcissistic lyrics — signified his dedication to monogamy.

Sadly for Timberlake, he would expertise a big fall from grace within the following years, each as an artist and as a spouse man.

Within the 2010s, Timberlake’s difficult relationship with Black tradition lastly caught as much as him

Timberlake’s relationship to Black music has lengthy been polarizing, an object of criticism for some and an indication of credibility to others. All through his profession, Black organizations just like the BET Networks and the NAACP have nominated him for awards and welcomed him at ceremonies. He’s gotten props from legendary Black artists, together with Stevie Surprise, who praised him for having “absorbed a number of totally different sorts of music” in a Time 100 tribute. Regardless of being embraced by the rap and R&B worlds, although, he’s discovered himself on the middle of heated discussions about cultural appropriation.

The unusual panorama of pop music within the 2010s generated many of those on-line conversations. On the time, white rappers like Macklemore and Iggy Azalea had been dominating the charts, and singers like Katy Perry and Madonna had been donning hood aesthetics, which some labeled as appropriation. Throughout and following his 20/20 Expertise period, Timberlake was receiving that criticism, too — and a few critics, together with rapper Vic Mensa, known as out his silence across the Black Lives Matter motion. In 2016, Timberlake drew extra warmth after he responded condescendingly on Twitter to a Black journalist who accused him of “appropriating [Black] tradition.”

Only a 12 months and a half later, Timberlake prompted a stir with the announcement of his country-inspired fifth album, Man of the Woods. At first look, it appeared that Timberlake was abandoning his signature city sound to attraction to a broader (and whiter) fanbase. Finally, as Northwestern College professor and creator Lauren Michele Jackson wrote for Vulture in 2018, the frenzy over his perceived style change wasn’t actually warranted. In an interview with Vox, Jackson says the eclectic album was “very in keeping with Timberlake’s amalgamative tendencies.”

She says that his aesthetic pivot felt pointed within the eyes of critics as a consequence of our tense political local weather: “The cost [against Timberlake] was inauthenticity. Humorous sufficient, that’s the similar cost belatedly introduced in opposition to his performing within the style that yielded his fame within the first place.”

The intercourse attraction that felt so essential to Timberlake’s picture appeared to have fully dissipated

Nonetheless, the important reception to Man of the Woods was combined at finest, and the album lacked the inescapable bangers he had produced prior to now. Timberlake’s title as pop’s reigning king instantly felt doubtful. At one time, his pushing of racial boundaries in his music had made him a virtuoso. However in hindsight, it made him seem to be a fraud. The 12 months after he launched Man of the Woods, Timberlake’s marriage additionally noticed bother after he was caught holding arms along with his co-star within the movie Palmer, Alisha Wainwright, main him to launch an apology. In the meantime, the reappraisals of his relationships to each Jackson and Spears added further precarity to his crumbling fame. May he ever return to music in a suitable type?

Is Justin Timberlake irrelevant in 2024, or does his stardom simply look totally different?

Timberlake gestures to the audience while the other members of the band stand by.

Joey Fatone, Lance Bass, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, and Chris Kirkpatrick of NSYNC onstage on the MTV Video Music Awards on September 12, 2023.

Mike Coppola/Getty Photos for MTV

In June 2022, a viral video of Timberlake doing the Beat Ya Toes dance — some quick and fancy footwork created by Black Washington, DC, teenagers within the ’90s — at Pharrell Williams’s One thing within the Water Competition appeared to point that his subsequent music enterprise could be an uphill battle for a number of causes. Not solely had been the once-revered dancer’s strikes labeled awkward, however social media additionally received a kick out of his paternal look — his khakis and patterned button-up made him appear to be a middle-aged dad at a cookout.

The intercourse attraction that felt so essential to Timberlake’s picture within the early 2000s appeared to have fully dissipated in his post-Trolls period. The response was much less about his precise appears and extra about how expectations for the best way male pop musicians current themselves have modified. In a New York Instances piece, author Lindsay Zoladz pointed to a development of youthful male pop stars like Dangerous Bunny, Harry Kinds, Lil Nas X, and even rapper Jack Harlow embracing a gender-bending, “softboi” model of masculinity — one thing Timberlake hasn’t tried. On the crimson carpet, he sticks to his refined, GQ-in-2012 fashion; onstage, properly, you noticed these khakis.

Most vital, although, is Timberlake’s new music. “Egocentric,” the lead single from Every thing I Thought It Was, had a lukewarm reception, debuting at No. 19 on the Billboard Sizzling 100. The music itself was in the end overshadowed by Britney Spears’s fan military, which trolled Timberlake by streaming her 2011 music of the identical title — at one level, Spears’s “Egocentric” beat Timberlake’s on the iTunes charts. Fab drama apart, the midtempo, R&B-tinged single, which drew comparisons to Nick Jonas’s “Jealous,” sounded shockingly generic.

The lyrical content material of “Egocentric” felt bland and distanced as properly, given the turmoil that has outlined his profession and private life just lately. Host of the Pop Pantheon podcast DJ Louie XIV says that the singer struggles to stability his showmanship with youthful listeners’ need for intimacy. He factors to Timberlake’s up to date Beyoncé as somebody who’s married their theatricality with a “sense of deep, private revelation that speaks to the calls for of the second.”

“Every thing is way more pushed by intimacy and relatability, a sense that your stars of alternative and that they’re accessible to you and share your issues,” he says.

It’s most likely not a coincidence then that one of many largest male artists for the time being, Drake, constructed off a chart-topping profession by lamenting his love life and anxieties — irrespective of how infantile — as a public determine. Pop superstars Kinds and Ed Sheeran have additionally discovered success utilizing diaristic lyrics. And the newest male sensation within the pop sphere, indie-folk singer Noah Kahan, has seemingly captivated Gen Z, partially, by singing about and advocating psychological well being.

Nonetheless, the announcement of Timberlake’s Overlook Tomorrow World Tour has been met with excessive demand, promoting out in a number of venues and requiring further dates. A search of the artist’s title on TikTok nonetheless reveals accounts which can be thirsting over the musician and followers who’re responding eagerly to his newest Saturday Night time Stay efficiency and reunion with NSYNC. Timberlake can nonetheless depend on the collaboration along with his former boy band for engagement.

“Nostalgia is the most effective drug on the market proper now,” says Williams. “I feel the one method for Justin to actually get into the general public’s good graces is to work with NSYNC. I don’t assume NSYNC is beneath him, but it surely makes him look humble that, in spite of everything these years, he can return to his roots.”

Whether or not or not Timberlake can compete on the charts with the Harry Styleses of the world is probably not a priority for his die-hard followers. For listeners who grew up alongside him, there’s a degree of amusement in watching somebody mature and navigate a brand new stage of their life, even when it’s slightly awkward. Whereas Timberlake’s “dad” period could also be cringe to some, it’s supplied him an air of innocence that he’s struggled to keep up publicly — and in the end could by no means totally get again.

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