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Justin Timberlake Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

On his new album, the hermetic ‘Man of the Woods,’ the superstar entertainer just wants to get away from it all. Unfortunately, pop music and what we ask of its stars, has changed radically. And JT can’t keep up.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On the second song of his new album, Man of the Woods, Justin Timberlake extends an invitation to a party. “It starts at midnight, midnight,” he sings in a feather-light falsetto that floats over a beat by the Neptunes, the producers behind much of Timberlake’s era-defining 2002 solo debut, Justified. The song, “Midnight Summer Jam,” is vintage Timberlake, but with a few new additions in the mix: A fiddle flitters around the chorus melody, a harmonica emerges for an extended solo, and even the recurring guitar riff has an earthy, tactile quality about it—the production evokes the sound of someone playing a washboard near a river. “Y’all can’t do better than this,” Timberlake taunts at the beginning of the song. “Act like the South ain’t the shit, act like the South ain’t the shit.”

Timberlake has always had a way with that kind of bombastic, good-natured jab, the kind you might fling at a sweaty rival trying to upstage you on a wedding-reception dance floor. The stakes of the antagonism were gentle, low. “Them other boys don’t know how to act,” he sneered, when compelled more than a decade ago to bring sexy back; don’t get him started on those people who dared wonder what was the deal with this pop life. The defiance of Man of the Woods, though, is a little more barbed. Across 16 songs, it is a twangy, wistful pop-fantasy, a retreat from the spotlight and return to the comfort and anonymity of the natural world. “Let’s go to an island,” Timberlake sings on the sixth track, “Ain’t got no phone, don’t need it, though / ’Cause it ain’t got no waves.” At its core, Man of the Woods is a contradiction: It is an album striving toward a simpler, more grounded place. And yet it is also, after a five-year absence, a comeback album meant to reassert 37-year-old Timberlake’s status as a star within a pop landscape that’s changed quite a bit since he’s been away. “Stress is cruel, fame’s a lie,” he sings on the album that is being strategically released two days before he headlines the Super Bowl halftime show.

Man of the Woods’ title is a tribute to Timberlake’s 2-year-old son, Silas, whose name means “of the forest.” The record is upfront about its familial bona fides: Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel, wafts through Man of the Woods like a juniper-scented body spray, beckoning him on the journey to return to his roots with a series of spoken-word interludes: “Do you see me? Can you find me? Look closer, through the trees.” (Biel is also credited with backing vocals on several songs including the lead-off single “Filthy,” though if you can pick her voice out in the mix, I will build you a log cabin with my bare hands.) In his way, Timberlake is aspiring to make his own Ram, that prickly, back-to-nature masterpiece Paul McCartney made with then-wife Linda the year after he left the Beatles. But also: Ram has tunes. Just the right amount of them, too: Timberlake loads the 16-track Man of the Woods up with too much filler and—unlike the appropriately grandiose FutureSex/LoveSounds—it overstays its welcome by at least five songs.

Still, Man of the Woods has its moments of sweetness, most of which come during songs that remind you that Timberlake was in Inside Llewyn Davis. “Morning Light” is an effervescent duet with Alicia Keys; the hoedown-goes-electric “Sauce” gifts the world with this wisdom: “Juice is temporary … sauce, sauce is forever.” If you somehow missed the memo on The 20/20 Experience that Justin Timberlake is very in love with his wife (and that she is incredibly attractive), Woods provides plenty of opportunities to get you up to speed. “I brag about you to anyone outside,” Timberlake croons on the title track, “But I’m a man of the woods, it’s my pride.”

“Here we come!!” Timberlake captioned a blithely grinning Instagram selfie with Biel right before this year’s Golden Globes, a Time’s Up pin affixed to his black tuxedo. “And DAMN, my wife is hot! #TIMESUP #whywewearblack.”

Here we come!! And DAMN, my wife is hot! #TIMESUP #whywewearblack

A post shared by Justin Timberlake (@justintimberlake) on

Though Timberlake hasn’t exactly disappeared from public view in the years since The 20/20 Experience—he’s been a semi-constant fixture in movies, on soundtracks, and any time his buddy Jimmy Fallon needs a particularly charismatic costar for a bit—he’s returning to the music world in a particularly fraught moment, when many listeners are demanding more of their heroes than they have in the recent past. Last month, in a smart essay for New York magazine, the critic Molly Fischer dubbed this phenomenon “Pop Culture’s Great Awokening,” our mass cultural tendency to see identity politics everywhere and “take pop culture very seriously.” Timberlake’s music—fueled by airy dance-floor escapism—does not hold up well under this type of scrutiny, because it doesn’t set out to make any statements grander than Let’s Forget Our Troubles and Have a Great Time. The closest Timberlake has come to a political statement is a song that contains the lyric, “Hi, my name is Bob, and I work at my job.”

And so I probably don’t even need to tell you that the #TimesUp tweet about his hot wife didn’t go over particularly well. Appearing on The View earlier this week, celebrity activist Rose McGowan brought it up when criticizing what she has called the “Hollywood fakery” of celebrities’ sudden concern about sexual assault. “Then there’s Justin Timberlake hashtagging ‘my wife looks hot tonight, hashtag Time’s Up, hashtag I just did a movie with Woody Allen,’” she said in reference to Timberlake’s starring role in Allen’s Wonder Wheel. “So, come on, it is fake.” The night of the Golden Globes, Timberlake’s post was also widely mocked on Twitter: One user quoted it with the caption, “you’re literally in the new woody allen movie,” and that tweet was favorited almost 100,000 times. More recently, on January 23, Timberlake took to Twitter to ask, “Random question: Can someone please explain the saying, ‘You just want your cake and to eat it too.’ What else am I about to do with a cake??” Dylan Farrow, who alleges she was molested by her adoptive father Woody Allen when she was a child, replied to Timberlake’s tweet, “The saying means, for example, you can’t support #TIMESUP and praise sexual predators at the same time. You can’t retain your credibility as an activist (i.e. – retain the cake) and, at the same time, praise a sexual predator (i.e. – eating the cake).”

Timberlake did not respond to Farrow, but he did muse, to no one in particular, “Also… I prefer pie, I think.”

Justin Timberlake is ill-suited to this cultural moment—which has been a remarkable thing to behold since this is perhaps the first time that can be said of him throughout his two decades of fame. “Timberlake is an appealing crossover artist because he has always sold well in any context,” the critic Hanif Abdurraqib wrote in a recent essay about him. “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.” And yet what’s been so fascinating about the Man of the Woods rollout is that he has not found a way to convincingly sell himself within the Great Awokening of 2018, try as he might as soon as he has an album to promote.

Take “Supplies,” the biggest misstep in the lead-up to Man of the Woods’ release—partially because, as one of the album’s weakest songs, it never should have been released as a single in the first place. The dark, confusingly plotted, expensive-looking music video finds Timberlake sitting in front of a Nam June Paik–esque wall of TVs, flashing images of the day’s news: Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, an “I CAN’T BREATHE” sign, and a “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” T-shirt all appear, though the video never uses these images as anything more than empty signifiers, vague gestures in the direction of, “Shit’s crazy right now, yeah?” There’s an awkward sense of obligation to the clip, an anxious knowledge that being a pop star in 2018 means Making a Statement—putting someone with, say, a “PUSSY GRABS BACK” T-shirt in your music video. But without the proper context, and without a history of caring about these things, the “Supplies” video felt embarrassingly hollow, unintentional proof of another lyric from Man of the Woods: “Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.”

Timberlake and his pal Fallon have always been kindred spirits, and they are perhaps most so in these times, when they both seem caught at a crossroads in a changing world. They’re old-school entertainers first and foremost, though they suddenly find themselves under a white-hot spotlight as that job description is changing. The world needs a political statement from Justin Timberlake about as much as it needs a tearful political monologue from Jimmy Fallon—which is to say that we don’t need those things at all. Timberlake is so much better reveling in his expertly whipped frothiness than he is attempting to be deep, and the most unfortunate moments of Man of the Woods—and his entire career—are when he forgets that.

Timberlake has always been the Teflon pop star. Controversy and misfortune slid right off him and glommed onto others in his orbit, like his troubled ex Britney Spears and of course his former Super Bowl partner Janet Jackson. But now, all at once, these controversies are coming up again for reexamination. As Timberlake prepares to headline the Super Bowl halftime show, many people find themselves reflecting on the aftermath of his first appearance there—the event that has unfortunately come to be known as “Nipplegate.” (A plethora of publications, including The Hollywood Reporter, New York, and USA Today, ran feature stories this week revisiting the incident through a 2018 lens.) Pre-Awokening, most people considered Janet Jackson and her dastardly boob the villains of that story; now, plenty of people see it as a different kind of parable, one in which the career of a young, white male pop star continues to thrive while that of an aging, black female pop star’s suffers losses from which it has never recovered.

You don’t even have to go back very far to see Timberlake’s superpower for making controversy disappear. In 2013, Timberlake released a fleet-footed, flirtatious single called “Take Back the Night”—which also happens to be the name of a well-known foundation that seeks to end sexual assault and domestic violence. When the organization threatened Timberlake with legal action, he called the title similarities a “coincidence,” claimed that he had been unaware of its existence, and hoped that his song “will bring more awareness to this cause.” Months later, I reported a long feature about Timberlake’s co-optation of the phrase, and someone from the organization (which ultimately decided not to file a costly trademark infringement suit) told me they were disappointed with Timberlake’s response, or lack thereof. “He had his lawyer call us and tell us that it was a mistake, and that was it. But the fact that he did nothing beyond that was disappointing, to say the least.” This snafu generated some waves at the time, but they quickly faded. Had this happened today, less than five years later, I have a hard time believing it would have played out in the same way.

In June 2016, Timberlake tweeted a video of Jesse Williams’s stirring speech at the BET Awards, saying he found it “#inspired.” One Twitter user replied, “So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too.” Timberlake responded to the user, who was a man of color, “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.” Timberlake’s comment certainly wasn’t malicious, but it was patronizing (“Oh, you sweet soul”), and ignorant of the basic facts of how racism works in America. It was Timberlake who did not seem equipped to “have a conversation” about it, or so many of the long-unspoken things that many of us are now, finally, saying to each other out loud.

“Maybe I’m looking for something I can’t have,” Timberlake sings on Man of the Woods’ third single, “Say Something,” a soulful duet with the country star Chris Stapleton. This theme of searching—for one’s self, one’s roots, and one’s true purpose—is present throughout the record. Nostalgia, though, is a form of homesickness, and on Man of the Woods the once-future-minded Timberlake seems to be yearning not only for his home but the good old days, when a man could wrap a woman in his flannel jacket and claim her as “his,” a pop star’s album could do blockbuster, industry-saving numbers without really trying, and we didn’t have to reckon with all these annoying and complicated conversations. When we didn’t have to talk at all and could just keep dancing from midnight until the sun comes up, if we were the kind of people who had nothing to fear in the dark.