On Thursday, one day before Justin Timberlake was set to release his new, not-country album Man Of The Woods, Pitchfork ran a news story revealing that Toby Keith was credited as a songwriter on the album. The article admits that the information has already been revealed in a number of reviews, ranging from The Guardian to The Cleveland Plain Dealer, and that they didn’t know in what manner Keith was involved, aside from one of many writers on the song “Sauce.” But, through several paragraphs detailing Keith’s history of Republican and Trump dealings, the point of the article was very clear: Justin Timberlake worked with someone affiliated with Donald Trump, and this is a bad thing.
Obviously, there are many reasons Toby Keith could be a credited songwriter. Maybe he and Timberlake are buds who go shooting together in their Make America Great hats, or maybe Timberlake just accidentally lifted a melody and was legally forced to credit him. Maybe the song was the product of years of songwriting from various musicians and eventually handed to him by his label to finish off, or maybe Timberlake’s whole woke music video for “Supplies” is hypocrisy at its worst. When this news story was published, the answer to this wasn’t readily available, but it still led to a framing like this:
This is only one of many examples across the media landscape of a determination to take down Justin Timberlake. Maybe that’s a little too dramatic, but it’s hard to ignore that the writing has been on the wall for this album cycle that his schtick is not welcome in 2018. And, to be fair, in the eyes of many critics and journalists, it might be deserved. Though Timberlake was in good graces for most of his solo career, things changed sharply with the second 20/20 Experience release, and even further with his catchy-as-hell, cornball Trolls song. This isn’t a Pitchfork conspiracy or even a media conspiracy, but simply a reflection of a current cultural moment, where backlashes are predictable, safe spaces to unleash aggression borne out of a nightmarish political climate. In Stereogum’s coverage of the same story, the writer responsible for the post summed up the mindset that comes with possibly unfair mudslinging.
Those Stereogum comments, generally one of the most spirited and insightful comment sections on the internet, bring up a wealth of points, with many feeling like this Trump connection is a bit of a reach. Dig deep enough into any album and you’ll find someone had a hand in it that has opposing political views as you. It’s probably a stretch to say that supporting Timberlake is in some way supporting Trump, and even more so to believe that anyone can hit a thousand on their wokeness batting average. If you want to tear someone down, you can. It’s not hard. And if they are millionaires who appropriate black culture (while working with renowned black artists) and have starred in Woody Allen films (along with hundreds of other well-known and not widely criticized actors), all the better.
Sure, Timberlake hasn’t done much to help himself. His flannel-on-flannel getup, his backwoods tracklist, and his Bon Iver-meditation retreat press photos didn’t help the matter. Plus, there’s the fact that he’s playing the Super Bowl on Sunday, which immediately highlights maybe the biggest controversy in his past, when he exposed Janet Jackson’s breast in 2004 and didn’t receive his fair share of the blame. But none of that quite adds up to the ire he’s received, where even a stunning video for “Say Something” doesn’t manage to get any credit. For the last several months, Justin Timberlake has felt like the enemy, the latest in a line of pop artists to focus a collective American angst.