Music

In Defense Of Justin Timberlake, ‘Man Of The Woods,’ And Corny Centrist Pop Music

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“Haters gon’ say it’s fake,” spat Justin Timberlake at the start of Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, turning the hook of his recent single, “Filthy,” into a subtweet.

Unlike Timberlake’s first Super Bowl gig 14 years ago, which infuriated millions of people after it aired, this year’s show managed to tick people off more than 24 hours before it aired. Somewhere in there is a metaphor for how lovably silly pop music has come to be as intensely overanalyzed as political discourse.

But there was not, as rumored, an unwanted Prince hologram — just a video tribute to the purple one and a snazzy synchronized light show that illuminated the frigid Minneapolis landscape. JT also didn’t break up Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis or shatter Morris Day’s mirror. All legacies were left intact.

Plus: There were a lot of very good Timberlake hits! How amazing it was after the punishing album campaign for Man Of The Woods to be reminded of how many jams this guy has: “Señorita,” “Cry Me A River,” “My Love,” “SexyBack,” “Mirrors.” Even the brief rendition of “Rock Your Body” — which revived memories of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and the gendered punishments that unfairly benefitted Timberlake at Jackson’s expense — couldn’t completely sully the veneer of adequate professionalism that JT carefully cultivated.

Really, what else can be said about Timberlake’s performance other than “it was totally fine?” And what more can you possibly ask for? How many of these things do people remember, anyway? Prince, Michael Jackson, U2 after 9/11 — set those aside, and the job doesn’t call for more than “it was totally fine” most years. Timberlake certainly didn’t pull off “totally fine” the first time around.

It’s a halftime show, for crying out loud, not art or national security. Give the guy a “W” and move on.

I’m sure if you check Twitter — actually, let’s not do that. The conversation about Timberlake and Man Of The Woods is already exhausting enough. And, to be fair, Timberlake deserves at least 80 percent of the blame for that. Because Justin Timberlake is a ginormous pop star, and the surest sign of a ginormous pop star right now is a curious inability to sell your music without stepping in it repeatedly.

Man Of The Woods is the latest in a line of wobbly superstar pop albums undone weeks ahead of their release by woefully ill-conceived marketing campaigns. Perhaps you remember Katy Perry discussing cultural appropriation with DeRay Mckesson. Or Arcade Fire implementing an obnoxious dress code for its concerts in order to confusingly satirize fake news. Or Taylor Swift killing off the “old” Taylor Swift without bothering to convincingly commit to a coherent “new” Taylor Swift.

Justin Timberlake meanwhile made music critics eat bugs. Of course they were going to hate his record.

The verdict on Man Of The Woods is that Timberlake is fatally out of step with the pop zeitgeist. “We are now approaching the 12th year of the national delusion that Justin Timberlake remains an essential pop star,” The New York Times sniffed in its Man Of The Woods review, a remarkable assessment of a man who just headlined the most-watched musical performance of the year. Isn’t playing halftime shows — and looking like you belong there — an essential part of the pop-star job description?

In this context “essential” isn’t meant to signify old-world pop concepts like “accessibility” or “entrenched fame,” but rather a certain level of engagement with the most vital political and cultural movements of the moment. What the Times is saying is that Timberlake “doesn’t matter” in the ways that pop stars are now supposed to matter. If you believe otherwise you’re playing yourself… I guess?

Listening to Man Of The Woods, you suspect that Timberlake might agree. He certainly had the means to make an of-the-moment pop record that exploited every contemporary pop trend. He could have loaded up on Ed Sheeran and Chainsmokers cameos, or hired Metro Boomin to give him street cred. Instead, he reunited with his old collaborators, The Neptunes and Timbaland, and wrote songs about married-people sex and the deep, undying respect he has for his step-father. These are not the acts of a person who is chasing the youth vote. Maybe Timberlake is self-aware enough to realize that a 37-year-old show-biz lifer who auditioned for the Mickey Mouse Club around the time that Cardi B was born can’t matter like that anymore. Timberlake is a dad himself now, and Man Of The Woods is an unabashed dad-pop record.

And it’s totally fine!

Man Of The Woods is far from perfect — the lyrics are dumb, the ballads are corny, it’s about 20 minutes too long, and I don’t know that a top ten list of Timberlake songs would include anything from this record. (Though I could be talked into “Higher Higher,” yet another extremely pleasant nugget from Pharrell Williams’ seemingly bottomless pop-soul ear-candy jar.) But at least Man Of The Woods is better company than the bloated, self-important 20/20 Experience albums, which were predicated on establishing Timberlake once and for all as some kind of generation-defining musical genius, like Songs In The Key Of Life with the indulgent metabolism of Use Your Illusion-era Axl Rose.

Man Of The Woods, however, is as intimate and modest an album as Timberlake is probably allowed to make. The breezy, escapist pop songs are front-loaded and, the intensely awful (and frustratingly catchy) “Supplies” aside, it all goes down more or less pretty easily. The second half is less fleet, though it’s also where the heart of the album lies.

Timberlake’s stated, and widely mocked, ambition to make “Americana with 808s” is manifested strongest early in the record with “Sauce,” which sounds like Jerry Reed sitting in with N.E.R.D., and most of the mid-tempo, family-minded songs packaged toward the end of the album. While “Americana with 808s” could also describe the hip-hop-inflected country of artists like Sam Hunt and Old Dominion, Timberlake surprisingly dwells on the saccharine story songs that have long defined pop-country radio. The everyman narrative of “Livin’ Off The Land” ponders the anxiety of credit card bills and frayed marriages from the vantage point of a church pew. “The Hard Stuff” preaches about how adversity can make a family stronger, in the manner of a Sunday morning homily. The album-closing “Young Man” is a fatherly lecture that directly invokes God’s grace.

The track on Man Of The Woods that moves me the most, almost against my better judgment, is “Flannel,” a syrupy ballad in which Timberlake appears to sing from the perspective of his own step-father, who became an authority figure to Timberlake not long after his parents divorced when he was in kindergarten. (Timberlake has spoken about how becoming father caused him to reassess the trauma to his childhood that the divorce caused.)

“Flannel” is structured like a prayer, in which the narrator pledges his steadfast commitment in plainspoken terms. “Now I know I could never sit in his chair / And that missin’ love left you bare, yeah / But if I’m bein’ selfish, that gave me a reason to be there / With my flannel on.” It’s pretty shameless, and definitely a little mawkish, and yet “Flannel” is precisely the sort of tearjerker that people who expect nothing more from a pop song than an emotional or physical response (as opposed to a cogent ideology) wind up turning to on Youtube in times of distress.

This is an uncertain moment for establishment pop, in which the media’s inexhaustible desire for novelty is now hyper-accelerated and weaponized against familiar stars. But it’s worth asking whether the same people who complained for years about the pernicious influence of “indie snobs” on conversations about music are now a little too snobby about pop music. Is pop really too good now for the simple, the saccharine, the suburban?

Pop, like beer, used to be proudly proletarian, unpretentious, and tasteless. It was made to be enjoyed intuitively, without an intellectual element. This impulsivity is the very thing that made it great! But now pop — again like beer — is a craft-product treated with outsized seriousness and importance. It must say something. It must be progressive, musically but above all politically. It must be relevant to the present moment in the ways that people who spend way too much time on social media define relevance. It can’t just taste good — it has to sit heavy in your gut like an overly pungent IPA.

But while pop can provide commentary on the most pressing matters of our time, it’s also meant to entertain millions of people with unthinking, feelings-forward directness. Much of it has always been rooted in the domestic and the mundane, revolving around songs about spouses and children, and drawing on a bedrock soundtrack of classic rock, country, and R&B that grounds listeners in their communities and own personal histories. It goes beyond the here and now and toward something a little more elemental and, well, basic.

If sentimental, MOR albums like Man Of The Woods are no longer considered “essential” by professional arbiters of “relevant” pop music, perhaps there needs to be a more ecumenical definition of essential. Because Timberlake isn’t going away. The generation raised on NSYNC is raising another generation raised on Timberlake. Just ask my 5-year-old son, who knows nothing about the politics of pop but instantly recognizes that cheesy Trolls song whenever it comes on at the store, in a restaurant, or at home when Netflix is on. All of his classmates in kindergarten know that song, too. And now I can’t help but love it because I hear it the way they hear it. That song is just in my life now, for better or worse. You can’t get more essential than that.

Man Of The Woods is out now via RCA. Get it here.

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