Ten years ago, you could count on Justin Timberlake. He was a beloved 27-year-old pop star at the top of his game, riding high on the success of his slick electro-pop sophomore record, Future Sex/Love Sounds. In his persona and his songs, the former teenybopper was all grown up, with the frosted tips, high-profile breakups and *NSYNC affiliations all squarely behind him. But then it was seven long years until his next record, 2013’s ambitious and critically applauded The 20/20 Experience, while he learned to act. And now it’s been another five years since a Justin Timberlake album came out. These days, he’s known as much for his halfway decent acting as for his music (the insidiously catchy wedding staple “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” from the 2016 Trolls soundtrack, notwithstanding). So when he announced that a new record, Man of the Woods, would be out Feb. 2, fans’ excitement was mixed with a little confusion. Did Justin Timberlake eat bugs now? Had he become a recluse? Is he Bon Iver?
A 60-second trailer for the album had Timberlake literally frolicking in a pasture with wild horses, not to mention bonfires, cornfields, snow-covered trees and Jessica Biel. “This album is really inspired by my son, my wife, my family, but more so than any other album I’ve ever written, where I’m from,” he says. “It’s personal.” In another promo video set on the frontier, he wears a scruffy beard and calls his new music “modern Americana with 808s.” Then came the first two singles, “Filthy” and “Supplies,” and their accompanying videos, which muddied the picture. Stark and futuristic, with sharp club beats, dancing CGI robots and hyper-political imagery—including, in the “Supplies” video, Timberlake staring blankly at a wall of TV screens flickering with clips of Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Kevin Spacey, racist cops, violent protesters and other current villains—neither made much sense in the context of Timberlake’s new pastoral persona.
To top it off, Timberlake announced he was returning to the Super Bowl to star in the halftime show on Feb. 4, the “biggest stage in the world.” His last appearance there, in 2004, lives in infamy as “Nipplegate” thanks to the “wardrobe malfunction” that led him to tear off half of Janet Jackson’s top at the end of their duet (although to be fair, it was really partial nipple). Timberlake’s career skyrocketed after the incident as Jackson took the blame. In a recent interview with Zane Lowe, a flannel-clad Timberlake didn’t mention Jackson by name in a sort of fumbled non-apology. “You can’t change what’s happened, but you can move forward and learn from it,” he said. Being the halftime entertainment at the Super Bowl is a two-sided coin. On one side, you’ve achieved enough universal success to be invited into the living room of every American household. It’s great marketing. On the other, it’s a sign that your music is perceived as safe, family-friendly, nothing the FCC would have to worry about. This is not a place for wardrobe malfunctions, or for sparking any kind of controversy. Beyoncé caused a stir on one side of the aisle last year when her Lemonade medley referenced the Black Lives Matter movement, but it was nothing compared to the backlash that followed the exposure of a woman’s nipple 14 years ago. Is Justin Timberlake “safe” these days? By giving him a second chance, the NFL and its advertisers obviously think so. He’s the Trolls guy!
With all this talk of Super Bowl halftimes and shifting personas, you can’t help but think of Katy Perry. Her sparkly summertime hits like “Teenage Dream” and the marginally edgy “I Kissed a Girl” had made her an adored young pop star when she took the halftime stage in 2015 (she even helped birth a much sunnier pop-culture phenomenon than the “wardrobe malfunction” with her Left Shark). Soon after, Perry took a hard left. In 2016, she suddenly adopted a stridently political persona, and while she was generally applauded for her public support of Hillary Clinton—especially as arch-nemesis Taylor Swift got dinged for staying quiet—her enlightenment didn’t translate so seamlessly into her music. An awkward Grammys performance and bizarre promotional stunts like a live-streamed therapy session didn’t much help her case, or make any more sense of her new, self-coined genre of “purposeful pop.” When Perry’s woke pop experiment fell flat, it highlighted the fine line between remaining silent and aiming high but missing the mark.
The internet rumbles about his upcoming role in Woody Allen’s new film, Wonder Wheel, even as he mines the #MeToo movement for credibility in his videos and wears a “Time’s Up” pin to the Golden Globes.
You’ve got to give Timberlake a little credit for trying to have it all. But in the dystopian “Supplies” video, where he joins a protest and survives the apocalypse, he makes more references to his own “wood” than the societal injustices he’s seemingly denouncing. Meanwhile, the internet rumbles about his upcoming role in Woody Allen’s new film, Wonder Wheel, even as he mines the #MeToo movement for credibility in his videos and wears a “Time’s Up” pin to the Golden Globes.
A lot has changed since the last time Timberlake made a musical statement. His charisma and talent have afforded him a very long career in entertainment, but as a 37-year-old white guy singing about the world in 2018, he won’t be able to bank on sex appeal and smooth falsettos the way he used to. It’ll be tough to declare himself an easygoing nature man while making apocalyptic videos with sexy androids and Illuminati references. He can’t dabble in ambiguous political symbols and also be the inoffensive charmer the NFL wants him to be. He is a man trying to drive in several lanes. If he doesn’t choose one, the American public might not follow him much longer.