Justin Timberlake's 'Man of the Woods' and the Season of Failed Popstar Reinventions
Justin Timberlake’s a lumberjack now. He likes flannel so much that he’s named a song on his new album after the material. Indeed, every title on Man of the Woods inspires a game of ‘song or Yankee candle scent?’ The reveal of his latest persona - a Montana-bound country boy finding peace with the land and serenity with its natural beauty - inspired much laughter and confusion. This was only heightened when he released the first song from this new age of his career. Filthy isn’t particularly filthy, nor does it have anything to do with flannel, the woods, or whatever his latest persona is. It opens at the 2028 ‘Pan-Asian Deep Learning Conference’ in Malaysia, where Timberlake, in pseudo-Steve Jobs mode, controls a funky fresh dancing robot while a room of Asian people applaud him. It’s a confusing video that feels several years behind the current trends, but fundamentally, it’s not a good song. Even at his most insufferable, Timberlake could be relied on to produce some banging tunes - LoveStoned is an undisputed classic. Filthy feels like album filler, so its status as the premiere track of the Man of the Woods era seems all the more perplexing. Critics weren’t impressed, and the buzz for the track was overshadowed by the remix of Bruno Mars’s Finesse, which featured verses from rapper of the moment Cardi B and a spot-on homage to In Living Color.
It remains to be seen how the rest of Timberlake’s new era will do, but its introduction feels familiarly staid and confused in a modern era where our biggest pop stars have struggled to take their acts to the next level. Lady Gaga’s Artpop disappointed, and her Joanne era left much to be desired. Katy Perry promised ‘purposeful pop’ with Prism, but the image and songs inspired little beyond bemusement. Taylor Swift’s Reputation has been a financial success, but what changed in her image beyond a modicum of self-awareness? Everyone saw Miley Cyrus going back to country a mile away. Compared to them, Timberlake has fewer problems - he’s a white dude, he’ll be fine - but the path feels well-trodden.
Much has been made about how Timberlake’s new act feels like him returning to ‘white man’ status. After making his solo career through appropriating black music and forming a tight relationship with Timbaland, he became one of the most bankable stars on the planet. Being a white man who sings black genres of music is a profitable business model as old as the industry itself. It made him simultaneously an easy sell to the masses and an ‘edgy’ icon, eons away from his boyband days. Even without getting into the Janet Jackson controversy, in which he walked away from the incident clean as a whistle while her career was effectively over, Timberlake’s been marketed as the 21st century pop prince.
That image of SexyBack hot-on-his-feet R&B king of pop, the jokester Jack of all trades whose ambitions stretched far and wide, has done exceedingly well for him. It seems unusual at first as to why he’d want to pivot to something so unlike his prior work. Yet there’s also method behind the flannel madness. Being the man of the woods adds new levels of unfiltered masculinity to his image. The musky macho mountain man persona - Bon Iver meets the pop world - gives Timberlake a new angle to appeal to general American audiences. There’s an illusion of earthy authenticity that accompanies this kind of image. Just ask Lady Gaga why she started singing songs about John Wayne and wearing that pink hat. The underlying message behind executives and record labels telling their artists to appeal to ‘Middle America’ is ‘be less political and make music for everyone, Trump voters included’. Timberlake isn’t apolitical - like his wife, Jessica Biel, he’s a Clinton fan and Democratic Party supporter - but this new image change clearly isn’t for his pre-existing fans.
Timberlake’s current era seems to have a sturdy foundation, at least in theory. Man of the Woods evokes clear images in the potential listener’s mind. You seem to know what you’re getting when you see that title. That’s what makes Filthy so baffling. It completely goes against that achingly manicured ruggedness. Why go to all that effort with flannel and beards only to pre-empt it with a dancing hip-hop robot? It reminds me of Katy Perry’s current era of confusion, desperately seeking focus by flinging everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. She promised ‘purposeful pop’ that spoke to these tough times, but after the wishy-washy debut single from Prism, Chained to the Rhythm, under-performed, she immediately jumped into the disturbing failure of Bon Appétit, an objectively awful 4 minute long dirge of sexy food puns, accompanied by a music video that would give David Cronenberg nightmares. Then that failed and she dropped her supposed response to Taylor Swift’s diss, Swish Swish, a song that managed to be even worse than its predecessor. There’s no direction to the Prism era, and that, along with bad music, is the reason it’s been such a tough season for Perry.
Perry’s main rival, Taylor Swift, has had more objective success in terms of sales, but Reputation hasn’t been a great era for her. The old Taylor certainly isn’t dead. She’s just more passive aggressive than ever, with some self-awareness of the image she’s had for so long. The problem is that she wants to push the bad press she’s received, unfairly or otherwise, as another sign that she’s a perpetual victim. Look at her mocking the press for those Tom Hiddleston tank-top photos, as if she wasn’t entirely in control of making sure the paparazzi were near her property enough to take the offending images and push the relationship narrative in the first place. Nobody talks about the music of the Reputation era. It’s not exciting enough for that. Her image isn’t either, but in these dark times where we cry out for pop culture voices with verve, that purposeful pop Perry wanted to create, Swift feels stuck in her status quo. This era is the same old Swift, but maybe that’s why it’s stuck with her devoted fanbase in the first place.
Lady Gaga had the ideal post-Artpop image shake-up in her duets with Tony Bennett. It made sense for the New York girl with big pipes to settle down with a classic crooner and sing the songs she grew up listening to. It didn’t give her much street cred, but the sales were undeniable and that, along with a stellar performance at the Oscars, empowered her as a legitimate musician. Joanne is not a terrible album, but one struggles to see it as a natural progression for the singer. The city girl really has no business going country. It seems she craved a persona that was the antithesis of her meat dress days, and Artpop had been heavily defined by her ceaseless performance art allure, something that already had a short shelf life before she committed to it 24/7. It didn’t help that the music released to accompany her Marina Abramovic fanfiction had little to nothing to do with actual art. Vegas glam with Bennett gave her a chance to strip back but still be Gaga. Joanne stripped back too far and became boring.
When Timberlake was hinting at his latest iteration, he talked about ‘It sounds more like where I’ve come from than any other music I’ve ever made… It’s Memphis. It’s Southern American music. But I want to make it sound modern.’ Putting aside the fact that he’s from Tennessee but his album is more Montana-focused - he and Biel own a house in the state in an exclusive gated community - it’s crucial to note the emphasis on Timberlake billing this music as a return to his roots. That’s a musical reinvention tale as old as time: The glitzy star who goes back to the simple life to understand what life is really all about. Doing so usually involves ticking off a few key points - wide open country spaces, rustic iconography, stoic staring into the mountains, perhaps a banjo or two if you’re feeling quirky. The desired result is an image of so-called authenticity.
It’s hard to nail exactly what authenticity means in the context of celebrity. For some, it is an instinctive reaction to a person, image, or idea. It cannot be predicted or guaranteed, nor can it be evenly applied across everyone or everything. What some people find authentic reeks of falseness to others. It’s one of the reasons, among many others, that Taylor Swift remains such a hot button topic. Updating your image with the times and tastes will inevitably raise questions about authenticity. Even though it’s a natural part of being a musician, not everyone can pull it off. Madonna managed it for decades and it only started to sour in the past ten years or so. Bowie remains the pinnacle but even he made Tin Machine. Prince’s successes were as staggering as his failures. Time has given us the benefit of hindsight with these stars. For now, with the current rack of talent, the questions remain.
For many, Timberlake has never been especially authentic or sincere. Janet Jackson is the elephant in the room, as well as his latching onto black music for fame, and his limelight-hogging shtick has become increasingly tiring. The more he tries to become the man who does everything - acting, music, clothes designing, etc - the harder it becomes to make it all work on a tangible level. How do you bend yourself to the will of the majority when your past images contradict that? Think of him on the Golden Globes red carpet as a proud supporter of the Time’s Up movement, mere weeks after headlining a Woody Allen movie. He wore blackness like a suave suit that fit the times and tastes, and now he has removed it for flannel, the costume of the moment. If being a man of the woods doesn’t work for him, he can put on another persona with ease. Perhaps that’s the problem.