A powerline stretches across a backdrop of golden fields. A stem of grain cuts through the sun shining in an empty forest. Justin Timberlake is cold and alone in the woods, staring at something we can’t see. Now he is kneeling in a snowy field, lost in thought and then a second later arms stretched up toward the heavens. Now he is walking fully-clothed through a quiet stream. He is gazing out at some snowy mountains. Next he is on a cliff gazing out over an autumnal wilderness scene. Something is weighing on Justin Timberlake’s mind, but what could it be?
We don’t know yet, but what we do know is Justin Timberlake is now very deep. The trailer for Timberlake’s new album Man of the Woods presents the former NSYNC heartthrob looking pensive in various natural settings, hitting every note of the “white man finding himself in the empty West” trope that has long been part of America’s romantic fictional past (and Levi’s commercials). In case the shots of Timberlake running through empty fields that cut to a shot of a band of horses running through snowy mountains aren’t enough, his wife Jessica Biel and his producer Pharrell are there to hammer the point home in a voiceover. “It feels like mountains, trees, campfires, like Wild West, but now,” says Biel. “It just feels so earthy,” says Pharrell shortly before a black and white shot of him in a studio pronouncing something, presumably a song from the album, as “a smash.”
White colonialist fantasies aside, there’s something very familiar about this pivot in Timberlake’s style. We saw it from Miley Cyrus in her hasty rebranding around her 2017 pop country album Younger Now, as well as from Lady Gaga who took to wearing cowboy hats with the release of her 2016 album Joanne. Authenticity is quite marketable now, and for white pop stars that means shifting away from the hip-hop and R&B-influenced sounds that made them famous, and toward the sounds of Southern and country rock. For Timberlake, the pivot should be sonically natural: Originally hailing from Tennessee, Timberlake has never been shy about celebrating his Southern origins. And considering Pharrell and Timbaland are both producers on the album, Man of the Woods is likely to retain some familiar influences. But with his insistence in the video that this album will be his most personal yet, Timberlake is indulging in the inexplicably popular fallacy that music with heavy country influences is somehow more profound or emotionally acute than music that is electronic, lyrics that are rapped, or songs that inspire listeners to shake their asses. Most recently, hip-hop artist Post Malone pushed this narrative in an interview where he said, “If you’re looking for lyrics, if you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to Hip Hop.”
Timberlake has a long history with hip-hop and R&B, genres invented and dominated by black people. (And to be clear, without African-Americans, there would be no rock or country music as we know it either — but I digress.) His first single as a solo artist featured legendary hip-hop duo Clipse and was co-written by The Neptunes. The success of his second studio album FutureSex/LoveSounds was in no small part due to hip-hop producers like Timbaland and Rick Rubin. There’s nothing wrong with a white artist expressing black influences in his music; still, the ease with which Timberlake can pivot to and away from blackness certainly raises some questions. Pop music is about reinvention, but only white artists are allowed the freedom to leap between racialized identities, depending on the whims of the market. Timberlake can escape his past much more easily than Janet Jackson, whose nude breast at the 2004 Super Bowl — which popped out thanks to Timberlake’s planned pull — directly kicked off the decline of her career, which has yet to recover. (Timberlake, for his part, has never fully atoned in public, though his upcoming performance would be a good place to start.)
The first single from Man of the Woods will be released on January 5, while the full album will arrive on February 2, just a couple of days before the highly-anticipated Super Bowl LII halftime show. The album may very well include some hits, considering the seasoned team behind it. He’ll only have to live with himself for pandering to a whiter America.