No-one told Justin Timberlake that pop music has changed

Conrad Duncan /
Feb 7, 2018 / Music

It’s normal for generations to dismiss everything that came before them.

That suspicion of the music, fashion, or politics of their parents is what drives young people to create new worlds for themselves. Without it, we would not have had the revolutions of synth-pop and hip-hop in the 80s, Brit-pop and rave culture in the 90s, and grime and alternative R&B in the 00s. But while some artists learn to move with trends, other get caught in the backlash. Justin Timberlake has been feeling that backlash pretty hard in the past few weeks. First, for his botched comeback album Man of the Woods and again for his frustratingly stale Super Bowl performance.

It’s easy to forget that Timberkake was once loved in the industry, almost hysterically so. He was a two time Grammy Album of the Year nominee, he was compared favourably to Michael Jackson, and was included in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list. Timberlake’s performance was meant to be the crowning moment of his comeback, a point where everyone remembered why they used to love him and put aside criticisms of his appropriation of black culture, his woodsy rebrand, and his disrespect for Janet Jackson. Instead, the Super Bowl quickly became a symbol of everything that’s wrong with Justin Timberlake in 2018.

Half-time shows don’t matter in the grand scheme of things but there’s a reason why artists are so happy to do them. They give a rare opportunity, matched only by a major festival headliner slot, for an artist to shape their career arc. Some artists have capitalised on this opportunity in recent years. Bruno Mars’ 2014 show turned him into a pop superstar, while last year, Lady Gaga used the opportunity to give her career a much-needed second wind after two underwhelming album releases.

For Justin, the Super Bowl was all about securing his legacy and judging by his approach, a quickfire run-through of his hits + that controversial Prince tribute, he must have thought it was an easy job. He didn’t use the elaborate staging that worked for Gaga, or the special guests that boosted Katy Perry and Coldplay’s performances. Instead, his half-time show was all about his talents as a showman, as efficient and professional as anyone working today. Which would have been fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was all a decade out of date.

What was striking about the backlash to the performance was that Justin was the same as he’d ever been. Technically proficient but unspectacular as a vocalist, accomplished as a dancer, and just generally charming as a performer, excluding a crass, ill-advised reference to that infamous wardrobe malfunction. He was doing the same things that earned him acclaim a decade ago but despite the slick showmanship, the whole thing fell flat. The dance moves looked corny, frozen and reheated from 2002, and the songs, while undeniably entertaining, felt slight and uninspired.

As others have noted, Timberlake doesn’t tend to sing about anything other than himself (generally about how sexy he is or how angry he is at Britney) and that narcissism cast a cloud over the performance. Pop music and politics shouldn’t be forced together and no-one needed to hear Timberlake’s thoughts on Trump or identity politics. But after a year in music that was celebrated for its diversity and progression, this celebration of a white man, trained from childhood for superstardom, missed the mark.

What will be more worrying for Timberlake is that there isn’t much more he could have done. I remember as a child feeling an inexplicable embarrassment and distain for the pop culture of the 90s. Everything about it, from the fashion to the music and films had an air of tackiness that made it hard to love anything about the decade. Those years fell in that awkward space between the contemporary and the nostalgic – too recent to be called retro or vintage and too old to be ground-breaking. When I looked at the 90s, I saw the generation above me, desperately clutching onto the idea that they were still cool.

Timberlake’s music lives in that same space now, while the 90s have acquired the aura of cool that the 80s inherited throughout my childhood. When he came out with his bandana and his camo-suit, you could sense that the whole world was cringing but that wasn’t necessarily his fault. It was Justin being Justin, a man who’s never been known for exceptional fashion taste. But many would have been remembering their own childhood and their own misguided choices.

Hearing those songs again, stacked up one after another, is like being asked to review photos of your teenager years, every stupid mistake and crass comment you’ve ever made. It reminded me of how much more stylish we are now, how much smarter, more sophisticated and socially sensitive young people have become. Of course, the current generation of teenagers have their own misjudgements to deal with but they still carry the fresh air of youth; we’re not sick of them yet.

When I saw Justin Timberlake on that stage, I was reminded of the feeling I get when I see Rod Stewart or Showaddywaddy in the 70s and wonder ‘why did people think this was the best we could do?’ Timberlake is a consummate professional and he has hits but it was clear how far he’d fallen behind the times. We’re sick of his robotic moves and his ‘boys will be boys’ cheek. Nowadays, we expect so much more from our popstars. We expect our showmen, like Bruno Mars, to have an authentic connection with the music they borrow from, or we expect them to surprise us and innovate, like Beyoncé did. At the very least, we expect them to put on a show that is about more than just themselves, as Timberlake did on Sunday night.

There was no one thing that you could point to as wrong about Timberlake’s performance, which leads to the unfortunate conclusion that pretty much everything was wrong with it. Everything about it felt dated, from the clothing to the dancers to the rocked-up arrangements of some songs. He might as well have brought his band out dressed in zoot suits and shoulder-pads for all it mattered because once you’ve missed the boat, it doesn’t matter how recently you were last on it. Justin’s time will come again, in the next decade, when he can re-emerge as an entertaining novelty of the past, and I don’t doubt that many of his singles will stand the test of time.

But right now, no amount of marketing is going to save him from the fact that pop music has changed, it’s got smarter and more complex, and no-one thought to ask him if he was okay with that. For anyone under the age of 18, I doubt that Timberlake’s performance would have elicited anything more than a shrug. For anyone over, it forced you to confront a disappointing question – ‘when did I get so old?’

Words by Conrad Duncan

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