Sounding Board

Remember When Justin Timberlake Was Good?

“If you know what’s good!” It’s supposed to be an exhortation, a call to the dancefloor. But that line, the first from Justin Timberlake’s new single “Filthy,” sounds more like a cry for help — a wail of confusion from a man who no longer has any idea what’s good. The man who once effortlessly and gracefully ruled the pop universe now sounds like a voice out of time, a scared and lost has-been. He sounds like a ’60s blues-rocker throwing chewy synth all over a single in 1985, doing whatever it takes to get on MTV. He sounds like he’s done.

It didn’t have to be this way. Timberlake is, after all, the man who made the transition from boy-band teen-idoldom to grown-up pop stardom more fluidly than anyone since his obvious idol Michael Jackson. When, on Justified, Timberlake teamed up with the Neptunes and Timbaland, making sleek and state-of-the-art soul-pop, it was a genius move — here we had a teen-pop hegemon who was able to look at the landscape and understand where the best sounds were coming from. A few years later, he and Timbaland made FutureSex/LoveSounds, a collection of symphonic sci-fi cocaine disco that ranks as one of this century’s finest pop albums. The tour that followed was an overwhelming spectacle, still among the best arena shows I’ve ever seen. Timberlake’s acting career, launched soon after, had decidedly mixed results, but it could’ve been a lot worse. He was, after all, in The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis. Were you in The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis?

The two 20/20 Experience albums that Timberlake released in 2013 were his first real missteps as a solo artist. They were indulgent and treacly and overlong and boring, and then there was the whole thing where he named a song “Take Back The Night,” as if that phrase just meant “go dance or whatever.” I gave the first of those albums a good review — I was really trying hard to like it — and it has not aged well. Still, those albums sold like crazy, and they had “Mirrors,” a piece of pseudo-Coldplay fluff that slowly and imperceptibly became an adult-contempo classic, one of those songs that, years after its release, will still lodge itself firmly in your head at random moments. When I saw Timberlake at the Concert For Charlottesville a few months ago, “Mirrors” turned out to work shockingly well as a full-stadium singalong anthem.

Timberlake’s last pre-“Filthy” single was 2016’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” a perfectly amiable piece of disco-pop that Timberlake recorded for the Trolls soundtrack, reuniting with his old *NSync producer Max Martin. It’s not a pantheon song for Timberlake or anything, but it’s bubbly and effervescent, and my kids like it. It didn’t stay at #1 for long, but it did get there. The song did its job. So did the 2015 CMAs performance with Chris Stapleton, where they duetted ecstatically on Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey,” and Timberlake’s stealth country move “Drink You Away.” Timberlake cannily teamed up with country music’s traditionalist hero of the moment and absolutely owned the room. It was a smart move, and it seemed genuine. Musically, at least, his instincts still seemed sharp.

His instincts in most other senses have been lately proving to be something else. Timberlake, after all, did opt to star in Trolls, which is shaping up as the most egregiously shitty kids-movie franchise since Alvin & The Chipmunks. More seriously, he thought it would be a good idea to be in Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel during a year when Hollywood finally saw fit to purge predators like Allen from its universe. Timberlake hasn’t publicly said anything even halfway conflicted about working with that guy, and the decision just seems catastrophically dumb. So, in its way, does Timberlake’s decision to play this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show, 14 years after he played his part in the whole goofy, overblown Nipplegate saga. People are blaming Timberlake for that whole bullshit when it was pretty obviously the fault of the producers and choreographers. Still, the fact remains: Timberlake, the white man who ripped away the shirt, saw his career flourish afterward, while Janet Jackson, the black woman whose shirt was ripped, saw hers utterly flatline. In a cultural climate where people are finally considering the ramifications of things like that, Timberlake decided to go back to the Super Bowl, inviting all sorts of scrutiny that he probably should’ve been smart enough to anticipate.

Maybe he should’ve read the room a little better before he dropped that Man In The Woods trailer, too. In that short little video, released earlier this week, Timberlake stares at horses in sun-dappled fields, sinks to his knees in snowy farmland, and stands fully clothed in a river, staring at the sky, his hands trailing across the surface of the water. Little shards of acoustic guitar play. Jessica Biel wears a cowboy hat and talks about “mountains, streams, campfires.” Pharrell uses the word “earthy.” The whole thing raised the specter of a Timberlake country album, and it led to headlines like “Justin Timberlake Is Rebranding As A White Man.” Maybe that’s unfair. It’s certainly not Timberlake’s fault that Donald Trump is the president of the United States. But does anyone need to hear a rich, famous white guy rediscovering his roots in 2018?

Of course, maybe all that was a misdirect. (Or maybe not! The tracklist that Timberlake posted on Twitter today is fucking hilarious; he literally has one song called “Flannel” and another called “Livin’ Off The Land.”) There is no plaintive rootsiness in “Filthy.” But maybe there should be! It wouldn’t be worse than what we got! “Filthy” is a rote “Sexyback” retread with post-dubstep bass-farts and lyrics that Timberlake might’ve scribbled on his beard-oil receipt 10 seconds before stepping into the booth. Loyalty can be a great thing, but it can also trip you up severely. It was brilliant for Timberlake to team up with a peaking Timbaland on “Cry Me A River” in 2002. In 2018, after Timbaland shanked all his Blueprint 3 beats and spent a few years supervising all the shitty songs on Empire, it’s fucking malpractice. Timbo’s “Filthy” beat is a graceless sputter, except during the parts where it goes all inexplicably widescreen with anthemic guitar-blare. The song barely resonates; it almost seems to serve as a soundtrack to the shitty video where Timberlake does a Steve Jobs impression and a robot humps some Malaysian ladies.

I could well be overreacting here. “SexyBack” sounded like ass at first, too, and it eventually managed to worm its way into anthem status. The bubbling live-bass sounds are nice. Timberlake seems to be having fun in the video. Still, it looks like we’re watching the greatest pop star of his generation swan-diving onto his fucking face. Timberlake has been sliding through life on charm for about a decade now. And if this is all he has to offer, charm won’t be enough for long.