If there’s one lesson to be learned from Justin Timberlake’s Super Bowl LII half-time performance, it’s this: the exploitation of black music isn’t ending anytime soon.
One could even argue that Timberlake’s entire career is built on the exploitation of a genre pioneered by black artists like Janet Jackson and Prince. Uncoincidentally, Timberlake has quarreled with both of these artists. He famously exposed Janet Jackson’s breast at the 2004 Super Bowl half-time performance, in an incident that is now called “Nipplegate”. National scrutiny hit Jackson harder than it would ever hit Timberlake: she was barred from attending the Grammy awards and the MTV Music Awards, and the incident, along with the death of her brother Michael, led to a long hiatus from the music industry. Additionally, who can forget the time Timberlake mocked Prince’s height at the Grammy awards, or the time he dissed him on a track in 2007? It’s been more than a decade since these incidents, but Timberlake has never fully atoned for them – until now.
In the performance, Timberlake made subtle reference to Jackson, reconstructing the fated moment with a backup dancer. However, this time around, Timberlake yelled “STOP!” before reaching the lyrics that would lead to him ripping off Jackson’s bodice. He also paid tribute to Prince, performing “I Would Die 4 U” with a blown up projection of the musician, who passed away in 2016.
These gestures are not good enough. They are misguided and do not reflect any real sense of remorse, especially when we consider the facts. Janet Jackson is still shunned from prestigious music award shows like the Grammys. Before his death, Prince went on record condemning all forms of hologram renditions and posthumous performances as “demonic”. Nevertheless, Timberlake did not even deign to invite Jackson to share the Super Bowl stage with him, the way she so generously invited him in 2004. He went in direct violation of Prince’s wishes, only replacing an actual hologram with a projection at the very last minute, when faced with objections from Sheila E., Prince’s long-time collaborator and former fiancée.
So, what’s the deal with Timberlake’s half-baked attempts at redemption? In a thought-provoking piece for The Outline, Ann-Derrick Gaillot rightfully claims that Timberlake is “rebranding as a white man”, with racial transparency and authenticity being trendier nowadays than they were in the 2000s. Artists like Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and even Timberlake are pivoting towards a more country aesthetic. For Timberlake, this has meant sticking to his musical brand while refashioning his image. His “Man of the Woods” trailer shows Timberlake in various natural settings: prairie fields, snow mountains, swimming in a lake. All of these images are synonymous with the US South, where Timberlake is ‘from’. There’s a raw, unfiltered element in his newly constructed image that moves away from the overproduced slickness of his last era, “The 20/20 Experience”. However, Timberlake continues to collaborate with black producers like Pharrell and Timbaland behind the scenes, and his music is not that different from his old material. It’s a denunciation of the overt appropriation of his past brand with an attempt to retain the general quality and vibe of music created and developed by black artists.
There’s no denying that hip-hop and R&B account for Timberlake’s success. He only makes superficial gestures at remorse when it’s convenient for him to do so. At this stage, it’s not only convenient, but also profitable for Timberlake to acknowledge how being white allowed him to escape the repercussions of the 2004 fallout. The question, however, is: how genuine is this ‘acknowledgement’?
The exploitation of black artists and the genres they’ve pioneered continues: the only difference between now and the 2000s is that the exploitation has been bandaged over with these feigned acts of remorse. Exploiting Prince’s memory, exploiting the moment that ruined Janet Jackson’s career for the sake of his Super Bowl LII performance – these are two of many moments that reveal the conceit of white musicians today.