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Not everyone has taken a liking to Justin Timberlake's new album, nor his recent performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Not everyone has taken a liking to Justin Timberlake's new album, nor his recent performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
Photo by Greg Noire

The Timberlake Takedown is In Full Effect

The pop culture consuming public is an interesting case. As much as said public enjoys building up its icons, it enjoys tearing them down equally – if not more – so. Case in point, Tiger Woods. Once arguably the most popular athlete on the planet, Tiger’s fall from grace was slow and painful. Some almost took joy in watching his personal life erode while his golf game simultaneously fell apart.

Now? Many of those same people are begging for just one more Sunday where Tiger is in contention at a major. We really should make up our minds.

Which brings us to Justin Timberlake, whose life bears little resemblance to that of Tiger Woods. Timberlake is, by all accounts, a happily married man. He is almost universally beloved and incredibly successful, an artist who has endured very few, if any, career setbacks.

And yet, we have arrived at a certain place with the former boy bander, and it’s almost a surprise it took this long to get here. Simply put, why are so many people trying to tear down Justin Timberlake?

Timberlake is in the news of late for two primary reasons. One, he headlined the Super Bowl Halftime Show on Sunday, which helped promote the second reason – Timberlake’s fifth studio album, Man of the Woods, dropped last week. To label the blowback to both as “mixed” would be putting it kindly.

Let us start with the Super Bowl Halftime Show, in which JT ripped through seemingly every hit in his ever-expanding catalog. There was “Cry Me a River” to accompany “Rock Your Body.” “SexyBack” was on display, as was “Suit & Tie.” And, of course, Timberlake couldn’t exit stage right without treating fans to his latest smash hit, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”

Timberlake played the hits, he danced, he went into the crowd. Hell, dude paid tribute to the late and legendary Prince, which was fitting, since the big game took place in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis. It was a good show – not an all-timer, but certainly worthy of the moment. And yet, the claws came out almost immediately.

The Daily Show said it “was like karaoke.” The New Yorker called the performance “benign” and “un-self-aware.” “Underwhelming,” said CNN. USA Today labeled it “a wimpy joke.” You get the point.

This less-than-stellar feedback marked a fitting end for Timberlake’s weekend, one that began with the release of Man of the Woods. Now, Man of the Woods is by no means on par with Timberlake’s first two studio albums – Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds – two of the better pop releases of their era. Not that many expected a Timberlake album of yesteryear, and that is where the narrative shifts. Many people don’t hate Man of the Woods for what it is; rather, they dislike the album for what it isn’t.

Now, some of this is on Timberlake himself. When you title your album Man of the Woods, and you are half-dressed as a lumberjack on the album cover, and your pair up with Chris Stapleton, and you bill the album as a celebration of where you’re from (Timberlake is from Tennessee), people were half-expecting a country or roots record. And while Man of the Woods is the most stripped-down record in JT’s catalog, it still features beats and dance records aplenty.

Sure, Man of the Woods is a little scattershot and lacks cohesion, but it almost seems as if Timberlake meant it that way, as if the songs were meant to represent the various places in which his life currently resides. He is a husband and father, but he’s also pop royalty. He started out in a boy band but has progressed to jamming with his decidedly non-boy band, the Tennessee Kids. At 37, he’s not exactly new to the scene, nor is he an elder statesman on the pop circuit. And while Man of the Woods doesn’t boast any certifiable radio hits like “Mirrors” or “Rock Your Body,” “Say Something” (with Stapleton) and “Morning Light” (with Alicia Keys) make for fine additions to the JT canon.

As for the Super Bowl Halftime Show, most criticism centered on the fact that Timberlake spent more time dancing than singing, and that he had the gall to pay tribute to the late, great Prince in his hometown. With regard to the former, Timberlake is a born performer, and the Super Bowl Halftime Show is a performance. It’s the exact reason Adele, arguably the best singer on the planet, said she will never play the thing; it’s not a good fit for her particular talents.

With regard to Prince, Timberlake wasn’t trying to mimic the man, and the rumored Prince hologram (thankfully) was just that. Rather, Timberlake simply performed a cover of “I Would Die 4 U” while a vision of Prince projected in the background. Timberlake could never have topped Prince’s legendary halftime show in 2007, easily one of the 2-3 best halftime shows in Super Bowl history, nor was he trying to. Instead, he was simply paying homage to a fallen icon in his hometown.

Timberlake’s career won’t suffer for any of this. His upcoming world tour, which includes three Houston stops (two in May; another in January), will sell out. And Man of the Woods, despite the critical backlash, will be streamed millions of times over. He is simply learning what fellow pop stars like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have learned in recent months: as much as we enjoy a success story, sadly, the subsequent takedown entertains us all the more.

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