By now, you've probably seen Justin Timberlake
's intensely white and intensely masculine teaser video for his upcoming album, Man of the Woods
. Although it seems now that the whole thing was a decoy (have you even listened to the mess that "Filthy" is?) it's worth revisiting. The video is so country, so wholesome that you can practically smell the bonfire burning. It's like a stream of cliches for what country music should look like, and if you feel like you've seen it before, it's because you probably have.
You see, Justin Timberlake is far from the first artist to go "back to his roots". It's a common professional move that artists of nearly all mediums engage in at some point in their career, and many times they follow the same pattern of branding themselves as more down-to-earth and in tune with a blue-collar aesthetic. But there's something a bit more insidious and toxic when white musicians like Timberlake engage in the practice.
This is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with country music or artists exploring new genres, but there's a message attached to white artists "returning to their roots" that we need to be conscious of. We'll dig into it a bit more in just a moment, but what this boils down to is artists like Timberlake appropriating black music and culture, then ditching it, even disavowing it when it no longer serves as a financially viable option. In fact, the practice is so common that a Twitter user even drew up the formula that Timberlake and other artists follow. Though the accounts and tweets have since been deleted, their content is still available, and the process looks like this.
1. White artists usually start out with a squeaky-clean image, wholesome and Christian and palatable to all.
2. They then have a "coming-of-age" moment where they mature into their sound and identity. Usually, this involves appropriating black culture and sounds, and the result is a caricature that is a pieced together notion that black culture equals sexy and taboo. This is most visible in Miley Cyrus's saga, when she transitioned almost overtime from the wholesome Hannah Montana, to Miley rapping and collaborating with black artists, and also taking off her clothes at almost every opportunity.
3. This can only go so far with white audiences before they begin to rebel, and that is when we see white artists begin to transition "back to their roots". In the end, the foray into hip-hop, rap, R&B and black culture in general was not about a sincere appreciation for it, but as a marketing stunt to show either how sexy and mature they've gotten, or how much toughness and street cred they have. In the end though, these notions are still racist misunderstandings of black culture and music.
With this formula, think about how many times you've seen this process repeated. Timberlake is doing it now, Taylor Swift has done it, Lady Gaga did it with Joanne
, and of course, Miley Cyrus was the most visible of all. Hell, she even apologized
to her fans for her ventures into hip-hop, as if black culture and music are indecent things to be ashamed of.
In all of these instances, white artists started out with a look and sound that was generally easy-going and palatable to the masses. As they got older and "matured", they turned this image into something more brazen, more aggressive and sexy. And in individual ways, each artist eventually faced backlash, and began backpedaling into something once again more easily accessible and wholesome, and most definitely more white.
Besides Justin Timberlake, we can see White America's current ironic issue with black culture and music with Post Malone. Malone has made a killing capitalizing on rap music and black culture, yet he's openly stated
that he doesn't listen to hip-hop or rap when he wants something "sincere" or deep because he thinks it's inherently all about sex, drugs and flashing your money. Again, this is a incredibly racist view that sees black culture as inherently violent and sexual, and as nothing more than a motif. Black culture is great as long as it's paying the bills, but the second they start losing fans, white artists jump ship.
Is that what's happening in Justin Timberlake's case? Possibly, though I don't know if I'm the one to make that call. Regardless, I do think it's important to consider what it is we're supporting and cheering for when an artist who has made a living off blaxploitation announces they're "going back to their roots".