Why Is Justin Timberlake Pivoting Into The Woods?

Justin Timberlake in the teaser video for Man of the Woods.

RCA / Via youtube.com

“It feels like mountains, trees, campfires, like Wild West, but now,” Jessica Biel intones, with great import, over a rapid montage of mountains, of trees, of campfires, and of her husband, Justin Timberlake, whose forthcoming album Man of the Woods is being teased with this video. Timberlake himself proclaims in voiceover that the album is “really inspired by my son, my wife, my family, but more so than any album I’ve ever written, where I’m from.”

Where’s Timberlake from? Most fans could tell you right away: not the Wild West, but the South. Specifically, a small town outside of Memphis, Tennessee, called Shelby Forest. He spent his adolescent years in Orlando, Florida, starring on the Mickey Mouse Club before moving onto teen idolhood as a part of NSYNC. In the years after, especially as he became more involved in Hollywood, he lived in Los Angeles. But over the past two years, Timberlake’s definition of “home” has expanded: Now it includes the tiny town of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, where he owns 126 acres of land an hour’s drive from Nashville; a $20 million Tribeca penthouse; and a home outside of Big Sky, Montana, in an exclusive residential community called the Yellowstone Club.

Few places live in the public imagination as signifiers of the West like Montana, a state that boasts unrivaled and largely unspoiled beauty, with just over a million residents spread over 147,000 square miles of land. It’s a place that unironically embraces the unofficial motto of “the last best place.”

But the immediate response to Timberlake’s video was ridicule: Montanans laughed at the notion that a multimillion-dollar home at a private ski resort, filled with other non-Montanans, would evoke “the Wild West”; others suggested that he’d watched The Revenant or listened to Bon Iver once and co-opted the signifiers. At The Outline, Ann-Derrick Gaillot argued that the video signaled Timberlake’s “rebranding as a white man,” laying out the ways in which Timberlake’s musical style and success would be impossible without black producers and black influence — and that this current move suggests a pivot to “pandering to a whiter America.”

RCA

Timberlake’s desire to return to “where he’s from,” and a corresponding fetishization of the West, is by no means novel: It’s the very heart of the Western myth, with its promise of wide open spaces where men can be men. But the comparison to Bon Iver points out how superficial Timberlake’s claim to that myth is: Justin Vernon’s woods were, in fact, the ones he grew up in; the cabin where he wrote For Emma, Forever Ago was his family’s. And the cult of Bon Iver has never not been centered in Vernon’s vulnerable, backwoods, falsetto-voiced masculinity.

By contrast, Timberlake’s out-of-nowhere embrace of the West comes at a pivotal point for his career — and for the place of white men in the public consciousness. Over the last five years, he’s had a child and passed the age of 35; his only hit was a forgettable paint-by-numbers pop song for the movie Trolls. He’s also weathered sustained criticism for acts of generalized thoughtlessness: an “I’m sorry you’re mad” apology when his wedding reception featured a homeless black man for laughs; another apology for a Twitter gaffe in which he blew off questions of appropriating black culture.

Twenty years ago, Timberlake launched his tremendously successful solo career with a dance and style borrowed heavily from black artists — and Michael Jackson in particular. Now, like so many white artists (Miley Cyrus, Macklemore, Iggy Azalea) who’ve built their fame at the intersection of hip-hop, R&B, and pop, his image and music are scrutinized, particularly in terms of racial dynamics and appropriation, in a way that Paul Simon and Madonna never were.

For Timberlake, who managed to avoid significant scandal in his early career (even while he grew up a teen star, dated Britney Spears, wore matching denim tuxedos with her on the red carpet, and transformed their breakup into a hit song) it’s a new reality. In many ways, he’s an old-school, classic Hollywood star, whose rise was facilitated by his own endless faith in his own charisma and its ability to get him whatever he wanted. It got him the girl; it got him the successful solo career after his embarrassing boy band gig; it got him Hollywood roles and, when those failed, even more Hollywood roles. It made him a member of the exclusive “Five-Timers Club” of Saturday Night Live hosts. He laughed off getting Punk’d by Ashton Kutcher; he put his dick in a box while dressed like a member of Color Me Badd. He exposed Janet Jackson’s breast on national television — earning CBS a $550,000 fine — and yet walked away more or less unscathed from a moment that effectively ended her career.

In 2012, he released a sprawling two-part album, the first half of which had an average song length topping seven minutes. Not since Bruce Springsteen released two albums on the same day, or Garth Brooks adopted an alter ego named Chris Gaines, has a white male artist been that assured of his own popularity.

The album cover for Man of the Woods.

RCA

But where does Justin Timberlake fit today? He’s no longer the moody Timberlake of “Cry Me a River” or the womanizing commitmentphobe of “My Love”; the upbeat swing of The 20/20 Experience feels like a remnant of the Obama years. When it was announced that Timberlake would perform at the halftime of the 2018 Super Bowl, the response was much less driven by anticipation of his performance than by those still waiting for #JusticeforJanet, or at least an apology for the way Timberlake abdicated responsibility for his role in “Nipplegate.”

Cue: Montana.

When rumors of Timberlake’s purchase of a home in the Yellowstone Club first began circulating in 2015, Us Weekly reported that the family’s move was motivated by a desire to protect their newborn son, Silas, from the surveillance and scrutiny of Hollywood. One “insider” told Us that Biel, who grew up in Boulder, Colorado, is “happiest when she’s in the mountains.” No mention, however, of Timberlake himself, who has spent the last two years promoting Trolls, filming a supporting role in Woody Allen’s Wonder Wheel, opening the Academy Awards with a rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and performing at a handful of festivals.

On Jan. 2, he dropped the teaser trailer for Man of the Woods,” complete with Bon Iver–style symbology, and revealed the album’s cover, which literalizes his transformation from a man in a black and white suit to a man “of the woods.” On Friday, he released the album’s tracklist, featuring the song titles “Flannel,” “Montana,” “Livin’ Off the Land,” and “The Hard Stuff.”

@jtimberlake / Twitter / Via Twitter: @jtimberlake

Flannel! Seriously! Part of why the Western motifs of Man of the Woods feel so performative, so memeworthy, so laughable is that it doesn’t feel like a progression, or like something Timberlake’s been working toward, or a return to his roots. Instead, it’s the image equivalent of a trip to a dude ranch: an accidental projection of his greatest vulnerabilities, and a desire to immerse himself in a simple, elemental, mythical, masculine world that doesn’t ask hard questions or demand nuanced answers.

The West is Timberlake’s private world — and, he seems to suggest, a gateway to his “authentic” inner self — but it’s also a forum in which he gets to decide which questions are asked, and which ones he’d like to answer. There’s no paparazzi, after all, at Yellowstone Club; part of the reason celebs flock to it is because its exclusivity (membership is capped at 864 households) means that you don’t have to take your bodyguards on the ski lift. And as several people who’ve visited have told me, when Timberlake is in any of the club’s tony public spaces, guests are quietly asked not to “request selfies with Mr. Timberlake.”

Timberlake is fully in control of which images come out of his life in Montana, a stark contrast to New York, or Los Angeles, or even Tennessee, where documentation of his life and that of his family are at a premium. In Montana, he doesn’t have to endure the feminizing dynamics of celebrity culture in general and paparazzi surveillance in particular. In Montana, his life is his.

RCA / Via youtube.com

The teaser trailer condenses this idea to its most basic form. Just a minute long, it nevertheless features 49 shots, alternating swiftly between images of the natural landscape (sky, water, plants, horses, fire, mountains) and Timberlake: Timberlake enveloped by water, Timberlake kneeling in a snow-dusted field of cheatgrass, Timberlake walking through rows of corn.

There’s a quick shot of Timberlake nuzzling with Biel, whose bronzed face and quasi-cowboy hat connote the same sort of raw elemental-ness conveyed by the rest of the video. Same for one of the longest shots in the entire video: Timberlake, shirtless, holding a small child (presumably his son) close to his chest in front of a fire.

You can break down each of the shots in the teaser even further, but the overarching message is incredibly simple: The West is a place of authenticity, or regeneration, of fatherhood, of returning to the basics, of freedom, of control — all of which is to say, of unfettered manhood.

RCA / Via youtube.com

Timberlake isn’t the first pop star of his generation to deploy the backwoods masculinity pivot. In 2012, John Mayer retreated to a Montana ranch on the Yellowstone River, selling his homes in New York and Los Angeles. Mayer, like Timberlake, had found himself in an assortment of mini-scandals, also related to thoughtlessness when it came to comments on race (most infamously, “My dick is sort of like a white supremacist”). Mayer, too, said he wanted to extract himself from the paparazzi complex. At the same time, he underwent surgery on his vocal chords, which required months of vocal rest. He needed to literally stop speaking, and Montana was the perfect place to shut the fuck up.

When Mayer re-emerged, the press narrative centered on the ways that Montana had granted him distance from his reputation as an asshole. In an extensive interview with CBS Sunday in 2013, Mayer walks the host around his ranch in the winter, pointing out the various features of the Yellowstone River, before settling into a cozy, intimate tell-all. “It’s very liberating when you realize that it’s impossible to make everyone like you,” Mayer said, the snowy expanse of his ranch visible through the window behind him.

John Mayer points out landscape features around his Montana ranch.

CBS / Via youtube.com

“Big Sky Country is an ideal escape for a rock star trying to heal,” the narrator explains. Mayer was healing his vocal chords, but the larger implication is that the city — and fame — had made him into someone he wasn’t. “There’s all these struggles and stressors and conflicts every day [in the city] that you don’t even notice,” he told the Independent. “But waking up happy and going to bed happy, with contiguous happiness throughout the day, is very rare. You think: ‘I’m sure they’re saying my name somewhere. Somewhere, some hideously underpaid blogger is typing my name, and they’re either saying I’m great or I suck, but I don’t hear it and I don’t see it.’ It’s the most remarkable feeling I’ve ever had in my life – to be truly content, and to have that contentment not up for grabs by other people.”

What liberated Mayer — what made him return to himself, and his music, and the essence of what made him “a good man/with a good heart,” as the lead single from this 2012 album Born and Raised, “Shadow Days,” claimed — was distance, literal and figurative, from what other people thought of him. A place like Montana, where the voices are so far away he doesn’t have to listen to them.

The video for “Shadow Days” makes the journey literal: Mayer starts in the city, gets in his car, and drives West: first to Monument Valley, one of the most iconic markers of Westernness, and then up through Idaho and into Montana, stopping at various places to be alone, pluck at his guitar, and sing into the distance. Once out of the city, he starts interacting with normal people — he goes to a guitar shop in a small town, plays around, shakes some hands, slaps some backs — and buys some oil to fix his car himself.

Mayer buys the car oil himself in the video for "Shadow Days."

Columbia/Sony Music / Via youtube.com

These might not be the traditional markers of woods masculinity, but for someone like Mayer — best known for womanizing and/or writing sensitive songs like “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and “Daughters” — it’s meant to signify a transformation. Same for the cover art for Mayer’s second post-Montana album, Paradise Valley, which places Mayer, dressed in a long coat that approximates a cowboy’s duster, staring into space, cowboy-ish hat on his head, while a black lab looks up attentively. (Like Timberlake, Mayer also, at one point, dons a Pendleton Blanket amid the Montana snow).

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