This should have been a triumphant week for Justin Timberlake.
His fifth album Man of the Woods – billed as a return to the singer’s Tennessee roots – came out on Friday, and he played the Super Bowl Half Time Show two days later, making him the only artist to grace the coveted stage three times.
But both the record and his performance have been savaged by critics. Here’s a sample of the comments.
On Man of the Woods:
- “We are now approaching the 12th year of the national delusion that Justin Timberlake remains an essential pop star.” [New York Times]
- “A noncommittal shrug of an album.” [Stereogum]
- “There’s no refuge from the lyrics, which in many places engender the same mix of emotions you’d confront upon walking in on your parents having sex.” [Pitchfork].
- On his Super Bowl performance:
- “Aesthetically and ethically, Timberlake’s magic didn’t take. It seemed like he’d cast the wrong spell, making himself invisible within swarms of dancers.” [NPR]
- “He was a man in the weeds, scrambling through his archives to find any moment that might connect with an audience that, in substantial part, hasn’t lived with his music.” [Time Magazine]
- “The show is almost over. And then it is. And a feeling of togetherness washes over us, a feeling of certainty that we all just witnessed something unambiguously underwhelming.” [Washington Post]
Timberlake must be wondering what went wrong. Because, truth be told, there’s nothing egregiously bad about either Man of the Woods or his Super Bowl performance. They’re just… slightly disappointing.
The backlash feels bigger than a commentary on his music. There’s a mockery and a cruelty that feels personal – as though people had a lingering resentment towards the star, and they’ve suddenly been given licence to express it.
For some, it goes back to his relationship with Britney Spears. After they broke up, he made music and videos that traded on their story and told several interviewers he’d taken her virginity – a personal detail that wasn’t his to share.
For others, it’s about his failure to support Janet Jackson after exposing her breast to millions of TV viewers at the 2004 Super Bowl.
Timberlake’s half-hearted acknowledgement of that moment at this year’s show did not go unnoticed.
“He chose to perform the song Rock Your Body, during which the famous wardrobe malfunction took place, and yet he didn’t mention Janet: He didn’t shout her out, and he stopped the song right before the line during which he ripped off her costume,” pop critic Ann Powers told NPR.
“It was almost like he was trying to erase what had happened in the past, but that is just not flying in 2018.”