Justin Timberlake’s Crisis of Conviction

Chad Ashby

The sound of a lonely guitar hovers over gold-tinged heads of wheat as the sun peeks through, reflecting on a shivering stream. As we catch glimpses of the artist, we hear his inner thoughts: “This album is really inspired by my son, my wife, my family, but more so than any other album that I’ve written, where I’m from.” The trailer for Man of the Woods goes on to include shots of bonfires, snowy fields, leather fringe, and Justin Timberlake—determined to discover himself underneath a blue-jean sky that promises authenticity, reflection, and earthiness.

That was our first hint of what Man of the Woods might be like. And then the first single, “Filthy” came out—which seemed to be none of those things, with its dirty-dancing robot of the future. “Supplies” followed, another head-scratcher. Even before the album’s release, articles swirled that Timberlake’s return to his Tennessee roots was commercial posturing, while his “Time’s Up” pin at the Golden Globes brought criticism for his silence regarding sexual abuse allegations against Woody Allen, whose most recent film Timberlake starred in. Upping the stakes, he scheduled his album drop to coincide with his return to a place of great controversy from his past, the Super Bowl halftime show, sans Janet Jackson.

After over a month of speculation, Man of the Woods is finally here, the Philadelphia Eagles have won the Super Bowl (thank God!), and Timberlake’s big weekend gives us an opportunity to reflect on what all this mixed messaging might mean. It seems to me that, much like the glittering mirrors of his halftime show, Justin Timberlake in 2018 reflects our culture’s larger crisis of conviction.

Sonically, what we got on Man of the Woods is not what anyone expected. Less pensive or rustic and more trademark layered vocals, heavy synth pad, and crisp guitar, the album hardly features raw lyrics or revelatory content. It has a pretty consistent theme: “I love my wife and son and Memphis.” Timberlake lays it out plainly in the title track: “I brag about you to anyone outside, I’m a man of the woods, it’s my pride.”

In fact, Man of the Woods sometimes gives off the feeling that Timberlake would be quite happy to abscond with his family into the Tennessee woods forever. “And now my circle of friends got tighter, I don't have time no more … and baby, you can have it all,” he sings on “Montana.” On the interlude “Hers,” Timberlake’s wife, Jessica Biel, shares this sentiment, “When I wear his shirt ...It’s an armor, like a barrier from the world, like our secret nobody else knows.” The music video for “Supplies” opens with Timberlake sitting with a glazed expression in front of a flashing wall of news reports and crises. The ensuing narrative follows Timberlake and his love as they manage not to save the world but simply survive the cultural apocalypse.

At the center of the album is “Say Something,” a duet with Chris Stapleton.“Everybody says, ‘Say something!’...I don’t want to get caught up in the rhythm of it / But I can’t help myself, no I can’t help myself, no,” he sings. The video for the single is even more poignant, as Timberlake and Stapleton strum with passion under a chorus of voices raining down from balconies above echoing the cry, “Say something! Say something! Say something!” It serves as a fitting metaphor for a popular culture that expects—demands—its artists and public figures to have something to say.

Man of the Woods gives the feeling that Timberlake would be happy to abscond with his family into the Tennessee woods forever.

Perhaps this is Man of the Woods’ greatest transgression: on a record promising to plumb the depths of authenticity, all Timberlake is able to draw up is a general love for his town and an abiding love for his wife and son. He knows he ought to say something; in fact, he tells his little boy: “You don't understand, right now you're a young man / You gonna have to stand for something” (“Young Man”). When we think “man of the woods,” we picture a Walden Pond philosopher who emerges from his hermitage to bestow wisdom upon the world. I think Timberlake just means he likes bonfires, “Flannel,” and the occasional night of camping. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Or maybe there is? Can a world awash in Twitter rage and media backlash really tolerate an artist’s indulgence in a few dance tracks, love songs, odes to mountain vacations, and his favorite tattered flannel—but no social consciousness whatsoever? Can we really celebrate a pop star who only wants to use his Super Bowl platform to dance to his greatest hits and take selfies with fans, but not to make a political statement?

In Newsweek, Zach Schonfeld puts his finger on the problem: “Timberlake ultimately seems to be navigating a very different media landscape than the one that embraced FutureSex/LoveSounds: an Internet that frequently treats celebrities as avatars of wokeness or emblems of everything bad.” Perhaps the backlash against Man of the Woods and Timberlake in general shows us more about our culture than the artist himself.

At this moment, we are hungry for conviction. We want recording artists who sing with conviction. We want celebrities and politicians who fight with conviction. We want Twitter icons who tweet with conviction. We want athletes who kneel with conviction. But in Timberlake, we see a man struggling to say something—anything—with conviction. In Timberlake, perhaps we see ourselves.

After all, we often hate the thing in others that we struggle with most in our own lives. As much as we’d like to deny it, putting on a woodsy flannel and a red bandana doesn’t make Timberlake any more a man of the woods than using a hashtag makes us an activist. The humble admission rings all too true in our darkest moments. As Timberlake sings on “Living Off the Land,” “I’m just a man doing the best that I can, saint or a sinner.” We feel very strongly about teacher compensation, but we don’t have time to volunteer in our local school. We are vehemently pro-life, but we could never be foster parents. We hate racism, but we avoid the communities that have been decimated by it. We believe the gospel is the power of salvation, but it’s just so awkward to try to evangelize.

Before we come down too hard on Man of the Woods for being self-indulgent or out of step with the culture, we have to ask ourselves how much it mirrors a lack of conviction in our own lives. Are we simply paying lip-service to trendy hashtags and soothing our guilty consciences with a few retweets of our favorite celebrity activist? In a world that is begging, “Say something!” who will be the ones to speak with conviction?

It is an amazing opportunity for the church if we will take it. For too long, we have pandered for social favor, bumbling through agendas set by politicians or celebrities or other agencies. What if our local churches had the conviction to say something—not only to say something, but to act? What if we were not ashamed of the gospel, trying to make it popular by pinning it onto the latest movement? In a world where everyone loathes fickleness and flippancy, but no one wants to risk their necks, Christians have to be the ones to stand with conviction. When the early church received the Spirit, boldness became a hallmark of its ministry. Whatever happened to that? Brothers and sisters, let us find our own voice, and let us act. “I hear them call my name,” Timberlake sings on “Say Something.” Will I have anything to say?

Topics: Music