Justin Timberlake, pop music critics, authenticity and coffee​

Previously published in The Daily Star of Hammond, LA after Timberlake’s performance in the Super Bowl halftime show in 2018.

I was at a coffee shop and when the barista asked what I wanted, I said, “Black coffee.” She looked at me like I was from a different planet.

“Just black coffee?” she said. “Anything else?”

“Nope,” I said, slightly confused. “I just want a coffee. You guys do serve normal coffee, right?” I realize that may make me sound like a jerk, but this exchange has happened at coffee shops all over the place, and it always perplexes me that some baristas don’t understand why I want the one item a coffee shop should sell the most. While sitting at the table and sipping the hot caffeine juice, I pulled up Twitter to see how people were responding to Justin Timberlake’s new album, “Man of the Woods,” which dropped that day on Friday, February 2.

Justin Timberlake is one of the best pop artists I’ve ever heard.I loved “Cry Me a River,” “Summer Love,” “My Love” and more songs he was a part of when I was in middle school and high school (and still do today).

The hard thing for me to reconcile was a lot of writers and critics crushing the album and some going so far as to question JT’s entire career. “There’s no way it could be that bad,” I thought. So I plugged in my headphones in started listening. About 30 seconds in, I came to a pretty quick conclusion, “Oh no, it’s pretty bad.” The first song, “Filthy,” sounded like a garbled mess of robots trying to have sex in the middle of a thunderstorm right after running a marathon.

The rest of the album isn’t great either. Some songs are extremely catchy but not good while others are serviceable. I don’t think a single song from this album will be considered one of Timberlake’s top 10 by the time his music career is over (“Higher Higher” is pretty good though). The whole “modern Americana with 808s” vibe of the album that Timberlake said he wanted to achieve with this album gets old pretty fast and could’ve used either more variance or less fat.

Many of the critics I read tearing Timberlake and the new album apart didn’t focus as much on the sonic quality as they did the themes and message of the record. Or, I guess it was the lack of specific ideas or messages they hoped would be there. The pop critics (and plenty of other people with a “platform” on social media) went after him for not addressing different social and political movements and making a statement about those things. I’m not naming specific things because I don’t wish to get drawn into a discussion about those movements.

This is a tricky moment for established pop artists due to the medias insatiable desire for music that makes a political or social statement while also being something new or different than anything they’ve done before it. Anything less than exactly what they want will lead to questioning an entire career. This pretentious attitude towards pop music is interesting because most of these people were the same decrying the snobbishness of indie music fans and artists for looking down on pop. Has pop suddenly become so important that it can no longer be enjoyed purely for the sake of pleasure?

Pop has gone the way of coffee (Steven Hyden of UPROXX made a similar comparison except with beer). Coffee used to be for people that either wanted to focus more effectively while at work or just wanted to stay warm while doing something in the cold. It was meant for the unpretentious, designed to be brewed simply with hot water running through the grounds without having to put in a ton of mental or physical work to make and enjoy it.

Now, pop music — like coffee (with all the different blends and the dozens of way to make a simple cup of the caffeine juice like the french press, AeroPress, percolator, pour-over and more)– is something viewed with more importance and seriousness than it was ever meant to be. The music has to mean something, be politically and musically progressive and relevant to people who spend way too much time looking at screens paying attention to social media than they should.

Here’s the rub — Timberlake isn’t a millennial (He’s 37, the oldest millennial is supposedly 35, he’s more of a member of Gen X). His tastes had to change from when he was coming out as a solo artist after a stint in the boy band NSYNC. Otherwise, he would either be a stagnant person and artist who despite getting married and having his first kid has not grown as a person or would be writing inauthentic, uninspired music solely so critics would appreciate some crusade he’s making.

It’s a strange thing; people want celebrities (specifically musical artists) to be authentic because we’ve earned that’s where the best music (not the catchiest) tends to come from, but these critics want that authenticity only through the lens of something they already agree with.

Timberlake decided to reach for something authentic and go back to his Tennessee roots and stay a pure entertainer for the sake of entertaining people and got killed for it. All that will do is either force some beloved artists to make some disingenuous music or stop making music and ride on past successes to avoid getting slammed by the “critics.”

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