Are We Justifying Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation Of Black Music?
Alright so it has finally happened! We’ve got a new Justin Timberlake album, and Lord knows my life needed it. During the first promos I didn’t even ask “Why am I logging onto MySpace?; Didn’t I give that up halfway through the enrollment page in ’05?” Nope; we all did it because we just needed a taste.
In the recent landscape of Top 40/Pop, “The 20/20 Experience” seems like a beacon of hope. Mostly everything else getting radio play has been informed by a still sluggish economy and the ‘pop music factory’ phenomenon. The result? A sound once reserved for trashy tourist trap hole-in-the-wall European discos that lure you in with shots of bargain basement liquor is the norm; that or easy listening. Of course you could tune into NPR but when you’re already in traffic headed to work? Nah. Nobody wants to aggravate their grogginess with heavy doses of auto-tone while SOBER.
Happily JT’s album picked up where he left off with these 6-8 minute songs, and thankfully most of them will get radio play. They mesh together elements of classic soul, Timbaland’s production and a full-on band. Also, his excellent live performances feature his trademark showmanship. It’s magic at first sight and on second glance you can easily see it’s the witchcraft of cultural appropriation.
As usual, though, he’s being lauded for bringing pop music back to it’s larger than life roots. The Atlantic is calling him the 21st Century Sammy Davis Jr. In the article, “Justin Timberlake, Our Sammy Davis Jr,” Hampton Stevens writes:
One hallmark of the song-and-dance man is versatility. Timberlake may not be the best singer and dancer on earth, but he’s very, very good at both of them. He also drips with charisma. More crucially, like Sammy and like all the great song-and-dance men before him, Justin moves freely between one form of entertainment and the another, with no part of his appeal seeming like that of a dilettante or novelty act.
Now I thought we were all being polite with this open secret but how can his performance not be seen for what it is? It’s black. Just like his beat progressions, almost all of his band, vocalists and his ‘call and response’ ad libs reflect the aforementioned statement. It’s the tradition of Southern soul music born in the juke joints of his native home, Tennessee. It’s the same formula Elvis (also a Tennessee native) used except America wasn’t ‘comfortable’ seeing us on TV much back then.
Although nobody is asking Justin Timberlake to ‘bow down,’ we’ve seen this formula over and over again from our own artists. However, the song and dance has been done and many black artists tend to be left unsung or even critically acclaimed. In the post, “The Trouble With Justin Timberlake’s Appropriation of Black Music,” Jamilah King takes a look at Timberlake’s work and wants us to take a look at his journey throughout his music career. She writes:
My ambivalence toward Justin is, to a large degree, a matter of aesthetics. But it’s also rooted in a very real anxiety about white artists “borrowing” black music and style then taking a break when it becomes inconvenient. Yes, Timberlake has rightfully earned his place among modern pop music legends, but he also embodies the historical mistrust that exists between white performers and black listeners that dates at least as far back as Elvis Presley’s 1950s foray into what was then called “race music.“
I’m left wondering of all the other handsome suit-clad male vocalist who pay homage to soul while performing pop music from this generation; could any of them get as much attention (or money) as JT? Or are new genres being invented out of thin air to isolate them from mainstream success? See also Urban Contemporary.