See the Signs: Justin Timberlake and the Pretence of Romance

Update: Initially accepted for inclusion in this edited collection! The road is a long one though and initial acceptance does not guarantee publication. First draft due in March 2019 and I am excited to see how it comes together – and to be included in this project!

Status: Submitted for consideration as part of an edited collection on the Misogyny in Post-2000 Music.

Justin Timberlake has worked hard to distance himself from the bubble-gum pop image of the band N*SYNC, even though it was his membership with the group that established his fame. Over the course of his four studio albums, Timberlake has achieved this goal by cleverly crafting a focused body of work, which moves away from light-hearted pop songs to focus on a deeper meditation of heteronormative relationships. Through his exploration of these themes, Timberlake not only highlights the shift in how heteronormative relationships are being understood culturally, but also reveals elements of toxic masculinity and its role in social and gender dynamics.

In this chapter I look at the two predominate themes of Timberlake’s music: sex and betrayal. In analyzing how these are represented, I consider the influence Timberlake’s frequent musical collaborators (predominately rap musicians) have in establishing his persona as seductive, dangerous lover. As a counterpoint, an assessment of Timberlake’s solo work recalls his boy-band persona of romantic and jilted boyfriend. I suggest that it is the friction between these two personalities which presents problematic or toxic masculinity in two respects. In the first instance, he employs his collaborators to engage with overtly sexual themes, while in the second he is perpetually cast as a victim within the landscape of his romantic partnerships.

Timberlake’s lyrical content, along with the visual representation of relationships in his music videos will be considered, along with his choice of collaborative partnerships. I draw on rap music scholarship in my assessment of how the genre and rap musicians have been viewed socially in the last three decades, and the role that this has played in building Timberlake’s brand. In the case of the former, I focus on how Timberlake presents himself as perpetual victim.

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