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The release of Justin Timberlake’s latest CD The 20/20 Experience last week met fanfare, market analysis, and some unusually frank talk about singing, dancing, raced bodies.  Timberlake’s musical successes have made him, in the eyes of his vast following, either the crown prince of pop or a rip off artist, building wealth as a racial ventriloquist feeding off the nipple of Mammy black expressive culture, the globe’s most reliable, free-flowing source of sonic and kinetic nutrition.  One thing many fans agree on—and the music industry is thrilled about—is that they wanted it, and here’s the shocker: they were willing to kick it old school and actually purchase the project.  Team Timberlake sold nearly 1 million copies the first week, although it’s a sure bet that some of it circulated on the “free” market.

As a talented entertainer who has starred in movies and made records, Timberlake’s diverse capabilities, boy-next-door (in some neighborhoods) looks, and unusual longevity in show business, make him a bankable commodity.  But even with this level of commercial success, he also attracts criticism about things over which he has little control, but he certainly by virtue of his phenotype is implicated.  Timberlake is white.  The music he makes is not.

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The coupling of sonic grammars and racial identity is a hornet’s nest that dates back, in the American context at least, to the first encounters of settlers and Natives.  Music became an important marker of cultural difference.  When blackface minstrelsy developed in the mid-19th century, musical difference became big business, collapsing the perception of blacks’ sonic exceptionalism with white commercial opportunity.  It was lucrative enough an endeavor that African Americans themselves claimed a piece of the pie, blackening up and cuttin’ up with the best of them.

But the calcification of what might be called a “sonic languages of the skin” occurred in the late 19th century with the establishment of the modern music industry, emergence of the idea of the “hit song” as well as institutional developments outside of the industry.  A core value of the music business comprises formula and predictability on every level of the process and not the promotion of artistic innovation.  As David Suisman put it in Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, the advent of the popular song “marked the beginning of a new era in the political economy of music, by refashioning one of the most basic and universal forms of cultural expression –the song—according to the inexorable logic of business.” Networks of songwriters, performers, managers, venue owners, producers, promoters, music publishers, and later record labels formed systems to determine the quickest and easiest route to financial success. Once success was found, it was sure to be replicated.

The birth of the modern day “hit song” was, indeed, a powerful medium for discourses about performative authenticity to coalesce.  In a fascinating study Segregating Sounds: Inventing Folk and Pop Music in the Age of Jim Crow, Karl Hagstrom Miller writes that the simultaneous emergence of the academic field of folklore studies established a broad frame for authenticity based on a sonic racialism to be considered isolated from “modern life and modern media.”  Miller argues that this idea still circulates in the mass-mediated air we breath.   The folkloric discourse of authenticity, systemic Jim Crow practices, and the legacy of minstrelsy (with its quite specific idea about musical performance as “play-acting) worked together to calcify our contemporary—and by now naturalized—perceptions about music and racialized bodies. Some realms of contemporary media still operate out of this marketing logic—MTV, CMT, VH1 and BET come to mind.

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This dance among sound formations and identity politics animated the Al Jolson vehicle The Jazz Singer (1927), the first film with synchronized dialogue.  The central character, Jackie Rabinowitz, causes a family crisis when he forsakes Jewish tradition for an all-American tradition: popular song singing in blackface.  This trope of conflicting social and musical identities would play itself out over the 20th and 21st centuries in various ways.  A highlight reel would include Down Beat magazine’s Blindfold Test, meant at one time to prove that white musicians were just as good at playing jazz; Elvis Presley’s rock ‘n roll style swept the nation affirming that white guys could shake, rattle and roll, too; the rise of white artists “covering” songs that African American artists had recorded first; Jet and Ebony magazines ran regular features sounding the racial alarm by asking were whites “taking over” [insert any black music genre]?; and more recently, the rise of entertainers like Eminem, Joss Stone and Timberlake, whose ease with sonic blackness is certainly part of their marketing appeal.

Al Jolson

One might ask Timberlake an age-old question usual directed to Negroes: “how does it feel to be a problem”?  He might be stumped that you even suggested such a thing. In his review of The 20/20 Experience, music critic Mario Tarradell elides musical style with identity, an idea representing one of the reasons we find music so powerful: “Justin Timberlake is a man of three personalities on The 20/20 Experience, his first studio album in seven years. He explores a gauzy, artsy landscape with quasi-ethereal, indie music tendencies. He’s the old-school R&B crooner with melodic swagger paying homage to the greats of the genre, from Marvin Gaye to Prince. Yet he’s also the hip-hop-fused dance floor Svengali bringing the younguns to the club. Sometimes he’s all of these in the space of one song.”  Clearly, Timberlake has had access to all of these styles as part of the sonic traffic cascading through the public sphere, sometimes racially marked other times not, particularly of late.

What Tarradell calls “melodic swagger” is referencing Timberlake’s falsetto delivery, which is neither powerhouse nor virtuoso to my ears. It functions adequately in a robust track environment awash in digital bells and whistles though not completely divorced from an analogue feel like a lot of today’s pop music. The black and white filming of the vintage-looking “Suit and Tie” video that dropped with the first single works together with the track to conjure the past.

An undergraduate student in my American Musical Life course questioned how the harmonic aspect of song might figure into its “racial pedigree” when she wrote:

During the JT video today, I was trying to find the guitar tabs online to see what harmonies (if any) people have given his music. I think a way of perceiving the ‘social contract associated with raced bodies’ should be through the harmonies they pursue in their music. Example- does JT’s music have a ‘hook’ that is not only a melodic motive, but is also combined with a harmonic progression that people associate with ‘black music’? I feel that rather than through his image, it could be the resulting aesthetic promulgated through a different sort of ‘pop harmony’ that gives his music a ‘black feel’ as discussed in the video we watched.

The answer is: certainly.  The song is primarily (but not entirely) built around one chord, the supertonic (ii), and in a groove set up much like the Gap Band’s “Yearning for Your Love.”  What is interesting and what makes it sound “a shade lighter than black” (clowning a bit here) is that an ostinato bass, a reliable marker of funk, is only implied here—or recorded at a frequency that’s difficult to perceive.  Nonetheless, the point is clear. The team of writers of this song positioned it at the nexus of the new R&B—it’s harmonically reductive and sonically robust with hip-hop influenced production values together with a melodic approach referencing mellow soul music.

Sound matters. And this is why spaces like HuffPost Live dedicated some time to discuss the sonic and racial politics of Timberlake’s new music, if not the idea of the JT himself.  At the same time that I was thinking about writing this piece, I heard Ray Charles’ “Fool for You” on the radio.  Charles’ performance rhetoric caused a stir in its day because he had absorbed all of the sonic codes of the black church, jazz and blues, could tease and toy with the subtle nuances of each, and then had the nerve and wit to collapse them all and sell it.  Audiences in the know heard his work and either celebrated or despised it (the latter group probably secretly dug it, though—they just didn’t want to).  Now, of course, it’s unfair to compare the expressive vocal range of the man who invented the entire genre of soul music to a former Mickey Mouse Club member.  There’s simply no comparison.  In fact, the category of true soul singing is quite safe from the likes of many who top the charts today. (Listen to “Fool for You,” and you’ll see what I mean).

I’m making a larger point about an important shift that’s occurred over the last fifteen years or so.  The “pop” category has expanded stylistically to not only mean sound organization designed for the ears and cash registers of “white people.”  Pop has absorbed a whole lot of “black,” and team Timberlake is playing the only game they know.  His music, marketing, and without doubt, his dancing white body all but assure his work’s “hit” status in today’s industry.  For it is an institution that spreads “black music” from, and to, a broad, racially mixed demographic that expects nothing less when they party from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn. JT is simply crooning, swoonin’ and swaggin’ to win. It’s apparently very good business.

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