The current single from Justin Timberlake’s new album Man of the Woods is called “Say Something.”
It’s a collaboration with Timberlake’s country singer pal Chris Stapleton that’s a fairly successful realization of the shift the middling album’s outdoorsy artwork seemed to portend (but failed to deliver on), mashing up a JT pop-R&B groove with a strummy Southern soul man vibe.
The messaging, however, is a mess. The song was written after a social media uproar ensued last year when Timberlake’s effort to praise a speech by actor (and Temple grad) Jesse Williams on the BET Awards led to Philadelphia journalist Ernest Owens accusing the singer of cultural appropriation.
The lesson Timberlake has taken away from that Twitter war is that he would have been better off not speaking up in the first place.
“Say Something” is about the pressure artists increasingly feel to stand up and be counted, to take sides and make political statements about potentially polarizing topics, whether they be race, gun violence, gender discrimination, or the president of the United States.
Pop music makers can, of course, engage with the world and address their social concerns by doing what they do best: making music. Excellent examples of artists doing just that abound. Three 2018 cases in point: acts Superchunk (playing Union Transfer with Philly band Swearin’ on Wednesday), U.S. Girls (at Johnny Brenda’s on April 14) and Everything But the Girl singer Tracey Thorn, who’s just released a great record that’s simply called Record.
But presenting yourself as a pop artist has become a much more multifaceted enterprise. The proliferation of media outlets and ease of use of social media offers 24/7 opportunities to share your thoughts. It makes it that much harder to bite your tongue, and that much easier for your followers to bite you back.
Which also means it’s much easier to get yourself in trouble. Two dudes who did their careers no favors this month are Jesse Hughes, the Eagles of Death Metal singer, and Killer Mike, the Atlanta rapper born Mike Render who’s one half of Run the Jewels, the acclaimed duo who, along with indie songwriter Mitski, open for New Zealand pop star Lorde at the Wells Fargo Center on Monday.
Hughes is a survivor of the 2015 terror attack at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris, a harrowing experience that he apparently felt gave him license to criticize the teenage survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February. In since-deleted Instagram posts, Hughes called the students who led the March for Our Lives protests “pathetic” and said they “insult the memory of those that were killed and abuse and insult me and every other lover of liberty.”
Outspokenly political Killer Mike, meanwhile, gave an interview with NRA TV host Colin Noir in which the rapper said that if his children joined school walkout protests they should “walk out my house.”
The rapper, who served as a surrogate campaigner for Bernie Sanders in 2016, is a longtime NRA member and has frequently spoken about black gun ownership as an issue of security and defense against police brutality. But when his NRA interview went viral during anti-gun protests around the country Saturday, the rapper faced a fierce backlash. He has since tweeted out the entirety of the interview to provide context, and he apologized.
How much risk an artist runs in speaking out depends on his relationship with his audience. Killer Mike’s remarks caused consternation because as a rapper who supported a candidate who identifies as a Democratic Socialist, he’s expected to express liberal points of view, and he surprised his fans by doing the opposite.
Rappers in general, though, aren’t likely to hurt themselves by hurling insults at the chief executive, like emcees YG and Nipsey Hussle did on last year’s profane “FDT.” It was slightly more complicated for Eminem, who went hard after Donald Trump on several raps released last fall, because his base includes lot of white fans who presumably support the president. But it certainly didn’t hurt him with his African American following.
“At the end of the day, if I did lose half my fan base, then so be it, because I feel like I stood up for what was right and I’m on the right side of this,” Enimem told Billboard.
Mainstream country acts, meanwhile, have tended to be extremely cautious about taking political sides, dating to the 2016 election and on through today. Old-school performers like Loretta Lynn have come out as pro-Trump, and Americana act Margo Price has raised her voice for equal pay for women on her song “Pay Gap.”
But though there have been exceptions, like Maren Morris and Vince Gill’s “Dear Hate” song, released in the wake of last fall’s massacre at the Route 91 Harvest country festival in Las Vegas, country acts in general have been extremely cautious not to alienate either on the right or the left any segment of their audience. That’s in keeping with the carefully manicured images of mainstream country stars who are loath to rock the boat in an inherently conservative genre.
For indie acts, like those mentioned above, such tiptoeing around political issues is not necessary. When Superchunk takes aim at the Trump administration with high-energy, combative songs like “Cloud of Hate” from their superb new What a Time to Be Alive at Union Transfer, the cult band will be playing before a receptive audience.
As will certainly be the case when Meghan Remy, the former Philadelphia songwriter now based in Toronto, brings the shrewdly intelligent always danceable songs about gender and power from her engaging new In a Poem Unlimited this month.
Tracey Thorn’s Record, meanwhile, is a heartening example of the impulse to engage politically resulting in deeply personal art. The album’s sound recalls the 1980s club music of EBTG’s beginnings while it tells a chronologically autobiographical story that plays out like a quietly confident feminist manifesto, particularly “Sister,” a duet with Corinne Bailey Rae that was written after the Women’s March in 2016.
It’s a trickier business, however, for widely successful mainstream pop acts like Timberlake, who also took heat for his duet with a video image of the late Prince at the Super Bowl in February, and who’s due at the Wells Fargo Center on June 2.
His predicament is similar to that of Taylor Swift, whose political leanings or lack thereof have been the focus of much online speculation and suspicion. Whom did the most popular act in the pop universe vote for in 2016? Why won’t she say? Is she truly an empowered feminist superhero, or does she just play one in her videos?
Swift, who plays Lincoln Financial Field on July 13 and 14, could have been poised to become a key voice for the #MeToo movement after she testified against a Colorado DJ accused of groping her in 2013 and won a court ruling against him. But the rollout of her 2017 album Reputation wouldn’t dare risk any such issues as it once again racked up the enormous sales figures that it seems only she and Adele can achieve in a fractured marketplace.
“I hear them call my name,” Timberlake sings on Man of the Woods. “Everybody says, ‘Say something.’ ” But rather than heed the call, Timberlake has decided the more prudent path is to zip his lip. The dubious conclusion “Say Something” comes to is repeated as it builds to a climax: “Sometime the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all.” Really? That might seem like the safest play, especially at a time when it seems everyone’s shouting at one another and controversy is difficult to avoid. But disengaging from the world at large also runs another risk: becoming irrelevant.