Justin Timberlake Man of the Woods

[RCA; 2018]

Styles: country hologram, body nostalgia, pop apocalypse
Others: Sly and the Family Stone, Chris Stapleton, Blade Runner 2049

In the seconds before everything ended, there was a little still silence. My head was outside and my body was in, with a window frame planed in the space between us. No bug sounded in the hot still air; we were a species waiting for the final planetary flush. In the space before apocalypse, these woods felt home a memory’s kiss, something to hold precious. A lover’s voice asks:

“Can you see me? Can you find me? Look closer. Through the trees. Do you see it?”

Then: light-shocked horizon lines, ballistic motion shoving through the silence. There was a heat near my face and the smell of sulfurized egg rot and the low hum of dread in my belly. I gripped the frame and tried not to fall out of the window as the whole damn thing blew up.

We didn’t know who or when would end where we were, but it seemed a long time coming (“The world could end now baby/ We’ll be living in The Walking Dead”). And after the end, before oblivion set in, you’d think the ones who made it would want a reset instead of a rebranding. But out here in these ruin sounds, the familiar pull of sponsored content still restricts any sound of hope or real intimacy. After the end of something big, something still sounds like was. Don’t we deserve something better than the taped-up disco balls? Is there Americana after America? In scarred lands without trees, what is the Man of the Woods?

It’s a hologram coded in the language of the past, a market’s perfection that won’t leave the customer satisfied or otherwise. A catchy hook isn’t good enough: it wants me(mory.) “GRANT MAN OF THE WOODS ACCESS TO LOCATION?” I say yes. I am alone, sometimes at the end of the world, and I feel it.

I seek salvage in this unknown year in the company of this app pop nostalgia, always hearing how good its last night never wasn’t. I ask it questions. I want it to help me; we keep holograms around to remind us how a thing was when it was good, and I was very young when I first heard its charmed tenor implore: “Is this the beginning or beginning of the end?” I say, “What did you mean by that? Where do I go now?” It says, “Let’s go to an island/ Like we did last year, catch a vibe.

It can’t imagine a future-forward; why would it want to? It’s always ever had everything it wanted. Its voice is privileged charm, the wink of always getting-away, of living in desire. Progress was always theoretical. Its futuresex was space opera from the 1950s, its lovesounds were hetero-sex bottled and branded like a perfume. Man of the Woods is a pheromone for itself, for how good all those sounds always used to be; it’s just shades 1970s disco and 1980s house and 1990s R&B and this millenium’s wrecking reflections, mirrors all the way down. “I got on rose-colored glasses.” At least it’s an almost honest defeatist sound.

“Mere data makes a man,” some shades remind us. Is there anything real (an inch of intimacy, a crumb of hope) to be gained from this Target-propped, Pepsi-carbonated Twitter-fed whitenoise? “Haters gonna say it’s fake/ So? Real.” At the end of the world, hologram pop is just the non-event for never.

If it can’t imagine a future, at least it still imagines imagining (“I’m just one man/ Doing the best I can”). I say, “Is there hope? Was there ever?” It shrugs, shakes, pops shoulders and dips into motion. Even shades can dance (“The air’s so thin but we don’t give a damn/ The starry sky across the land/ Where we pretend it’s our last chance to dance”) and even impersonations of humanity suggest a mortality (“And we just hoping the music don’t stop till the next day”). It has a dopey audacity to hope for a best in spite of existing in the worst.

It is a conservative version. It wants to conserve a love that it’s always felt entitled to. Will it ever reconcile how it has lived on in spite of others who were never afforded that reality, how it thrived in the thrall of a sound that’s never wholly belonged to it?

It wants to save a feeling, to sing it over and over again. Its sex setting is aphoristic (“Put your filthy hands all over me/ You know this ain’t the clean version”), an absurd reductive (“I love your pink/ You like my purple/ That color right between, that’s where I worship”), but at least it sets sex in large-scale color. At least it knows sex and dance are every bit as valid realities as hate and misery. It is a conservation vision. But it’s still a vision.

So I say, “Is vision alone enough? What do you really want?” It says, “Maybe I’m looking for something I can’t have.” And for the first time past the world ending, it’s quiet. What does it want?

It’s sad, maybe. Needlessly, unintentionally, and only occasionally, but there’s sadness somewhere in this holopop. It bops and swerves, boasts and bloats mostly; but when it sounds confused, its depths are exposed. We’re quick to point out the absurdity in turning to replications for an honest reaction to a world, but what if the world’s just as absurd? A replication (a pop musician, images projected over a light source, a good line of verse, an act of consensual intimacy) reacts with a human source. “Everyone knows all about my direction/ And in my heart, somewhere I wanna go there/ Still, I don’t go there” We know where we might go; we’ve been there before. It’s sad that we don’t go there.

I ask it, “What does love look like?”

Could a shade cry? It looks at me and plays someone else’s voice:

“When I wear his shirt, it feels like, like his skin over mine. And the little holes and tears and shreds on it are, are, are the, the memories of the past that I wasn’t there for, but, that somehow I feel like I understand more when it’s against my skin. It’s an armor, like a barrier from the world. Like our secret nobody else knows and I like that, you know? It makes me feel like a woman, it makes me feel sexy, it makes me feel…it makes me feel like I’m his

But those words are “Hers,” not his or ours. Man of the Woods, barely able to imagine a future without its self, (always) anticipates a tomorrow with the loves that keeps it moving. It is an audacious yet deeply flawed document of thens and nexts, a hope for fuck and a shrug at real resistance, a prayer to a child and an inquiry into hoping. At its worst, it wants memory over future. At its best, it wants to remember who sings next, after the shades fade. Tread carefully past ends. Work harder to be accountable. Rock your body. It and I and we are stuck together in never-ending endings, a people impersonating selves via records like holograms: maybe loving and re-loving are as real as any other thing.

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