The following sentence is so hateful and makes me so sad that it’s taken me six or seven tries to even write the thing, but here goes: Justin Timberlake’s new single “Take Back the Night” sucks – like, a lot.
I say this out of a deep and ecumenical love of popular music, and, more importantly, I mean it about the music itself. That is, I’m not the type of person who dismisses pop out of hand (a product of pure ressentiment), and I’m also not merely adding to the growing chorus of fans cheesed at JT for unknowingly nicking the name of a prominent anti-sexual violence campaign. The latter are, of course, right and Justified (zing!) in their critique, though I take it more as sadly reflective of how much time people in the ‘Suit & Tie’ demo actually spend thinking about politics, which is to say not a whole hell of a lot.
No, the problem with “Take Back the Night” is that it is musically abysmal, and, more importantly, deeply disappointing. Now, I didn’t know until recently that JT meant enough to me as an artist to truly, violently disappoint me, but it’s true. While his first two LPs are far from perfect, and contain their fair share of dreck (see “Losing My Way,” “Nothin’ Else”), the man at the helm at least seemed motivated by a desire to make danceable, KIIS-FM music that frustrated your expectations of what that was supposed to mean. Coming straight off a phenomenally successful but potentially limiting boyband run, his first single as a solo pop artist featured guest verses from Clipse, the self-proclaimed “Pioneers of the Coke-Rap.” You might chalk that up to the convenience of the Pharrell connection or the cynicism of a cred grab, but it’s actually much further past the Nelly feature on N*SYNC’s “Girlfriend” than any mere grope at credibility needed to go, and I’m sure there were a hundred less aggro rappers who could’ve served the same function to the major label bean-counters’ satisfaction. Whatever it was, it was absolutely NOT the easy or obvious choice.
But JT’s desire to push us went deeper than that. It can be hard to remember now because of the way in which FutureSex/LoveSounds took hold in public consciousness, but that shit was difficult to get through on first listen. Straightforward melody and the JT baby-boy falsetto were used sparingly, surrounded by pulsating, claustrophobic backing tracks rooted in dissonant keyboard stabs that somehow were simultaneously minimal and cluttered. It was Yeezus before Yeezus was Yeezus, and it was the sound of someone whose aesthetic choices were dictating what we were dancing to.
“Take Back the Night,” it pains me to say, has reversed that equation. Everything falls into place with the arid, mathematical precision of someone trying to change just enough of the arrangement of “Rock With You” to ensure that you will be see it as a ‘reference’ rather than a ‘facsimile’, when it is in fact the latter. Stereogum remarked that it will inevitably be mixed into Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and that insight is truer than it knows: both represent the sound of innovation calcified into replication, all glistening strings and plunkety Chic-style guitars exhumed and reanimated. I don’t have any particularly interesting thoughts about nostalgia as such; it’s neither good nor bad at its core. But it has to function in the right way: if you throw on a Casablanca Records compilation and think to yourself “Huh, no one really makes records like this anymore,” you should check yourself before your next thought is “…and I will take it upon myself to make a song that sounds EXACTLY like one of those records.” Like, I don’t care if you like to restore classic cars, but don’t do it on record, or in front of millions of people.
I’m harder on Justin because, unlike those contemporary Scandinavian punk bands who seem content to churn out serviceable dioramas of 1980s Los Angeles for all eternity, he actually set a precedent of making records that sound like nothing you’d ever heard before. At this point, dude just turned 32, and it sounds like he’s already hit the Rod-Stewart-Great-American-Songbook portion of his career. The track doesn’t care enough to demand your attention; it’s content with being the thing you put on in the background while you are doing other things. And silly me: all this time, I thought Justin wanted to be THE man in my life.