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We need to talk about Justin Timberlake’s “notes app apology”

Since its release, the internet has been gripped by The New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, which details the rise, fall, and rise again of the iconic pop star. The viewer follows Britney’s journey as a young starlet on The Mickey Mouse Club, to a hyper-sexualised teeny bopper, to a shaven-head woman at her breaking point, wielding an umbrella at the unrelenting camera flashes. The documentary confronts the intense misogyny, sexualisation and cruelty that defined so much of her career and media coverage, before delving into the present-day #Free Britney movement.

Alongside the paparazzi, tabloids and the insatiable celebrity culture of our day and age, another villain arises in the woeful tale of Britney Spears: Justin Timberlake. That of NYSNC and SexyBack fame. Since the film’s airing, Timberlake’s Instagram comments have been flooded with criticism, calling him to apologise to Spears.

On 12th February, Timberlake released a ‘Notes app’ statement to his Instagram. “I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what was right,” Timberlake wrote. “I specifically want to apologise to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually, because I care for and respect these women and I know I failed.”

“The industry is flawed. It sets men, especially white men, up for success,” said Timberlake. “I can do better and I will do better.” 

Let’s back up. From 1999-2002, Britney and Justin dated for three years. The documentary positions the breakup from Timberlake as a turning point in the public perception of Spears and in some ways alludes to its contributing factor in her mental health struggles. Timberlake was able to take ownership of the media narrative surrounding the breakup, which was the hottest celebrity gossip involving childhood sweethearts and global superstars.

Image: Jumie Alias via flickr

2002 saw the breakup of the Spears-Timberlake saga and the launch of Timberlake’s solo career. It was the perfect media storm that was harnessed to elevate Timberlake’s career, while damning Spears. “Cry Me a River,” a breakup-revenge song with lyrics about infidelity, and the casting of a Britney look-alike in its music video was undoubtedly created to stir up media speculation and cast Timberlake as the heartbroken victim and Spears as the unfaithful vixen.

“He essentially weaponised the video for one of his single to incriminate her in the demise of their relationship,” says Wesley Morris, a New York Times critic, in Framing Britney Spears. “The way people treated her, to be very high school about it, was like she was the school slut and he was the school quarterback.”

Timberlake’s ensuing press tour following the release of his debut solo album doubled down on this perception. Sitting next to his mother, Timberlake spoke of his heartbreak to Barbara Walters, while he was presented as the sweet and talented Southern charmer. On the other hand, Spears was grilled by Diane Sawyer, who appeared to defend remarks by the first lady of Maryland who said that she would “shoot” the singer if she had the opportunity.

The documentary continued with clips of Timberlake laughing when asked if he had “f***ed” Spears, answering, “OK, I did it.” He knowingly answers “sure” when Walters asked if the two had kept their promise to wait until marriage to have sex. In subsequent interviews, Timberlake confirmed further sexual activity, saying “I did it. I’m dirty.”

There are internet theories that such discussions of the relationship is all a PR strategy. There’s even a 10-minute compilation video on YouTube of Justin just talking about Britney in press tours to promote his music. It includes Timberlake bashing her role in the movie Crossroads, criticising Britney’s 2003 VMA performance with Madonna and his song “What Goes Around Comes Around” being considered a sequel to “Cry Me a River.”

The film positions Timberlake’s crude discussion about their sexual relationship and his not-so-secret songs about her as fuel to the already intense and intensely misogynist tabloid obsession with Spears. It is interesting and surprising that the film chooses to shed such a harsh spotlight on Timberlake and his crass behaviour in the years following their breakup. As The Daily Beast so succinctly put it, “My God, Justin Timberlake was so shitty to Britney Spears.”

And then there’s the Janet Jackson side, who Timberlake apologised to alongside Spears. In recent years, #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay has trended typically around the time of the NFL Super Bowl, referring to another highly publicised, Timberlake-oriented pop culture moment.

In 2004, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson performed together at the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Instead of ripping off Jackson’s bodice to show just her bra, the entire piece of fabric was removed, revealing Jackson’s bare breast live on television. The incident is the reason YouTube exists – it was a big deal.

Image: emiliajm via Flickr

CBS was fined more than half a million dollars for “indecency” on television. Jackson was overwhelmingly blamed for the incident. It didn’t matter that it was Timberlake who had ripped off the piece of clothing, with the whole thing being accidental. Jackson had to issue an apology. Jackson was disinvited to the Grammys. Her record released after the event, Damita Jo, tanked compared to her previous albums.

The disparity was most stark at that year’s Grammy Awards, where a week after the incident, Timberlake accepted an award for Best Male Pop Solo Performance for “Cry Me a River,” as protestors outside the ceremony criticised the awards for banning Jackson from attending.

“All the emphasis was put on me, not on Justin,” Jackson said when speaking to Oprah in 2006.  When answering whether Timberlake had left her “hanging,” she replied, “friendship is very important to me and there’s certain things you just don’t do to friends.”

There are certainly parallels to be drawn between the way these two women were villainised and punished by the media in circumstances involving Timberlake. Timberlake’s career was allowed to flourish and his name remained unscathed. He was even invited back to perform the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2018.

Yes, “Cry Me a River” is a complete bop. However, it was the association with Britney and the iconography of the music video that made it a sensation. As Scaachi Koul at Buzzfeed wrote, “Timberlake’s career is a story about how far you can get by shirking off any responsibility while watching – or promoting – the ruthless slut-shaming of two women.” Framing Britney Spears is a reconsideration of Timberlake’s relationship with Spears, highlighting his complicity in both Jackson and Spears’s public humiliation and slut-shaming. He took control and advantage of a narrative that was perfectly constructed for a media culture that was ready to shame and demean women, with a thirsty public waiting to lap it all up.

Would this level of scrutiny have arisen if the documentary had not been aired?  Probably not. So what? We may be living in a time of heightened awareness of prejudice, discrimination and sexism, and long may it continue. However, what is wrong now was wrong then.

This re-examination is part of a series of similar re-examinations of past media portrayals, such as those involving Megan Fox and Jessica Simpson. It is also interesting that the documentary contextualises the rise of Britney Spears at the time of the Lewinsky scandal, and the misogynistic portrayal of Monica Lewinsky. It was a time when the Madonna-whore complex was at its most strident and the perception of female sexuality as something to be exploited, monetised, shamed and despised.

Justin Timberlake was shitty to Britney Spears. He was shitty to Janet Jackson. But so was everyone else. It was a society that allowed the hyper-sexualisation of a teenage girl while chastising her in response. The paparazzi tormented and stalked Spears, and magazines were willing to pay and readers were willing to buy. This is not a case of ‘cancel culture’ going too far, or the ‘woke brigade’ taking down another innocent victim. It is simply highlighting how white privilege and gendered double standards have been allowed to prosper, at the expense and humiliation of women. Let this be a reckoning.

Image: carlosdereonreyesscott via Flickr