PLAYING IT SAFE
Justin Timberlake’s Teen Choice Decade Award Couldn’t Come at a Worse Time
After this year’s ‘woke’ Tonys and BET Awards, the Teen Choice Awards will honor a performer with a history of tone-deaf responses to race. The timing couldn’t be worse.
Do you need another reason not to watch the Teen Choice Awards? The awards ceremony most likely to make you feel old and decrepit has decided to bestow its greatest honor on Justin Timberlake, in light of his tireless work over the past 10 years to bring sexy back. The Teen Choice Decade Award is the equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement Award, catered to an audience that has literally only been on this earth for one or two decades. This exciting news was accompanied by a press release which gushed: “From his musical artistry to innovative collaborations, the singer continues to create relevant, chart-topping music, transcending generations of fans.”
This stirring endorsement of J.T. couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Teen Choice Award’s use of the term “relevant” to describe the artist is an intriguing one, as Timberlake’s recent relevance has almost exclusively centered around his tone-deaf approach to issues of blackness and race in America.
Timberlake signed his own PR execution papers when he tweeted a shout-out to Jesse Williams’s inspired Black Lives Matter speech at the BET Awards. Williams’s scathing indictment of everything from police violence against POC to the pop culture exploitation of black styles and sounds became a viral sensation.
Timberlake’s tweet of admiration was well within his rights as a white ally. Problems arose when a Twitter user picked up on some potential hypocrisy, asking J.T., “So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too.” Timberlake, who was clearly still relishing the moral high ground of choosing to watch the BET Awards instead of Game of Thrones, quickly went into patronizing lecture-mode: “Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation.”
Now, it’s already bad enough to spew out this sort of off-brand All Lives Matter B.S. But Timberlake’s response was even more egregious because of his own history with the black community, one in which he has continuously benefitted from the exact kind of racial difference that he’s now denying. Timberlake has sold more than a decade’s worth of records with a fairly basic, time-tested premise: white boy makes black music. The R&B hit-maker has been historically supported both by black audiences and black artists; he boasts an impressive back catalogue of collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights like Snoop Dogg, Usher, Beyoncé, and Jay Z.
But while Timberlake’s sound is decidedly black, his white silence is deafening. In an appearance on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Vic Mensa pointed out the glaring issue with J.T.’s selective invocation of blackness: “Our problem here is that Justin Timberlake himself—you know—is definitely benefiting from using black culture for his sound, his dance moves, his dancers, and blowing up off of it. But if you roll down Justin Timberlake’s Twitter for the past two years, which I just did, you see nothing that supports black people when it’s more difficult, when there’s a struggle.”
Then there’s the infamous wardrobe malfunction. We all remember the outrage that ensued after a nation’s worth of football fans met Janet Jackson’s nipple. For most of us, this memorable performance has been reduced to a wacky pop culture footnote; for Janet Jackson, it was essentially a career-ender. In the wake of Nipplegate, Jackson bore the brunt of the blame; as early as three days after the 2004 performance, People referred to Justin Timberlake as “teflon man,” alluding to his ability to sidestep the controversy. Meanwhile, Jackson was more or less barred from that year’s Grammys, where Timberlake went on to take home two awards. Jackson’s next album flopped, and she’s all but disappeared from major networks and glossy magazines.
Clearly sex sells, but too much sex demands a scapegoat—not the famous dude pulling off the pop star’s bra, but the black woman who had the audacity to get on stage and do her job. When Judy McGrate, president of MTV networks, called the MTV-produced incident “a renegade mistake by a performer,” it was clear which performer she was referring to. Jackson was forced to take a career-ending bullet for an inadvertent nipple flash which was widely condemned as the height of indecency—on a television program famous for its wholesome, family-friendly Carl’s Jr. commercials. Timberlake was happy to throw Jackson under the bus, claiming that he was “completely embarrassed” by the alleged “stunt.”
Three years later, when all the damage had been done, a superficially contrite J.T. circled back: “In my honest opinion now…I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society. I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” Former boy banders aren’t traditionally Mensa members, but does anyone buy that it took Justin Timberlake three years to discover misogyny? In an even later reflection, Timberlake added, “I wish I had supported Janet more”—is it just me, or is that post-facto apology flimsier than Janet Jackson’s bustier?
Thanks to Twitter, we’re all up to date on Timberlake’s subpar track record on matters dealing with race. Unfortunately, the court of public opinion can only offer a slap on the wrist. In addition to adding a new surfboard to his collection, Timberlake has just been hired to star in Woody Allen’s next film. While Timberlake’s appropriation is a world away from Allen’s alleged crimes, a collaboration between these two teflon men is some sort of poetic injustice.
Celebrities like Justin Timberlake have been toeing the line between permissible appropriation and inexcusable racial apathy for decades. But just because Timberlake has gotten off the hook in the past is no excuse to celebrate him in the present—particularly when there are so many artists the Teen Choice Awards could have honored instead.
At the end of the day, it’s 2016. The rhetoric of Black Lives Matter is everywhere, and those who choose not to speak it aren’t just uninformed, they’re deliberately cloistered and ultimately culpable. Someone at Fox—maybe even multiple someones!—must have a Twitter account. So in endorsing Justin Timberlake at the exact moment when his politics are being actively critiqued, the Teen Choice Awards now faces the same accusations as its principal honoree. At what point does willful ignorance and a refusal to acknowledge the implications of your actions calcify into injustice?
The Teen Choice Award’s decision to entirely divorce politics and current events from its selection process might not elicit such an exaggerated eye roll, were it not for a recent set of particularly woke awards shows. First there were the Tony Awards, which managed to salvage some real joy out of a relentlessly shitty week by honoring the victims of the Orlando attack and offering solidarity and solace to the LGBTQ community when they needed it most.
Then there were the BET Awards, featuring 2016’s aforementioned wokest bae, Jesse Williams. In addition to Williams’s rousing battle cry, we also got to witness Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar’s arresting opening number, “Freedom.” This performance wasn’t just incredible by virtue of its politics—it was art in its own right but still political as hell. Both of these awards shows imagined the genre at its very best; as more than just an annual celebrity circle jerk.
The Tonys and the BET Awards resonated with their specific communities. In the wake of a senseless attack on the Latinx LGTBQ community, and another year of black lives apparently not mattering, the willingness of these telecasts to speak to real-life issues earned them a new level of potency and respect. No wonder the Tonys boasted its biggest viewership since 2001.
The Teen Choice Awards is a slightly different beast. Sure, they also have their own niche—of Robert Pattinson stalkers and diehard Swifties. But the Fox production has always been perceived as far more frivolous than its grown-up counterparts. It’s a silly awards shows, where past nominees have taken home nautical trophies in categories such as “Choice Viner,” “Choice Selfie Taker,” and “Choice Male Hottie.” But while the Teen Choice Awards’ target audience might be a group of thirsty teenyboppers, that doesn’t give them a hall pass to skip over black issues.
The Teen Choice Awards and the audience they cater to inarguably reap the rewards of black culture. The kids who will watch the July 31 telecast grew up listening to hip-hop; last year, one of the audience participation segments was a Nae Nae dance contest. Especially when it comes to such a youth-oriented, hype-heavy awards ceremony, it’s time to acknowledge that black excellence is often behind pop culture trends. Instead, the Teen Choice Awards is celebrating a white male embodiment of cultural erasure.
The obtuse decision to give J.T. this award at this moment reveals the exact brand of political apathy that we can’t afford to pass on to the next generation. It puts the Teen Choice Awards in an unflattering conversation with #OscarsSoWhite, the controversy that revealed the prejudice of a majority white Academy rewarding majority white performers. In refusing to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, or privileging the work of white appropriators over black originators, these out-of-touch telecasts are widening the gap between awards shows that get it, and those that clearly don’t.
And in the age of Twitter and Tumblr, where political apathy and racial prejudice get called out to potential viewers in real time, these out of touch awards shows are hammering the final nails in the coffins of their own irrelevancy. Assuming that Teen Choice Awards viewers aren’t informed enough to clap back, or just don’t care, underestimates the intelligence of a social media generation raised on new journalism and online social justice. Adults should know better.