Pretend you’re back in 2007 and someone tells you that in 10 years, Britney Spears will be in the midst of a career resurgence — while the Internet is celebrating the second Twitter takedown of Justin Timberlake in two months.
First you might ask, what’s “Twitter”? Also, you wouldn’t believe it. In 2007, Timberlake was at the peak of his wildly successful solo music career (think “Sexyback”) and further endeared himself as a hilarious “Saturday Night Live” host. Spears, on the other hand, was making headlines for a widely-panned, stilted performance at the MTV Video Music Awards — and was soon consumed by worldwide news coverage of her personal demons, as she shaved her head and was briefly held at a psychiatric ward.
Ten years later, Spears — who will perform at the VMAs on Sunday for the first time since that 2007 incident — has built up a huge amount of goodwill. The world that watched her breakdown has cheered her careful comeback over the years, as she’s had a slew of popular songs (her ninth album, “Glory,” is released Friday) and a hit residency in Las Vegas. It’s the classic “road to redemption” narrative, and Spears has flourished.
Timberlake has also continued his hit musical career (“Can’t Stop the Feeling” currently tops the Billboard charts) and is a huge pop culture force. But the former so-called “teflon man” has also received an increasing amount of criticism for his treatment of Spears, whom he dated for three years.
That criticism culminated in a widely-circulated Buzzfeed article on Aug. 19 titled “Dear Justin Timberlake, Just F—ing Stop.” Reporter Matt Stopera tore into Timberlake for exhaustively using his 2002 breakup with Spears to play the victim and boost his career.
It helped fuel the hashtag #JTExposedParty, given the Buzzfeed story was apparently inspired by Timberlake not-so-subtly mentioning Spears in a recent interview with Vanity Fair Italia. “In the past, suffering helped me to compose [songs]. ‘Cry Me a River’ was written in a moment of pain, and the whole world knew,” Timberlake said, alluding to his famous Spears break-up song.
Spears and Timberlake have been inextricably linked ever since they were both kids on “The Mickey Mouse Club” and into the late 1990s, when Timberlake took over the world as the lead singer of ‘N Sync and Spears was one of the most famous pop stars on the planet. When they started dating in 1999, it seemed only natural.
They had a bad break-up three years later. While no one really knows what really happened, the tabloids had a pretty good idea. As Buzzfeed points out, magazines like Us Weekly were clearly Team Timberlake, intimating that Spears cheated on him. And Timberlake implied as much with a Spears doppelganger in his famous “Cry Me a River” video.
In true Taylor Swiftian coy style, he’ll never confirm it’s about Spears. But everyone knows it’s Spears, and he’s referred to her in many interviews. Now, some people are officially tired of this behavior — especially as it always ensures another wave of publicity that throws Spears under the bus.
— Music Pop Facts (@MusicPopFacts) August 20, 2016
— lys (@harrysjuices) August 20, 2016
This is the second time this summer that Timberlake has been under fire online — the first time was the latest in a long line of criticism for cultural appropriation, from his R&B songs to those cornrows. During Jesse Williams’s impassioned, powerful speech at the BET Awards about race, Timberlake fired off a tweet: “@iJesseWilliams tho…#Inspired #BET2016,” he wrote.
This tweet was seen as ironic. “One of the major points of Jesse’s speech is that black art is so often devalued, only to be appropriated by white people and reevaluated as suddenly worthy,” KQED wrote. “No one knows this better than Justin Timberlake, who has made a career out of co-opting black culture and gaining the kind of success that is rarely afforded to those who originated it.
During the BET Awards, the backlash on Twitter was immediate: “So does this mean you’re going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet too,” writer Ernest Owens tweeted at Timberlake, referencing how Timberlake remained blissfully unscathed after his and Janet Jackson’s infamous 2004 Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” while Jackson’s career effectively ended.
“Oh, you sweet soul. The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation,” Timberlake tweeted back to Owens, further igniting Twitter. (Timberlake deleted his tweet and said he felt “misunderstood.”)
“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,” rapper Vic Mensa later explained on “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.” Yet, he added, Timberlake is silent when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement or police shootings. “We’re not feeling him being down when it’s beneficial to him and turning a blind eye when it could be dangerous,” Mensa said.
For some, seeing Timberlake finally getting called out in a big way this summer was thrilling. After the #JTExposedParty went viral, popular gossip writer Elaine Lui called it “sweet vindication/validation.”
“As you know, I have been dragging those god—- ringlets for years,” Lui wrote on her blog LaineyGossip, poking fun at Timberlake’s boy band hairstyle. “For being the original Taylor Swift. For making every moment about himself. For abandoning Janet Jackson #NeverForget. And, yes, for climbing to fame on the back of one Britney Jean Spears.”
(This post has been updated.)
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