Did it start with Mad Men? Or Hipstamatic and its successor Instagram? Or was it always here, lurking beneath the surface of culture, waiting for its moment to arise? Whatever the case, it’s hard to escape the curious sub-Gatsby, multi-era mishmash aesthetic that’s worked its way into US pop culture over the last decade or so — it’s a constant presence these days, manifesting in everything from music to film to artisanal bacon. With The 20/20 Experience — 20/20 being hindsight, geddit?! — Justin Timberlake has become the latest and most notable performer to embrace foggy faux nostalgia as a source of inspiration.
The first musical manifestation of this idea was the beach-centric aesthetic of chillwave (a phenomenon on which both we and others have pondered), with its overexposed photography and ’50s beach imagery. As is their wont, various mainstream pop musicians have now caught on to the idea and started incorporating it into the image they project on the world. And now, the biggest pop star of them all has joined the fun: Timberlake, who announced his return to music last month with a performance at the Grammys wherein the telecast was quite literally turned sepia, bathing us all in a soothing soft filter wash of faux-nostalgia.
Quite where this all comes from is open to speculation. The generally accepted theory is that this nostalgia mines a certain collective yearning for things that are somehow tangible and “real,” a reaction of sorts to both the transitory nature of the Internet age and the general uncertainty of the world in which we live. You can see this in everything from the curious candles-and-whiskey aesthetic of a bazillion Brooklyn bars, through the resurgent social acceptability of mustaches, to the fact that heirloom tomatoes and ancient grains sell for a small fortune at Wholefoods. It’s a nostalgia for some lost golden age, when the sun was warm and the girls were demure and the boys were well-coiffed and the world was a whole lot less uncertain.
But let’s not forget, it is false. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this whole phenomenon is that the era evoked by its curious aesthetic isn’t really a time that ever existed, drawing as it does on elements of the 1950s, 1930s, 1920s, and even the 19th century. It’s a sort of agglomeration of cherry-picked, allegedly positive aspects of eras that were as deeply fucked up in their own way as the age we live in today — and, arguably, substantially more so. In this respect, it seems to differ from the usual 25-year generational revival cycles that manifest themselves in music (the current ’80s and ’90s revival, for instance).
Timberlake’s not the first person to bring this aesthetic to the world of pop music, of course — you can see it in the popularity of people like Adele and Mumford & Sons, for instance. Even more so, though, you can see it in perhaps the most enduringly controversial pop creation of the last couple of years: Lana Del Rey, who exploded onto the Internet last year in a blaze of Super-8 thinkpiece angst and has been mining the faux-nostalgia aesthetic ever since. Which rather raises the question: Is Justin Timberlake basically the male Lana Del Rey these days?
As BuzzFeed’s Matthew Perpetua noted in a perceptive piece last week, Timberlake has essentially become a lifestyle brand, gliding smoothly through the world in an aspirational haze of aftershave and money. Del Rey is the same, except that being her looks substantially less fun because, well, she’s a woman, and they don’t get to have fun in this nebulous multi-era nostalgia world, beyond getting dressed up like pretty little dolls, called “ladies,” and wined and dined in a sort of ongoing, elegantly staged alpha-male pissing contest.
In this respect, the two are mirrors of one another, acting as contrasting gender ideals — Timberlake the suave, urbane, well-heeled charmer, Del Rey the demure, winsome ingenue. Clearly, Timberlake has a whole lot more control over his image (but, y’know, of course he does). Fundamentally, though, they’re selling the same dream, the vision of a world of cocktails and elegance, a world where everyone is beautiful — a world of which you, too, can be a part, if only you aspire hard enough and buy enough products. In that respect, the whole thing is the latest manifestation of that most persistent and pernicious of American cultural mythologies: the American dream, in all its ephemeral, unobtainable glory.
The phenomenon is certainly interesting in a pop culture theory kinda way, but honestly, it’s disappointing to see Timberlake’s actual music reduced to this. The best thing about Futuresex/Lovesounds was how futuristic it felt — it felt like the fullest expression of the idea of pop music as an entirely digital medium, featuring some of the best production in the always forward-thinking Timbaland’s career. Even the title seemed to exemplify the idea of looking forward for inspiration, rather than back. The aesthetic he’s embraced for this record, by contrast, makes him feel like a follower rather than the leader he was six years ago. From 21st-century pop visionary to walking advertisement for luxury brands, and Frank to Lana’s gangster Nancy — it’ll be interesting to see whether Timberlake goes forward or backward from here, whether in a few months’ time or in seven more years.