Race has also played a role in [Justin] Timberlake’s rise. It’s fair to attribute some of his success to the same dynamic that propelled Elvis Presley to the top of the pop charts: white boy plays black music, makes it “safe” for mainstream America, and outsells the originators in the process. But Timberlake’s relationship to race reflects our world more than Presley’s. Elvis was a rebellious figure: a white Southerner tapping into black culture at a time when black culture was taboo. For that reason, among others, he’ll always be a much more revolutionary artist than Timberlake. (So will [Michael] Jackson, who melded black and white music and united two previously segregated audiences.) But in 2013, African-American culture is no longer forbidden. It’s mainstream. It’s cool. Timberlake takes this for granted—he’s never known otherwise—and so do his fans. As a teenager, Timberlake wanted to be black, basically. He learned to sing from Brian McKnight, Al Green, and Donny Hathaway; early profiles describe his “homeboy delivery” and “hip-hop flavoring.” As Pharrell Williams once put it, “Justin could’ve been raised in the black church.” And so, unlike Elvis, Timberlake isn’t challenging the status quo by singing R&B. Instead, he is embodying our deeper, postracial aspiration—a desire that didn’t exist in Elvis’s day—to be at ease in black and white culture simultaneously. If he can pull it off, perhaps we can, too.
I appreciate the hope, but a couple of things bother me in this passage from Andrew Romano’s piece on JT:
-Yes, Timberlake does play that Elvis role, but even in 2013 African-American culture is still forbidden in some places. It’s not universally understood, respected or appreciated.
-And Timberlake “wanted to be black”? Really?? That’s quite a statement. There needs to be more proof than just listening to soul records.
Read more in Newsweek/The Daily Beast.