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Justin Timberlake Dances on Prince’s Grave

Prince said of holograms: “That’s the most demonic thing imaginable. Everything is as it is, and it should be. If I was meant to jam with Duke Ellington, we would have lived in the same age. That whole virtual reality thing … it really is demonic. And I am not a demon….Also, what they did with that Beatles song [‘Free As a Bird’], manipulating John Lennon’s voice to have him singing from across the grave … that’ll never happen to me. To prevent that kind of thing from happening is another reason why I want artistic control.”

Justin Timberlake was made aware of Prince’s words before his Super Bowl Halftime Show in Prince’s home state. Timberlake said that he would on second thought not use Prince’s hologram in his performance. It would have been better if Timberlake had simply been honest with Prince’s friends and family. He ended up using a projection of a hologram. Skating by on this technicality shows that Timberlake never understood Prince’s wishes. Or maybe he chose not to understand them.

There was a telling exchange between the two musicians about a decade ago. Prince said of Timberlake’s hit “SexyBack”: “For whoever is claiming they are bringing sexy back, sexy never left!” Timberlake responded quite lamely on Timbaland’s song “Give It To Me”: We missed you on the charts last week /Damn, that’s right you wasn’t there / Now if se-sexy never left, then why is everybody on my shi-i-it? / Don’t hate on me just because you didn’t come up with it.” Now that Prince is gone, Timberlake’s call to bring sexy back actually makes some sense. Only Timberlake would not be the man to do it.

Timberlake was rather prosaic to me before his blasphemy on Sunday. His sexy is not Prince’s sexy or Madonna’s sexy. Prince was sexy because he was subversive. Timberlake’s clean cut look now matches the suburban dad he has become. Before that he had a cretinous boyish air to him.

Timberlake’s music videos are just plain creepy. “Cry Me A River” features Timberlake as a peeping Tom watching a woman taking a shower. “SexyBack” is of the same theme, as emphasized in the lyrics: “I think it’s special, what’s behind your back (yeah) / So turn around and I’ll pick up the slack (yeah).” Timberlake sneaks up behind a woman and watches her undress in this video.

Hollywood’s head has not caught up to it’s tail in this respect. As ass gabbing is punished, rape culture is normalized under the same guise of individual empowerment that calls out it’s cruelty. For some reason the Aziz Ansari story meant nothing because he had done nothing wrong. The actual ramifications of the story—a woman who was forced into sex— were dismissed because the powers behind her violation was not a sinner who could be exiled but rape culture itself. The fantasy of rape and it’s punishment comes full circle as Timberlake whines in the same song: “I’m your slave / I’ll let you whip me if I misbehave / It’s just that no one makes me feel this way”. Basically I can’t resist you so I’m going to misbehave and have sex with you anyways. But you should punish me for it so I feel better. Timberlake isn’t bringing sexy back, he is lazily reinforcing a porn culture that sees sex in much the same way our country’s Puritan fathers did—as an inherently harmful act devoid of feeling.

Prince though pushed back against all of this. His music was throughly playful but capable of an intensity that solidified play itself as something of the utmost importance. There were few artists who were more prolific in their tracks produced but his quality never suffered for it. If anything it was his commitment to the process of music making rather than the things that come from it that made him so magical. Prince could and would play all the music instruments that appear in his songs. The subtleties in even his most popular songs made him head and shoulders (for that matter knees and toes) above the rest of his competition in the field of pop music. Yet his feel was so positive and fun it was almost impossible for him not to appeal to pop audiences. He was naughty enough for funk and epic enough for rock. All in all though his musical gifts and nuances really made him more like Bach in the sense one that could continue to learn something each time they heard one of his songs.

There is something to like, or at least ponder, in every one of Prince’s songs. His most iconic album is Purple Rain but it is not his best album. That title should probably go to Sign O’ The Times, the funkiest of all his works. My favorite is Controversy, his most overtly political album.

No one was more overtly political in regards to the music industry itself. Prince went onstage with “slave” across his cheek to show the relationship between record labels and their (often black) musicians. Like Malcolm X before him, Prince changed his name to the love symbol to escape the label given by his masters. In 2015 he released his album HitNRun on Tidal, a streaming service that Jay-Z founded so artists could gain independence from the music industry. Jay-Z has done something similar through Roc Nation Sports, his organization that represents athletes. The dynamics going on in the NFL right now would not have been lost on Prince.

Given Prince’s commitment to the freedom of artists, Justin Timberlake’s exploitation of his image was at best quite uncouth. Timberlake’s misstep is more of a reflection of our culture than of his own audacity—-as he is a figure who is allergic to creativity and subversion. We live in a culture that treats death in the same way we treat sex—-we deny it and push it under the rug. We mourn publicly, reflect little, and distract often. The fact that Prince could see a hologram as demonic is completely lost on the modernistic left who sees life as a progression of rational ideas that should not be interrupted by feeling or spontaneity. Prince’s death for capitalism means another item for exploitation. Prince’s death for many of the actors within capitalism means that we celebrate him as we want him to be, not as he was.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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