The system was created to benefit him, and he weaponized his status to take advantage of it at the cost of two women’s careers. Now, nearly two decades later, Justin Timberlake expects a social media apology to be enough. Let me be clear: it will never be enough.
For some context: in September of 2000, then-NSYNC member Justin Timberlake and rising popstar Britney Spears began publicly dating, quickly becoming the U.S.’s newest pop-icon power couple. They had originally met in 1992 on the Mickey Mouse Club, which served as the kick-off to both of their long-running careers in music and entertainment. So, when the climbing stars began dating, tabloids and entertainment magazines could not get enough of their seemingly perfect relationship.
In interviews, both Timberlake and Spears expressed copious amounts of love and appreciation towards each other, demonstrating a connection deeper than a publicity pairing. So, when the two announced their breakup in 2002, it left fans, tabloids, and the regular person walking by the magazine stand wanting to know more about how things fell apart.
If you hadn’t learned by now, you will never truly know what kind of person your favorite celebrity is, or what is going on in their lives behind the shallow pages of gossip magazines (or, now, behind the pictures on their Instagram accounts). Celebrities, and their publicists, have the opportunity to build a narrative and to create a version of themselves that the public interprets as the truth.
As such, Timberlake needed to maintain his narrative post-Spears as he began his solo artist career. He started off as a Disney kid, and broke through as, arguably, the most popular member of a boy band, giving him a bit of an edge. Spears, too, was living up to the ‘Disney kid’ legacy. The difference, though, is that she was also a woman living up to social expectations. The only thing tabloids love more than a woman-gone-wild story, is a Disney kid rebellion.
The media was waiting for her to mess up; they wanted to make a villain out of the innocence of Britney Spears. Timberlake, building a narrative that would benefit his album sales, gave them what they were looking for. He had to make Spears the villain of this failed love story, and in the misogynistic society he was operating in, it wouldn’t be hard.
After the breakup, both Timberlake and Spears had agreed to not discuss the details of their split publicly. Of course, there were rumors of cheating and betrayal, which the couple, at first, shut down when interviewers would pry for details. Though, when rumors about Britney cheating began consistently making headlines, Timberlake provoked them rather than shutting them down, leading to only more speculation and rumors targeted at Britney.
Us Weekly began running covers that villainized Britney as an evil cheater with headlines ranging from “Britney: Out of Control,” “Britney & Justin: Did She Betray Him?” and “Britney’s Revenge?” while simultaneously running stories saying that Timberlake was in his sexiest and most creative era yet. None of this, though, was based in reality, as it has been left unconfirmed if Britney had cheated, while Timberlake’s first solo-released single, “Like I Love You,” peaked at 11 on the charts.
Then, Timberlake, no longer adamantly denying that Spears cheated after seeing the press coverage it gained him, released the “Cry Me a River” single, along with its music video. The lyrics are filled with heartbreak and a sense of betrayal, which he claimed were written from his personal experience. The true controversy was sparked by the music video, where a Spears look-alike plays Timberlake’s ex, who has obviously cheated on him. “I think it looks like such a desperate attempt, personally,” said Spears, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2011, “but that was a great way to sell the record.” Timberlake capitalized on the dramatics that only benefited him, without regard for the harmful effect it had on Spears’ public image.
The most brutal attack Timberlake threw towards Spears and her career came when he admitted in an interview that they had sex during their three-year relationship, publicizing, for the first time, that Spears was not a virgin. During their relationship, Spears and Timberlake both stressed their ‘Good Christian Values’ and claimed that they were waiting until marriage before having sex. When Timberlake announced on live radio that that was not the case, people, of course, went for Spears without blaming him. Tabloids painted her as a sl—t and accused her of hurting Timberlake. He only benefited from the comment, without acknowledgment of how it would impact Spears.
Timberlake acted out of spite and resentment towards Britney. Whether it was because she actually cheated, or only because it benefitted his album sales, we will never know. Regardless, in his petty publicity, he unrightfully ruined Spears’ good-girl image and stole her own narrative. He built his solo career off of Spears’ back, claiming that his songs were written out of personal experience, which allowed the average listener to assume that Spears had hurt him deeply. Meanwhile, she was the one paying for the rumors he provoked, and the private moments he shared with the world.
We could talk more about Britney’s all-too-covered public ‘breakdown’ that led her to shave her head, or her conservatorship, or how she no longer is able to see her kids. She has been through too much, all while being overly exposed to the public eye. Being sl—t-shamed by her first love on a worldwide platform, and being demonized by people within her industry, was only the beginning of her trouble-filled career. It all began with Timberlake tearing her down, and the tabloids and paparazzi seeing how well a ‘crazy Britney’ story would sell.
The reality of this situation really comes down to this: Timberlake could have done better in the past 20 years, but he chose not to. In the wake of Framing Britney Spears, and after the social shift in how the media handles women in the entertainment industry, he decided now to address these issues, as if it was news to him that he had detrimentally damaged Spears’ public image and career opportunities. In reality, people have been criticizing his actions for years.
In high school, I was the biggest Timberlake fan — just look at my Spotify Time Capsule playlist, and you will see how badly I had it for JT and his music. His artistic merit will forever be something that I value. How are we meant to value an artist as a cultural icon, though, when his actions have weaponized misogyny within the entertainment industry in order to undervalue another pop culture revolutionary? How could I, in good conscience, listen to “Cry Me a River” knowing how much it personally and publicly affected Spears?
We have been benefiting off of Britney’s pain for too long. Generations, now, have eaten up every juicy bit of tabloid drama that evolved into some of the most defining cultural moments of the early 2000s. Timberlake’s too little too late apology does nothing to fix the pain he has caused, and the toxic mentality that he weaponized.
Featured Image: Aubry Acosta / Quaker Campus