Dear Justin Timberlake (can I still call you JT?), I am writing to inform you that we’re through. I’m breaking up with you.
Let me back up.
I realize it’s been awhile since we last talked. In fact, I know that this is actually the first time. You don’t know me from Adam, and that’s OK. But I pray it somehow encourages you—even though I’m breaking up with you.
I should specify that this has nothing to do with your hunting outfit from the Pepsi Super Bowl LII Halftime Show. Camouflage isn’t my thing, but I thought it looked fine next to Ryan McKenna’s hoodie. And I don’t want to deny your talents: You’re the best Saturday Night Live host this side of Steve Martin (sorry-not-sorry, Alec), and you’re a delight every single time I see you hanging with your pal Jimmy on his evening show. Your voice isn’t half bad, either.
But let’s be real: As much as I’d like to say “It’s not you, it’s me,” this is actually all about you.
We’re both husbands and fathers, Justin. We both know the love of strong wives. We have both experienced the joy of welcoming a child into the world. It’s really something, isn’t it? Having our minds blown and our hearts burst with love on a daily basis.
Kids are the best.
It’s actually on behalf of the kids that I am writing this breakup letter. Not because I speak for them (I don’t), but because I care so deeply for the men and women that they will become—just as I know you do for your son.
I’d like to think that you’d want your son to grow up to be a man who respects women. We’ve seen and heard such raw, tragic, inexcusable stories in this age of #MeToo, as women like Rachael Denhollander, Alyssa Milano, and so many more have come forward. We’ve seen the fruits of what happens when men (and societies) denigrate women and withhold from them their inherent right to be treated with respect.
We must find a better way forward. We will find a better way forward.
To do that, though, we have to take this problem more seriously. We can’t simply address the symptoms and the wounds. We must start seeing clearly the roots and begin digging them up.
I’m talking about our popular culture.
I’m not here to blindly rail and flail against it. There are many fine things that have come from it. However, there are many ways that it actually undergirds a view of women that subverts their true strength, wisdom, and beauty. And unfortunately, a lot of that subversion can be found in your music. Your catchy, infectious music.
“Filthy,” for example, contains demands for your partner to gratify you sexually and seems barely, and only superficially, concerned with the idea of consent.
Or what about “Pusher Lover Girl” from The 20/20 Experience? A song wherein your paramour’s value to you is how addicted you are to the ways she gratifies you sexually? Like she’s little more than the sexual drug with which you get your high?
And how could we forget about “Tunnel Vision“? You remember, your song with the nudity-laden music video from 2013? Robin Thicke’s music video for “Blurred Lines” was (correctly, as I see it) removed from YouTube for its graphic nudity and exploitive nature. “Tunnel Vision” was ultimately allowed to remain on YouTube, but I don’t believe that means it’s less problematic: It’s still a video focused on commodifying women’s bodies.
Words are powerful. Music is powerful. They mean something and have the ability to influence hearts and minds—for better and for worse.
As such, we cannot afford to say that words matter only in books or songs about peace and justice but then try to claim they are meaningless when we strip others down into two-dimensional objects meant for our sexual self-gratification. If the words women use to reclaim their dignity are powerful for good, how can we pretend that words reducing them to commodities mean nothing and aren’t harmful?
Is that the kind of culture we want to leave to our children? Is that the kind of world we want them to live in? Or do we want to raise our sons and daughters differently and leave to them a world more just and compassionate?
Now, here’s the thing: I think you probably do respect women on many levels. But that’s not the message that comes through in much of your music and, perhaps, no one’s ever really mentioned that to you. We’re all a little—a lot, actually—used to music that diminishes the value of women and turns them into objects to be used for sexual gratification. But when we accept those words and don’t challenge our music to reject dehumanizing worldviews, we lose sight of the heart and soul of the people underneath the skin. We lose sight of the basic humanity of people when sexual gratification becomes king (or queen).
We can’t afford to lose sight of one another’s humanity, especially in our ubiquitous and influential world of popular culture and entertainment. Women are not objects and neither are men. But as long as the pop culture we create and imbibe preaches that we are, it’s going to be difficult to avoid the wounds of exploitation that are dominating our headlines.
Our words matter. Spoken or sung, our words impact one another. Songs that treat human beings—that treat women—simply as objects of sexual self-gratification contribute to a culture that will continue to undervalue and devalue them.
I won’t—and don’t need to—speak on behalf of womankind. As you and I both know, Justin, women are strong and capable all on their own and don’t need you or I to save them.
But I will challenge both of us. I think all of us men should admonish one another in healthy ways. I think we don’t do it enough.
I challenge us to consider the different ways we can work alongside the strong women around us to step away from a culture that is entertained by the objectification and commodification of the human body. I challenge us to raise our sons and daughters to be men and women who create and live in a world where sex, and the sexes, are not objectified, commodified or forces for marginalization.
I challenge us to be men who hold one another to a stronger, healthier standard. Even and especially when the rest of the world has a hard time understanding that standard. The old standard is, quite sadly, ancient and many are used to it.
So maybe this isn’t a breakup letter after all, Justin.
Maybe, instead, it’s an invitation into a deeper relationship. Not with me, unless you enjoy playing pickup basketball, talking about Brad Pitt movies, and eating Doritos while watching the Green Bay Packers. (If that’s the case then you should definitely DM me on Twitter.)
The deeper relationship we need to step into is a life and community that pursues justice and equality and which doesn’t stop at the door of pop culture. It’s not “just entertainment.” We can’t have it both ways. If the words we speak matter and have weight, then so do the words that we sing in the songs that we love.
Let’s make them matter for the right things.