“What Goes Around…Comes Around,” or Justin Timberlake as Historical Revisionist
Justin Timberlake’s 2007 song “What Goes Around…Comes Around” has been thought of by many as a sequel to his 2002 break up masterwork “Cry Me a River.” Both songs feature videos in which JT suffers a wrong that can only righted through some unsavory doings. In the first video he breaks into the house of his ex and leaves behind a sex tape featuring him with his current ladylove, a woman who looks astonishingly similar to Jessica Biel. In the video, JT waits for his ex to come home, sets the tape to play in her bedroom, and stalks her from the closet while she showers. In the second video, he simply kills her. All of this is not very Suit & Tie of JT, but considering these two videos together does suggest the ways in which he was getting there. These videos demonstrate how JT has worked hard to polish and deepen his image through an active recreation of his past as something perhaps slightly less embarrassing than all that early boy band stuff. In the spirit of the song and its themes of circularity, I thought it might be interesting to think about the video for WGA…CA not as a sequel to CMAR, but rather as do over – a kind of revisionist history in which JT reimages his own past in more opulent terms as a means to craft a more expansive and broadly appealing public persona. I want to approach this by looking at the ways in which the videos recast the two protagonists: JT and the figure of his ex, reportedly modeled in the first video on JT’s real life ex-girlfriend, Britney Spears. In CMAR, JT looks fresh-faced and young. He has only the slightest hint of a goatee and wears a dark hoodie and sneakers that mark him as a vaguely creeping menace. He moves through the house to the bedroom in a dance sequence reminiscent of live ‘N Synch performances of “No Strings Attached,” from which JT was then not very far removed. The final shots of the video feature close ups of JT looking into the camera with his puppy dog eyes before the video cuts to JT’s sex tape, stuttering on an image of him with another woman. All this hesitancy and vulnerability lets us know that things are still chaste in the Timberlake world. In WGA…CA, JT is recast as a sort of ringleader in what looks like a hotel lobby circus. The set design is deco-ish, lending a veneer of history that situates JT as a more mature figure. Rather than creeping, JT is featured front and center, crooning into an old time microphone as corseted dancers spin various enflamed objects around him. He has traded in his hoodie for slacks and suspenders (well on his way to suit coat and tie). Gone is the little goatee in favor of more roughly textured stubble. The video intercuts scenes of JT singing alongside a narrative that details his relationship with one of the dancers, a zaftig young woman who ultimately cheats on him before speeding off in her 1967 Chevy Corvette Sting Ray. She flips the car and is ejected from it, landing in a beautiful heap on the pavement where she dies. JT sings, “See, you should have listened to me baby.” The video recasts JT as a star, most obviously through a title sequence that also announces the video itself as something more substantial. This is JT as singer, actor, player, and Hollywood entertainer, presumably both in the video and outside of it. All this is perhaps to be expected in a developing career. However, the most interesting recasting in the video is one that is notable for is erasure. This is, of course, the Britney figure. In CMAR, the allusion to Britney is unmistakable: blond hair, newsboy cap, frayed and flared jeans. It is Britney when she and JT wore matching denim evening wear to the 2001 MTV Movie Awards. It is “Oops…I Did it Again” Britney rather than Blackout Britney. In WGA…CA, however, Britney has been replaced by the creamier, more respectable, less chaotic Scarlett Johansson. The second video scissors out any allusion to Britney, who by 2006 was using gas station bathrooms in her bare feet and trading underwear with strippers at nightclubs. Instead the video recasts JT’s love interest and betrayer as a dewy sexpot that is alluring, but not very specific, and certainly not as delightfully seedy as Britney. In doing so, JT recreates his own past as something rooted in a kind of vaguely Parisian ersatz historical moment that glosses over his real past, which is anything but. By recasting the Britney figure, JT writes her out of his own history in a way that allows him to complete his transformation from cornrowed boy band member to official gentleman. He disassociates himself from Britney to refurbish his past and revise his narrative. Revising CMAR into WGA…CA allows JT to reimagine his past for us so that we might also forget that the suit and tie were once made of denim. This is not to cast JT as a villain, after all historical revisions often write out the sleazier elements, but perhaps just a suggestion that what has been erased can be so much more interesting that what has been left intact.