Justin Timberlake dropped his new single “Filthy” last night, accompanied by a music video. The only reason I know is that the song is playing every hour on the hour on my local pop radio station. I wish I were exaggerating. I am not.
The song starts with a promising intro. Electric guitar and some strange muffled yelling promises something upbeat, maybe a little rocky, enough to keep me from turning my radio off immediately. Unfortunately, all of the potential the song’s first ten seconds offers is left unrealized as the repetitive hook begins.
It starts with Timberlake chanting “haters gonna say it’s fake” over a ridiculous drum loop ad infinitum. I’m not completely sure what haters are going to say is fake, but I can only presume “it” is Timberlake’s musical talents.
This portion of the song reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I heard it approximately 47 times in the course of the song, but it still eluded me. After the third time hearing the song on the radio in the same day, it came to me: this portion of “Filthy” bears a strong resemblance to the forgotten classic “Space Cowboy,” by the equally forgotten group The Jonzun Crew. Take a listen.
That was it. Timberlake’s half-whispered complaints about haters reminded me of “Space Cowboy,” a ridiculous song no one has heard, and for good reason. Yes, the most flattering thing I can say about “Filthy” is that it reminds me of an ’80s electro/funk/hip-hop song with lyrical poetry that includes “He’s bad, he’s mean, he’s the space cowboy in the spacey jeans. He’s bad, he’s number one, he’s the space cowboy with the laser gun.” The Jonzun Crew beats Timberlake on at least one count, however: the song is at least musically consistent.
In terms of actual song structure, “Filthy” seems to have very little tonal consistency, besides the simple fact of being repetitive. The song can be broken into three different sections, none of which fit with the others in any aesthetically significant way. Perhaps Timberlake is drawing inspiration from Meghan Trainor’s absurdly popular “Me Too,” another song that sounds as if a producer heard three different, average, annoying pop song concepts and thought, “Maybe we can just Frankenstein all three together?”
Perhaps, I thought, the music video for this new single can help me understand what is happening here. Again, I was disappointed. The music video provides no help. The video begins with an Apple-style product reveal, only the product is an immensely realistic dancing robot. The robot’s athletic abilities soon make way for an extremely risqué android burlesque show. I’m still not quite sure what the point of the video is, but I would not recommend it.
In short, Timberlake’s single is a tonally inconsistent collection of squeals, sex noises, and occasional musical notes masquerading as a song. I have no doubt it will top the charts for months.
However, it is encouraging to see a modicum of backlash. Twitter is abuzz with memes and GIFs comparing the song to literal trash, and Entertainment Weekly’s Eric Renner Brown says “Justin Timberlake is a shell of his former self.” Perhaps there is hope for pop music after all. I’m not holding my breath. 2018, we can do better.