Cultural Commentator

Take Back the Night: What Was Justin Timberlake Thinking?

Cultural Commentator

Take Back the Night: What Was Justin Timberlake Thinking?

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When I saw the teaser for Justin Timberlake’s questionably titled new song, “Take Back The Night,” I immediately thought, “if this isn’t a song about empowering female victims of sexual assault and violence, then JT, we’re going to have some serious beef.” Because the first thing that came to mind upon hearing the title of the track was the Take Back The Night movement; a resonant connection I’m sure many women can and will easily make. Take Back The Night is, essentially, an organisation dedicated to giving women the power and the means to report violent and sexual crimes inflicted upon them, thereby “taking back the night” that was forcibly stolen.

The phrase and associated movement dates back to 1977, and is a global symbol for women who have suffered abuse and sexual agression. Moreover, it is a dogmatically gendered organization whose primary aim is to create a “safe space” for women exclusively. Men are not welcomed to interpret or brandish the slogan, so it logically follows that they’re probably also precluded from turning it into a banging club anthem about sexy things that happen during raucous nights out on the town.

Being the massive geek that I am, I was also immediately reminded of a quote by one of my favorite feminists, Joss Whedon, about (what I believe to be) the greatest feminist text of my generation, Buffy The Vampire Slayer; “I’ve always been a huge fan of horror movies. And I saw so many horror movies where there was ‘that blonde girl’ who would always get herself killed. I started feeling bad for her. I thought it’s time she had a chance to, you know, take back the night. And so, the idea of Buffy came from just the very simple thought of: A beautiful blonde girl walks into an alley, a monster attacks her, and she’s not only ready for him, she trounces him.”

The semiotic meaning of Take Back The Night is thus one that is ingrained in the cultural psyche to a pervasive and profound effect, especially with those who have an emotional contention to the act of reclaiming what was violently taken from them. When you Google “Take Back The Night,” the first page of results is entirely dedicated to not only TBTN’s official page (the first result) but a plethora of pages also championing the cause. And while I find it hard to believe that not one person associated with Justin Timberlake and the production of his music ever drew a parallel here (are there no women in the music business?), I find it harder still to believe that in the conceptualization, writing, and production of the song, no one bothered to type the phrase into Google, if for nothing more than to seek out competing, similarly titled music.

From what I can tell of the song from the teaser trailer, it’s a resounding no, this song is not about empowering marginalized women in the slightest. With lyrics like, “Take back the night/ Come on and use me up until there’s nothing left”, “Dizzy spinning sweating/ You can’t catch your breath” and “Attraction can drive us crazy” it seems also to be deeply insensitive to the TBTN cause. I mean, being “used up” and out of control of your body are so inherent to the injustice TBTN aims to correct, it’s a gross oversight on the part of Justin and whoever else was responsible for the song to use lyrics like these so casually in connection with a term that, to most women, stands for demanding sexual equality and safety. In the video, JT disappears into a loud club that appears to be adorned with laser lights and smoke machines; not a likely venue for a TBTN meeting.

More frightening still is the potential for JT’s song to draw emphasis away from the original meaning of the phrase; can you imagine what a potential number 1 Billboard track could do to skew Google results? When young, impressionable minds are introduced to the terminology via a pop song that has not only rejected the tenets of the original movement, but that has essentially pissed frivolity all over something that is a constant, festering, disease within our society?

We take cultural appropriation very seriously in music; this year we saw No Doubt retract their cowboys and indians themed video for “Looking Hot,” and Selena Gomez chastised for her Bollywood-esque live performance of “Come & Get It.” Meaning is malleable, and I do believe in the liberties of art and expression; but there’s a clearly defined line, and Justin Timberlake has jumped right over it. When something is so profound, like domestic and sexual violence, and it continues to mar the surface of our society on a daily basis—with women fighting against it, every hour, every minute, every second—and that thing has something as easily identifiable as Take Back The Night as its championing organization, I think rebranding that moniker creates a schism between pop culture and real life that shouldn’t exist. Artists like Justin Timberlake don’t have to burden the weight of the world, but just because someone is making “art” it doesn’t mean they can completely ignore the way society operates. Maybe JT had no knowledge of what he was encroaching on when “Take Back The Night” was conceived, but still; now hearing the voices of those who have felt slighted, surely the artist has a responsibility to modify his digression, or otherwise acknowledge that he meant no harm by it.