By Jordan Reisman
Pop Professor is a new column to BreakThru Radio, offering an alternative perspective for today’s mainstream pop hits wherever we deem fit. For our inaugural issue, staff writer Jordan Reisman discusses the interracial messaging underneath the well-dressed anthem, “Suit & Tie” by Justin Timberlake.
It’s Justin Timberlake. I love him, you love him, your mom loves him, and with good reason too. He’s not a “guilty pleasure,” he’s not the “bad boy,” and his career continues to reach greater heights the farther we get from the breakup of *NSYNC. He can host SNL with the best of them, and his acting talent tricked the world into thinking Sean Parker was some kind of charming rogue. Oh yeah, and he’s married to Jessica Biel.
Sure, he’s caused a few stirs within the hip-hop community in the past, and his post-Nipplegate etiquette wasn’t so cool, but what pop star doesn’t have a few slip-ups? Tactless PR debacles aside, his career is almost defined by his desire to transcend race — just consider his collaborations with an almost exclusive litany of R&B and hip-hop A-list producers (Pharrell, Janet Jackson, and Timbaland yet again producing his new record).
Like his totem, Michael Jackson, before him – it’s Timberlake’s tendency to blur color lines with his every creative whim that brings him that much closer to the center of all things pop. Only under this light can we appreciate “Suit & Tie” for its underlying narrative. While the major music publications will tell you that the song is about “feeling good about dressing nicely” but I say that it’s a fantasy of an interracial sexcapade.
The hook and first verse can easily fall into themes about classiness and formality but let’s also remember the visual metaphor: he’s talking about a black-and-white suit. A tuxedo can come to represent all of the above, but in true JT form, he sees class and romance as inseparable, and he wants his woman to know he sees her on the same level of posh as he is. Unjust and ignorant stereotypes of interracial dating look down that those involved, often along lines of class and materialism lines, but not in Justin’s world – they are the ideal, which means they exude the same sense of glamour.
In the first verse, he uses the word “fly” a few times, which is a historically and culturally appropriated word that fits in well with the themes of the video. The lines that follow give serious weight to this alternate interpretation of an interracial romance narrative.
Hey baby, we don’t mind all the watching, hi
‘Cause if they study close, real close, they might learn something
These lines depict the scrutiny that many interracial couples face while simply walking the streets; but JT says that they can learn something from them, as well they should.
The second verse is where this interpretation really becomes apparent, albeit in slightly unbecoming fashion. JT employs a few lines that sexualize black women, namely with their tuchuses.
Stop, let me get a good look at it
Ooh so thick, now I know why they call it a fatty.
Yes, the 4/20 enthusiasts out there might spring from their couches at the word “fatty,” yet the subject of this song has consistently been a female, even if Timberlake is an outspoken smoker. At the very best, it could be a double entendre but in a battle between the high of marijuana and the high of a beautiful woman, the woman will always win with JT.
There’s something to be said about racial stereotypes and large behinds here (and they are diffused by the marijuana reference somewhat), but the takeaway is that if JT is in fact referring to a woman of color, he’s merely normalizing this supposed romance. He’s celebrating the love that can exist between people of different ethnic backgrounds. Ain’t nothing political in this song.
In the same verse, he refers to this no-name woman as his “Thriller,” and yes the T is capitalized. An obvious nod to the fallen MJ, Thriller was released in 1982 when Michael Jackson was still seen by the world as a black musician. How soon do we forget in his immortalization of being a dead pop star how his racial identity became slightly obscured with the changing of his pigment and late career eccentricities, at least in the eyes of the public.
The song follows the same kind of structure with the black-and-white motif throughout, including a guest verse by Jay-Z. Though not unlike MJ’s collaboration with Paul McCartney on “The Girl Is Mine” and “Say Say Say”, it’s the tried-and-true guest spot (and in Macca’s case on Thriller, a melodic dispute over a woman) that ensures crossover success for a pop star. Though, analysis along these lines for Jay’s verse doesn’t seem right because since it’s more Jay-Z’s narrative than Justin’s.
The music video for this song complements it well in the way that the black and white symbolism is consistent, as the video is shot in, well, black and white. Jay-Z’s sudden appearance is rather reminiscent of the “Walk This Way” video, where Steven Tyler breaks down the wall separating them from Run DMC. The semiotics of which are astounding, employing a “breaking down barriers” trope.
“Walk This Way” was an important video and song in 1986. Appropriately for 2013, “Suit & Tie” is less overt about bridging racial gaps: we’re left with the still poignant shot of Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z shaking hands and hugging at the end. It’s a little bit of classy camaraderie that shows the two talents coming together in a music industry that can often segregate instead of integrate musicians of different colors.
The appearance of Justin and the backing musicians exudes a “Rat Pack” appeal, and this is consistent with the black-and-white filming, the excess of cigars and alcohol, and the four men (Justin and three others who go anonymous) bowing to the audience at the end of the video.
Though there is a “mystery woman” throughout the entire video and her face is never explicitly shown, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether or is the same woman each time, neither is it made clear what the color of her skin is. Also, not a mistake as it lends well to the fantasy aspect of the video.
The real meat of the racial ambiguity is this: Justin’s cool with whatever skin color the woman happens to have. He’s not trying to make a grandiose statement about interracial relationships like in MJ’s “Black or White.” In JT’s narrative it’s not about the color, it’s about what’s between the two people.
“Suit & Tie,” for the some of its parts, is a delightful and radio-friendly (albeit, a bit long) jam from the classiest media darling of our time. The subtext almost seems secondary because the main focus is mostly on how good Timberlake looks in a black-and-white suit. But I’m of the opinion that he has had a few daydreams of women other than Jessica Biel, and carefully placed them in his song instead of his bedroom.