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The Importance of Russian Culture and the Russian Church: A Personal Testimony

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Suzanne Massie is a 40 year phenomenon in the field of US-Russia relations. A brilliant and passionate writer, she is author of some of the greatest classics about Russia. She became a close friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in the course of advising them about Russian culture and psychology. Her life story, and how it became intertwined with Russia reads like an adventure novel. See RI’s profile here. A resident of Maine, she keeps an apartment in St. Petersburg. Raised Episcopalian she converted to Russian Orthodoxy. She is an outspoken critic of how dishonest the media are about Russia and is brilliant in explaining to Americans why Russian culture is one of the most exciting phenomenona ever. Archive of Massie’s articles on RI.

This brilliant speech was given in New York in 1981. In it Massie recounts the remarkable story of how she became connected to Russia, how Russian culture and Christianity are inseparable from each other, what she learned about suffering from her Russian friends and caring for her hemophiliac son, and how the Russian Orthodox faith taught her to accept what life sends us. Given 8 years before the collapse of Communism, it is as relevant today as it was then.


Commencement Address
June 7, 1981
Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary
Jordanville, New York

I come to you today to testify to the importance of Russian culture and the Russian church in one life – my own. People whom I meet — whether they are Russians or Americans — always seem to ask me the same question. How is it, they ask, that I an American, have become so interested in Russia and Russian culture when it is not my native background? Always there is not only curiosity, in this question, but even incredulity. Each time I answer the question in the same way. Yes, I say, there are some facts and reasons I can give you, but essentially there remains something mysterious, unexplained and wonderful, in the true sense of that word. It is finally, simply a question of love. Love is always a mystery. No one can define it exactly, but when it happens it is the most real and important thing in one’s existence.

In the beginning there was nothing in my life that would have lead anyone to believe that I would devote my career and the major part of my life to date to searching out and learning about Russian culture. I am Swiss by background, descended on both sides of my family from sturdy Bernese farmers we trace back to the 13th century.

A remarkable set of coincidences is responsible for leading me to you, and I once heard a Bishop of the Orthodox Church say that God comes to us in coincidences.

Even before I was born, the coincidences began.

My Swiss grandfather was, at the turn of the century, the representative of watch making industries of Neufchatel. Grandfather traveled to Russia once a year for many years. He made friends and they were forever urging him to send one of his children to visit. He always refused, until one year when my mother was 15, she fell ill. The doctor said that a change of climate was indicated and that Russia would be perfect. So she was sent off on a train to Moscow to visit a Russian family, friends of my grandfather’s, for the summer; a normal enough occurrence in those days when travel and visiting Russia was a natural thing. But it happened to be the summer of 1914. War began. There was no question of sending a young girl back in those times and everyone thought the troubles would be over soon. But this was not to be the case, and my mother lived with this family through the Revolution and finally escaped with them through the south, and Sevastopol.

For over two years her family heard not a word from her. She vanished; they did not know whether she was alive or dead. Suddenly, at age 21, she reappeared in Athens in 1921. This dramatic family story was the background of my childhood existence. Although I can only dimly remember it, I know now that my mother filled my childhood with Russian tales — I recently came across an old book with a tale of Baba Yaga that was given to me on my fifth birthday. I cut my teeth on a small enamel Easter egg which Mother often wore on a chain around her neck, given to her by a famous ballerina of the Bolshoi Theater. Sometimes, when I was a child, I would be taken to meet Russian friends of my mother. They would look at me and say, “You have a Russian soul,” but of course I did not know what they meant.

Many years went by and I did not pursue or learn anything more about Russia, although my mother taught me to love the ballet and I studied dance for ten years. It was not until much later, when I was a young married woman, that I was confronted with a far more disturbing mystery. When our first child, a son, was born, my husband and I rejoiced, but joy soon turned to fear and sorrow when, at the age of five months, as a result of a routine blood examination, we learned that our beautiful child had hemophilia. It was a stroke of lightning. There was no hemophilia in our family. We searched carefully through those Swiss archives back over a hundred years. Nothing. Mystery. We were one of those 40 percent of the cases called “spontaneous” for which even today there is no medical explanation.

It was a catastrophe that seemed to shatter all our hopes and dreams. Yet, unknown to me in those dark moments within this sorrow was contained the seed of our future creativity. But then, bewildered and grieved, I struggled against my fate. I attacked it with all the rationality and work ethic which was my background and with which I had been raised. I thought that if I worked harder, learned more, somehow, by my own will alone, I could conquer. But no matter what I did, or how hard I struggled, my son suffered. I could not control my fate. No matter how much I tried to guard him, bleeding would strike. I spent hours and nights in hospitals. He often suffered terrible pain. I was told that he would never walk (this did not in the end prove to be true, but for many years, it was).

Yet of all the difficult things I had to face in those dark hours of my beginning, the hardest was a sense of great isolation. I had not realized so immediately until then that contemporary American society demands that we remain forever beautiful, healthy and young. Grief and suffering are something to be hidden from view so that they do not intrude and disturb the relentlessly happy picture that we have imposed on our American society. Although I was the same person, it seemed as if a wall of glass had descended between me and the rest of the world. It was a bewildering and frightening experience. I felt totally alone and cut off from all the people I knew. When Bobby was two years old, he had a completely unexpected, and to this day unexplained, cerebral hemorrhage. He did recover, but in my night of despair, I decided that I had to do something very hard to save my sanity.

And it was Russia to which I turned. Why? To this day I do not know, nor do I remember the name of the neighbor who told me that at the local high school there were adult education classes for eight dollars a semester in the Russian language. I went. And the teacher looked at me and said, “You have a Russian soul.” We became friends. Through her, and other Russian neighbors living in nearby Nyack, I began to learn to look at my experience in a different way. These friends taught me to look into my soul, to hope that perhaps my suffering contained if not the probability, then at least the possibility of new knowledge and creativity — that I had been given a great challenge rather that a curse and punishment. They invited me to Easter services where I found joy and hope. They accepted Bobby when others were afraid to risk having him in their homes. From my son’s illness I finally learned to accept that there was nothing I could do to predict or control my destiny, that all was in God’s hands. From my Russian friends I was given a human support and comfort that I think, saved me.

It was because of the new perceptions of the world brought by our son’s illness that we embarked on the book which became – Nicholas and Alexandra. I worked very closely with my husband and the book became a family project into which we both poured all our energies. In the course of helping with research and editing, I was, was for the first time, able to pour my interest and love for the old Russia my mother had taught me to love as a child. It was at the end of the writing of the book that we decided to go to visit the Soviet Union to see the city of St. Petersburg where so much of the drama which had so interested us had happened. I have always thought it symbolically appropriate that the only way we were able to finance this trip was to borrow on our life insurance.

For there, my story took another strange and intense turn. Quite inexplicably, from the first moment I arrived in St. Petersburg I felt that I had always known it. I knew no one, but I felt that someone would find me. I waited. And again, quite accidentally in the palace of Pavlovsk, I met a poet. With him I went through the looking glass that separates foreigners from Russians. After that first trip I went every six months for five years and met many Russians of varied backgrounds and experiences. The strange thing was that my eleven years of living with hemophilia had somehow prepared me to meet them. I had learned to live with fear, with constant anxiety and helplessness, with never knowing what the next day would bring. Although our experiences had been different, somehow they recognized me and I recognized them. It was like finding a family that I had never known existed.

It was they who took me by the hand, and with great love and respect showed me every detail of their beloved “Piter,” pointing out architectural details of buildings that were shabby and in disrepair, who spoke with love of their splendid churches destroyed and desecrated, who quoted their writers and poets of the past from memory. It was they who told me sadly, “We used to have such beautiful holidays, but now we are forgetting how to celebrate them.” (I add in parenthesis that it was to try to help answer this question for them that I wrote the chapter in Land of the Firebird that is titled, “Ice Slides and Easter Eggs.”) The remarkable thing about all this was that it came from a young generation which had had no contact with the past. And from the first moment in the Soviet Union what I saw, and what touched me deeply, was suffering mirrored in eyes that I shall never forget.

I knew that there was something miraculous in all these meetings and that they could not last long. So while it was possible, I walked into every door that opened and was never afraid. One thing that is quite amazing, in a society which rewards informers, is not that there are so many – but that there are so few. Out of these trips grew my first book, The Living Mirror: Five Young Poets from Leningrad, and of course inevitably, the time came when I was no longer granted a visa. No reasons were given. There were none, simply, I suppose, I knew too many people. Once again I struggled against fate, but to no avail. It had been my hope to write a book on the magnificent restoration of Pavlovsk Palace; a work that had been accomplished with great love and devotion to the beauties of the past. But I was not permitted to return.

And again, through a strange set of circumstances, just at the time that I sorrowfully concluded that my work was conclusively barred, another door opened. I was asked to prepare a lecture for the Metropolitan Museum that would evoke the glories of the culture of old Russia. It was the work I did for this, that my book, Land of the Firebird, began to grow. As I worked, I found that all study of Russian culture lead inevitably to the Russian church. Therefore I decided to begin my book with the coming of the Orthodox faith to Russia, because this faith and the church, was the rock on which the great and beautiful Russian culture was founded.

During the course of working on my book, I was, in effect, removed from the world for the better part of three years. I spent those days in a small room reading books. In such an isolated atmosphere, ideas and perceptions appeared to me. I found myself wondering what was Russia like 60 years after the Mongol invasions? — those invasions which were of such destructive intensity that they can be called the atom bomb of their day. After the cataclysm, Russia was a depressed, corrupted, destroyed land. The promising civilization of Kiev, the great palaces, the churches, the books, the great men, all were gone, the population dispersed and terrified. Yet, despite everything, wrote the historian George Fedotov, “The Christianity of Kiev remained a living memory in the hearts of the people.” Monks traveled the land, comforting and gathering the survivors. It was the church that led Russia out of the darkness. In those days the church was Russia, and Russia was the church. I believe that in a very real way, this is still true today. The church has always represented the finest aspirations of the Russian people and provided them with inspiration and strength in the darkest hours of their history. There have been no darker days than those of the past 60 years.

The Russian people have absorbed the brunt of the greatest shock of modern times — Communism — an idea which came clothed in the robes and the words of idealism, but in fact concealed only tyranny and death. All Russians, wherever they are, have suffered from this cataclysm in physical and moral ways which are beyond the understanding of any Westerner. They have been dispersed all over the world, forced into new paths, new lives, while those who remained behind have been terrorized, tortured, silenced. By absorbing this terrible historical shock of the 20th century, I believe that Russia may well have saved us in the West, as the Russians in the 13th century once saved European civilization from the Mongols. The price paid by them was very high. The destruction of the nation and the spirit is today perhaps even more profound. Yet sixty years is but a moment in historical terms and the final story is far from told.

It is not an accident that the Soviet government has always considered religion and the Orthodox faith its greatest enemy … that they have tried in every way to destroy allegiance to the church among the people, to lead them astray by false promises of material benefits, to terrify them, besot them with alcohol, isolate them from the world and envelop them in lies. But the fact that they have tried for sixty years with all the might at their command to destroy faith and have failed, is a tribute to the indomitable human spirit which yearns for the nourishment of its Creator and cannot and will not allow the divine flame to be extinguished.

It is also a tribute to the extraordinary strength and endurance of the Russian people. I sometimes think that only Russians could have absorbed such a shock to the soul and survived it all. And survive they have: beleaguered, weakened, dispirited, but alive … and searching for the spirit. Among the most moving church services I have ever attended are those in the Soviet Union where I have seen strong men singing the service with tears pouring unashamedly down their faces. I know a poet in the Soviet Union who is of deep Orthodox Faith. As a child every day he was beaten for his beliefs, and yet he maintained such integrity that he said that from his early years he knew that if he read the newspapers he would never learn to be a poet, so he studied and took his language from the Church alone.

I heard this phrase from a young man who was searching for faith, “We have learned that man cannot live without beauty, without spirituality, and without religion.” To me, this is the essential message of our part of the twentieth century. The mystery, the miracle, is that this message is coming in its purest form from Russia. Solzhenitsyn once wrote that when culture is taken away from a people, it is like committing a lobotomy on them. Milos Kundera, in his brilliant Book of Laughter and Forgetting, treats this same terrible phenomenon in Czechoslovakia. Yet we have seen the power of belief in Poland, where despite everything, religion has conquered, and without violence. I believe that as it once did long ago, only the Orthodox Church can lead Russia out of her darkness. Only the Church can restore to her the roots of culture, identity, strength.

Today the Soviet Union is the spiritual battleground of the world and on the outcome of this battle the fate of the entire world may depend. You are the shepherds. Your brothers in the Soviet Union are searching in the darkness for their lost faith and culture. Many are like sad and ignorant children, but there are heroes among them: men and women who are not only prepared, but who, every day, even as we are here, are suffering and dying for the principles of the human spirit. The West is in great part deaf and even blind to this reality. We who know and love Russia must unceasingly remind them of this suffering. For although the West is often blind, nevertheless it senses that something is lacking in our society, that we are lonely, alienated, hungering for spiritual nourishment.

Russia can help to provide us with that nourishment that we so much need. Dostoevsky once wrote that the West was the body and Russia the spirit and that the body could not exist without the spirit. You in the Orthodox faith are, for Russia, the living link between the past and the future, and for us in America, an essential connection between East and West. As a Westerner, step by step, I have been led closer to you.

Thanks to my contact with Russian culture and the Russian church, my life has been enriched so greatly that I cannot imagine it without you. Thanks to you, I have learned to think differently, to accept my life as it unfolds in all of its variety. I have learned to trust mystery.

From my contact with Russia I have begun to learn how to take a long view, something difficult for us in the West – and greater patience.

A poet in the Soviet Union wrote me, “Perhaps we are all nothing but witnesses in a gigantic trial whose outcome is as yet unknown, but whose outlines we can somehow perceive, as behind a driving rain we can sometimes glimpse the silhouettes of angels.”

I do not know the purpose of having been given my love for the Russian land, but I do know that I feel that I have a mission to share my feeling as widely as I can and this I have been trying to do, in lectures and in books.

You are witnesses to the great Russian culture and faith. And, when you are serving in your various ways with your various talents, you may one day see someone who is looking and listening with great attention … a stranger, as I once was, who is searching and needs to find that which you alone can give. Then I hope that you will remember me and reach to that stranger, for one never knows what may happen by this contact.


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History: El Argar, the great society that mysteriously vanished | Culture

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3D recreation of La Bastida, near present-day Totana (Murcia), one of the main settlements of the Argaric culture.
3D recreation of La Bastida, near present-day Totana (Murcia), one of the main settlements of the Argaric culture.Dani Méndez-REVIVES

El Argar, an early Bronze Age culture that was based within modern Spain, is one of the great enigmas of Spanish and world archaeology. After emerging in 2200 BC, it disappeared 650 years later. Experts debate that it collapsed in 1550 BC either because of the depletion of the natural resource that sustained it – which resulted in the population fleeing or dying of starvation — or because of a massive popular revolt against the ruling class.

The Argaric culture was “the first society divided into classes in the Iberian Peninsula” – as defined by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) – and the creator of the world’s first Parliament. Following its demise, the civilization vanished from memory… until an archaeologist named Rogelio de Inchaurrandieta came across Argaric artefacts in 1869 and began to ask questions.

Inchaurrandieta exhibited his discovery at the International Archeology Congress in Copenhagen (1866-1912). He spoke of an unknown civilization from the Bronze Age that he had found on a steep hill in the municipality of Totana, in Spain’s Region of Murcia. He displayed gold and silver objects and spoke of a large, fortified city that lacked any type of connection with known historical societies. Nobody believed him.

But in 1877, the Belgian brothers Luis and Enrique Siret arrived in Murcia in search of mining prospects. They ended up confirming the existence of the unknown society, including what had been its large urban center, which extended 35,000 square kilometres through the southeast of the Iberian Peninsula. This site was methodically excavated: agricultural tools, precious metals and even the remains of princesses were preserved.

The study El Argar: The Formation of a Class Society, by archaeologists Vicente Lull, Rafael Micó, Roberto Risch and Cristina Rihuete Herrada from UAB, points out that El Argar “is one of the emblematic cultures of the early Bronze Age in Europe. The large settlements on its hills, the abundance of well-preserved [tombs] in the subsoil of the towns, as well as the quantity, variety and uniqueness of the artefacts, have since attracted the attention of numerous researchers.”

Vicente Lull, professor of Prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and one of the world’s most recognized experts on this society, admits that the Argaric “is in fashion.” “Specialists come from all over the world to take an interest in this unique civilization… it is unparalleled, with first-rate technological development, which left nothing in its wake, but advanced everything. It’s like searching for the lost civilization.”

Experts agree that the discovery of El Argar marked a break with respect to the preceding Copper Age, regarding technological development, economic relations, urban and territorial organization patterns and funerary rites.

The Sirets, at the end of the 19th century, excavated ten Argaric sites and opened more than a thousand tombs, resulting in the destruction of the human remains. However, they carefully drew everything they found.

“The culture of El Argar is the first [class-based] society in the Iberian Peninsula. The central settlements accumulated an important part of the production surpluses and the work force. The effects of said control are manifested in the normalization of ceramic and metallurgical products and in the restricted circulation and use, above all, of metallic products,” assert the experts from UAB.

But not all the inhabitants of these cities accumulated wealth to the same extent, as evidenced by the exhumed goods of the ruling class. In 1984, Vicente Lull and Jordi Estévez distinguished three social groups. The most powerful class – made up of 10 percent of the population – enjoyed “all the privileges and the richest trappings, including weapons such as halberds and swords.” 50 percent of individuals, meanwhile, were of modest means and had recognized social-political rights, while 40 percent of residents were condemned to servitude or slavery.

“One of the characteristics of this society is that it was closed in on itself. Its defenses not only served as protection, but also created a cloistered society dominated by an oppressive ruling class,” Lull notes. Such aristocratic oppression likely could have triggered the end of the civilization.

The end of El Argar gave way to the late-Bronze Age. The causes of the collapse of Argaric society seem to have been various socio-economic and ecological factors. Possibly, the overexploitation of the environment led to ecological degradation that made economic and social reproduction unfeasible. The end of El Argar is characterized by the depletion of natural resources, work tools and the workforce, the latter in the form of high infant mortality and more diseases. Perhaps this situation led to an unprecedented social explosion and complete disappearance of this civilization, as evidenced by the fact that many of the unearthed buildings show signs of having been burned on all four sides.

Following the destruction, there was complete silence, only broken by the permanence in Alicante and Granada of some small Argaric groups – populated by the fleeing ruling classes – that survived another century.

Of the hundreds of Argaric tombs studied, one stands out that archaeologists call the Princess of La Almoloya, a young woman who died in the year 1635 BC. She was buried at the head of a unique building with her linens, ceramics and thirty valuable objects made of gold, silver, amber and copper. Beneath her grave, the body of a man who had died years before was found.

About 100 kilometres from Pliego, in Antas – the economic and political center of El Argar – a building was found that included a large room, with benches and a podium. It could accommodate 50 people. The researchers assume that it was a kind of parliament, perhaps the first in the world.

“We will never know what was discussed there,” says Lull, “because the Argarics, despite their development, did not master writing. It’s a mystery about a mystery.”

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Olivia Newton-John, the ‘Grease’ star who became a global icon | Culture

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She always felt more comfortable as a singer than as an actress, but it was her role as Sandy in the musical Grease (1978) that made her a global icon. Olivia Newton-John died Monday at the age of 73 from breast cancer at her ranch in California. The news was confirmed by her husband.

In a statement posted on social media, her widower John Easterling said: “Dame Olivia Newton-John (73) passed away peacefully at her Ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends. We ask that everyone please respect the family’s privacy during this very difficult time.”

“Olivia has been a symbol of triumphs and hope for over 30 years sharing her journey with breast cancer. Her healing inspiration and pioneering experience with plant medicine continues with the Olivia Newton-John Foundation Fund, dedicated to researching plant medicine and cancer.”

Olivia Newton-John was the granddaughter of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Born, a Jew exiled to the United Kingdom from Nazi Germany. She was born in Cambridge, England, in 1948, and when she was only five years old, her family moved to Melbourne in Australia, where her father worked as a German teacher. She started out very young in the world of music, performing first with a group of schoolmates and then as a solo singer. At the age of 17, she won a talent contest on Australian television, which saw her move to the United Kingdom, where at 18 she recorded her first single.

While living in England, the singer was briefly performed with Pat Carroll. After separating (he had to return to Australia when his visa expired), she released her first album in 1971, If Not for You. The title paid tribute to a Bob Dylan song that had also been recorded by George Harrison.

Olivia Newton-John, during a concert in Hong Kong, in August 2000.
Olivia Newton-John, during a concert in Hong Kong, in August 2000.Reuters Photographer (REUTERS)

Newton-John represented the United Kingdom at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, with the song Long Live Love, chosen by popular vote among six options. She came fourth, while ABBA won the contest with the song Waterloo.

The British-Australian actress is known worldwide for starring in the 1978 musical Grease, alongside John Travolta. Her role as Sandy catapulted her to fame with songs such as You’re the One that I Want, Summer Nights and Hopelessly Devoted to You. Newton-John was initially reluctant to accept the role that would make her career. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be an actress and also felt that, at 28 years of age, she wasn’t the best fit for a high school student.

Finally, after several screen tests and at the insistence of Travolta, who was 23 at the time, but already a star thanks to the movie Saturday Night Fever, she accepted. “I couldn’t have done the film if I hadn’t met John, because I wasn’t sure about doing it. He convinced me,” confessed Newton-John in an interview conducted in early 2019. The film script was changed slightly to account for the singer’s Australian accent.

The actress maintained a lifelong friendship with Travolta, who posted a message mourning her death on social media on Monday: “My dearest Olivia, you made our lives so much better. Your impact was incredible. I love you so much. We will see you down the road and we will all be together again. Yours from the first moment I saw you and forever! Your Danny, your John!” The two appeared in public for the last time in December 2019, dressed as their characters from Grease.

Grease was the highest-grossing film of the year of its release and its soundtrack, which is also the soundtrack of an entire generation, remained at the top of the charts for weeks. The actress was nominated for a Golden Globe and appeared at the Oscars ceremony the following year singing Hopelessly Devoted to You, which was nominated for Best Song.

Before Grease shot her to worldwide fame, Newton-John released the song Let Me Be There, which won her a Grammy for best female country vocal performance.

The album cover for ‘Physical.’
The album cover for ‘Physical.’

After Grease, she starred in films such as Xanadu and topped the charts with songs such as Physical, from 1981. The same-named album was the first to have a music video for each song. As a singer, she won four Grammy Awards, although she was never very popular with critics.

From 1984 to 1995, Newton-John was married to actor Matt Lattanzi, with whom she had a daughter, Chloe Rose. Her next partner, camera operator Patrick McDermott, who disappeared at sea in 2005. In 2008, she married tycoon John Easterling, the founder of Amazon Herb Company.

In 2019, Newton-John was diagnosed again with stage four breast cancer with metastases in the back. The actress, who had battled the disease in 1992 and in 2013, told the television show 60 Minutes Australia that she did not know how long she had left to live. “For me, psychologically, it’s better not to have any idea of what they expect or what the last person that has what you have lived, so I don’t, I don’t tune in,” she said.

Newton-John called on Australia to allow the use of marijuana for medicinal and palliative use, in line with California, where she lived. Her daughter has a cannabis farm in Oregon.

Her loved ones also recognize her fundraising work for cancer research. In one of her most famous campaigns, the singer auctioned off some of her personal clothes, including outfits she wore on Grease.

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Justified: Generation Z doesn’t like Justin Timberlake anymore: the ‘new king of pop’ apologized too late | Culture

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Twenty years ago, Rolling Stone magazine crowned Justin Timberlake (Memphis, Tennessee, 41 years old) “the new king of pop.” This summer, a video of the singer dancing at Washington’s Something in the Water festival accumulated millions of views on social networks, but not for the reasons he would like. Commenters called the star “creepy,” “hilarious” and “embarrassing.”. “Justin Timberlake still thinking he has any swag left while wearing those Old Navy khakis on stage,” jeered one Twitter user. “This is the height of gentrification,” wrote another. When did Justin Timberlake, once the biggest star on the planet, the world’s best pop dancer and the coolest man in the entertainment industry, become a pop culture piñata? Timberlake has been irritating public opinion for 20 years. Now, all the backlash is hitting him at once.

Timberlake released his first solo album, Justified, in 2002 at the age of 21. The promotional campaign coincided with his breakup with Britney Spears. He used the “Cry Me A River” music video, which featured a lookalike of the pop singer, to make it clear that she had cheated on him. Timberlake revealed on two different radio shows that he had had sexual relations with Spears, despite the fact that during their courtship both had proclaimed their intention to be virgins at marriage.

Timberlake continued talking about Spears over the years. In 2013, he referred to her in a Saturday Night Live sketch about his ancestors’ wishes for their descendents: “He’ll date a popular female singer. Publicly they’ll claim to be virgins, but privately, he’ll hit it.” At a 2007 concert, while Spears was in a rehabilitation center for her mental problems and addictions, he alluded to her more indirectly: he ended “Cry Me A River” singing the chorus of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.”

In 2004, Timberlake participated in the Super Bowl halftime show alongside Janet Jackson. At the end of the performance he uncovered her breast for 9/16 of a second before an audience of 143 million viewers. More than 200,000 viewers complained to CBS. In the midst of the Iraq war, the so-called Nipplegate incident occupied ample space in the conservative media, which fueled the controversy to the point of sinking Jackson’s career. Radio and television channels stopped broadcasting her, ABC canceled a movie about Lena Horne that she was going to star in and Disney World removed a statue of Mickey Mouse dressed as Jackson.

Justin Timberlake at Something In The Water festival, in Washington, last june.
Justin Timberlake at Something In The Water festival, in Washington, last june.2021SHANNONFINNEY (WireImage)

Timberlake, by contrast, suffered no consequences. The Grammys canceled Jackson’s planned appearance, but Timberlake did perform, winning two awards and using his speech to apologize. He didn’t mention his stage partner. At no time did Timberlake publicly defend, support or apologize to her. What he did do was criticize the singer’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which Jackson claimed to have felt betrayed by Timberlake. Many fans believe he insulted her on the song “Give It To Me:” “Could you speak up and stop the mumbling? I don’t think you’re getting clear. Sitting on the top it’s hard to hear you from way up here. I saw you trying to act cute on TV. Just let me clear the air. We missed you on the charts last week. Damn that’s right, you wasn’t there.” “Give It To Me” reached number one on the United States’ charts.

Timberlake’s album Future Sex/Love Sounds was the third best-selling album of 2006. Three of its songs went on to reach number one: “Sexyback,” “My Love” and “What Goes Around Comes Around,” which also attacks Spears.

His wedding to actress Jessica Biel in 2012 generated controversy. A video, orchestrated by one of his friends to be projected during the reception, was leaked in which several homeless people from Los Angeles congratulated Timberlake and expressed their regret at not being able to attend the event, which was held in Puglia (Italy) and cost six million euros. The friend in question paid €30 to each homeless person for their participation. That month, Shriners Children’s Hospital announced the end of its relationship with Timberlake.

The current of public opinion definitively turned against him until 2016. Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams gave a speech at the BET gala about the need to rebel against cultural appropriation: “we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment.” Timberlake reacted by tweeting “#inspired,” to which journalist Ernest Owens replied, “Does this mean you are going to stop appropriating our music and culture? And apologize to Janet.” “Oh, you sweet soul,” replied the singer. “The more you realize that we are the same, the more we can have a conversation. Bye.” Given the controversy, Timberlake deleted the tweet but insisted that “we are all one…one human race.”

Justin Timberlake y Britney Spears.
Justin Timberlake y Britney Spears.James Devaney (WireImage)

That exchange sparked a media conversation about cultural appropriation and the well-intentioned passivity of white celebrities. Timberlake has built his career drawing on black aesthetics, musicians and culture. His sound has oscillated between R&B, hip hop, funk and soul, but for him, as Candance McDuffy wrote in Glamour, “black culture is a lucrative disguise that he can remove as soon as it ceases to benefit him.” Or as Luria Freeman summed it up in Vibe, “Justin owes his voice to the black community, but he remains silent.”

In early 2018, Timberlake released his fourth album, Man Of The Woods. He traded his image as a neo-Sinatra heartthrob for flannel, jeans, and fur coats, finding himself in the wilderness of the Wild West (the singer has a ranch in Montana). Criticism raged against the project. “Justin Timberlake relaunches his brand, now as a white man,” The Outline headlined. “Montanans laughed at the notion that a multimillion-dollar home at a private ski resort, filled with other non-Montanans, would evoke ‘the Wild West’; others suggested that he’d watched The Revenant or listened to Bon Iver once and co-opted the signifiers,” observed Anne Helen Petersen on Buzzfeed.

Critics saw Justin Timberlake’s reinvention as another disguise. “Justin Timberlake hasn’t suddenly reclaimed his white masculinity for the first time with Man of the Woods. It’s been with him all along. It’s just that now it’s become impossible to ignore,” wrote Constance Grady for Vox.

The night Justin Timberlake performed at the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show, becoming the first person to take that stage three times, #JusticeForJanet was a trending topic on Twitter. While Jackson’s career remained in shambles 14 years after Nipplegate, Timberlake returned to the scene in style. In addition, many fans considered Prince’s appearance in a giant hologram yet another jab by Timberlake at black culture and an act of disrespect towards Prince, who had stipulated that he did not wish to appear in holograms because he considered them demonic. The press considered it one of the least memorable intermissions of the Super Bowl.

At the beginning of last year, the documentary series The New York Times Presents devoted an episode to Britney Spears’ career and another to the collapse of Janet Jackson’s career after the Super Bowl. In both, perhaps the two most emblematic episodes of misogyny in 2000s pop culture, Timberlake played an antagonistic role. And in both he went unpunished. “Timberlake’s shine has worn off, leaving behind an uncomfortable tale of a man who enjoyed continued success at the expense of other people’s losses,” wrote journalist Chelsea McLaughlin.

Last month, Rolling Stone, the same magazine that two decades ago proclaimed him the new king of pop, analyzed Timberlake’s viral dance in Washington. It blamed Generation Z for the singer’s new status. “Zoomers, particularly those on TikTok, are really good at making previously lauded white men seem remarkably uncool. This is a curse that has now befallen Justin Timberlake, the once pop prince.” But singer’s decline in popularity goes beyond social media run-ins. “The new reckoning around him feels like a cultural exorcism, a chance to use the boy band vessel to purge ourselves of the evils he now represents to many,” writes Maria Sherman at Slate.com. “Timberlake has become the perfect emblem of a bygone era that rewarded guys exactly like him—until it didn’t.”



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