As a not-so-closeted Britney fan, I was more excited to watch The New York Times Presents, Framing Britney Spears than I was when I found out WFH meant I could wear the same unwashed sweatshirt and leggings every day. And I wasn’t disappointed. Framing Britney brought me facts about Britney’s career, conservatorship, struggles with the spotlight, and more, wrapped up in a tight hour and a half. It even briefly touched on her four-year relationship with Justin Timberlake, which immediately brought me mental flashbacks of obsessing over their denim-on-denim AMAs look. You know the one. The documentary, though, showed how Justin weaponized their relationship to launch his solo career, make headlines, and ultimately sell records. That was enough to send me into the deep dark interwebs to dig up everything I could about this guy.
Peeling back the layers and piecing together his history revealed a seriously disgusting picture, and a pattern of him exploiting female artists and taking advantage of the music industry’s sexist double standards for his own gain. I’m here today to expose more of Justin’s horrible behavior, so next time you want to cue up “SexyBack”, you’ll think twice.
The Early Days: Britney & Justin Become The “It” Couple
Britney and Justin met in 1993 when they were on Mickey Mouse Club alongside Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. Justin went on to join *NSYNC and Britney went on to pursue her solo career, and they began touring together in 1998. In 1999 they began dating while still on tour, with their relationship ending in March 2002.
At the time, Britney was redefining what it meant to be a female pop star. Between 1999 and 2000 alone was when “… Baby One More Time” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, Britney appeared as herself on Sabrina The Teenage Witch, hosted SNL, and sold 20 million copies of “Oops!… I Did It Again”. Side note: she was 18 at the time… which makes me think, all I was doing at 18 was Googling “where to buy fairy lights” and discovering there is such a thing as too much Valencia filter.
*NSYNC, despite being what I call the ugly annoying cousin of the Backstreet Boys, was doing well at the time—the group’s self-titled album debuted at #82 on the Billboard 200, and in October 1998, peaked at #2 on the charts, spending 30 weeks total in the top 10. (The albums it peaked behind? Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill and—wait for it—Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time.) But let’s be honest: Justin wasn’t a solo superstar before he dated Britney—his media coverage was primarily grouped in with all of *NSYNC. Once he and Britney started dating, though, he started to get more media coverage and solo opportunities, including interviewing Britney at the 2000 Grammys and being invited to join her at her 2002 SNL appearance (which surely wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t together).
During their time together, there were quiet (and never proven) tabloid rumors floating around that Justin had potentially cheated on Britney with groupies or backup dancers. Although nothing was proven, he’d go on to be accused of cheating on his ex-girlfriend Cameron Diaz and his now-wife Jessica Biel, and I like to say that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.
2002: Justin Villainizes Britney For Media Attention
In March 2002, rumors surfaced that Britney cheated on Justin with their mutual choreographer, which led to their breakup. Like any well-trained money-hungry social climber, Justin took every opportunity after that their breakup to talk sh*t about Britney, spin the narrative to make him look like the victim, and profit off the exploitation of their relationship. Wasting no time to even collect his blonde dip dye from Britney’s, Justin ran off and wrote “Cry Me A River” in two hours.
And if you’ve been living your life thinking “Cry Me A River” is just a catchy tune,
wake tf up let me explain the significance: it’s not just about Britney cheating on Justin. Justin also cast a Britney lookalike in the music video to pair with the lyrics of infidelity, just so there was no room for a nuanced interpretation. (And I don’t have the time to get into it, but the way he went about telling Britney about the lookalike was also f*cked up.)
Imagine—just imagine—the frenzy the video sent magazines and gossip sites into, because it was essentially Justin confirming that she cheated. And that benefited Justin how? One, airtime, headlines, etc. and two, his record sales surely benefited from the publicity. For context, his first solo record, “Like I Love You”, was released in August 2002 and peaked at 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. But, when “Cry Me A River” and his album Justified were released in November 2002, the media heavily speculated it was about Britney, which got his name in the press. Justified sold over three million copies in the U.S., while “Cry Me River” peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100.
Whether they were true or not, Justin milked the cheating rumors and earned himself a victim narrative in the headlines, most famously in a 2002 interview with Barbara Walters. In the interview, Barbara gave him an opportunity to clarify the public impression that Britney was at fault for the breakup, and while he didn’t directly agree, he also didn’t deny it. He also chose to perpetuate the victim narrative, getting his Mom to speak about how heartbroken and shattered he was over the breakup. Personally, I find it hilariously hypocritical that Justin catapulted his career by vilifying Britney when he, himself, has gone on to (reportedly) cheat on his wife and the mother of his children. Talk about what goes around comes around…
And despite Britney publicly saying she wanted to save herself until marriage (the media’s fixation on which was a whole other sexist can of worms we don’t need to open right now), Justin shattered that image for her by proudly bragging that they’d had sex and alluding to it in that same Barbara Walters interview. He also notably admitted to having oral sex with Britney on New York’s Hot 97 radio station, where he said “I did it. I’m dirty.”
Talk about a double standard.
2003-2016: Justin Continues To Profit From Britney’s Name
Apparently, Justin’s PR strategy was to talk sh*t, throw shade, and continue to milk the “poor me” storyline, because that’s exactly what he did way past their breakup.
In 2006, Justin told GQ, “I felt like [Britney] had a couple of opportunities to just sort of stick up for me, and she didn’t. Which is fine. But at that time, you know, I fought back, and that’s the way I fought back. I used my mind. I came up with a song.” Then, at the 2008 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, he alluded to Britney being a Madonna wannabe, followed by allegedly calling her a “bitch” at a 2013 Super Bowl party. And then, over a decade after they split, Justin did an interview with Vanity Fair Italia where he cited that the suffering and pain from his breakup with Britney helped him write hits like “Cry Me A River”.
Beyond bringing her up in interviews, Justin made headlines in 2006 because the media speculated that his hit “What Goes Around… Comes Around” was also about Britney… basically saying Britney’s divorce from Kevin Federline was karma for her cheating on Justin. Maybe he should have, ya know, let it go??
Oh Wait, He’s Caused Other Women To Suffer, Too?
Remember a little scandal called Nipplegate that basically got Janet Jackson blacklisted from the music industry? If you need a refresher, it was a tragic incident when Justin ripped part of Janet’s costume off during the live 2004 Super Bowl Halftime show, revealing her breast on national TV.
Even though Justin was the one who visibly tore Janet’s top, Janet’s the one who suffered when her music and music videos were banned from all Viacom subsidiaries including MTV, and when she was pressured not to attend the 2006 Grammys despite originally being invited to speak. People called Justin “the Teflon man”, because he left the scandal virtually unscathed—his music wasn’t blacklisted from stations, he attended the Grammys as planned, and he was even invited back to the Super Bowl to perform in 2018. He did acknowledge in 2006 that “America is harsher on women” and told MTV, “If there was something that I could have done in her defense…I would have.” I can think of at least a few things he could have done, but okay.
Justin sort of vaguely apologized for the 2004 incident ahead of his 2018 Super Bowl performance. He also radio host Zane Lowe after Lowe directly suggested that he and Janet had made peace with what happened in 2004, “absolutely, and I don’t know that a lot of people know that. I don’t think it’s my job to do that because you value the relationships you do have with people.” K.
There have been other instances in which Justin has come under fire. In 2018, he and his wife Jessica Biel attended the Golden Globes—to which, if you’ll recall, invitees wore black in solidarity with #TimesUp. Justin and Jessica both wore black (fine) but before the event, in a tweet that has still not been deleted, Justin posted a picture of himself and Jessica, writing, “Here we come!! And DAMN, my wife is hot! #TIMESUP #whywewearblack”. It’s so tone-deaf it almost feels like satire. Almost. On top of that, Timberlake posted the #TIMESUP hashtag while at the same time starring in a Woody Allen movie.
The saying means, for example, you can’t support #TIMESUP and praise sexual predators at the same time. You can’t retain your credibility as an activist (i.e. – retain the cake) and, at the same time, praise a sexual predator (i.e. – eating the cake).
— Dylan Farrow (@RealDylanFarrow) January 23, 2018
2021: Justin Faces Backlash After Framing Britney Spears’ Release
Fast forward to 2021, and The New York Times brought us Framing Britney Spears, which lifted the veil on the calculated narrative Justin crafted about his relationship with Britney. And people are PISSED, demanding Justin say sorry.
Personally, I predict that, because of the public pressure, Justin will release a very scripted PR statement on Instagram, similar to the one he posted when the Jessica Biel cheating rumors were going around. Following that I assume he’ll lay low, spend some time with his wife and kids, and break back onto the scene in late 2021 or early 2022 to announce that he’s releasing music or starring in some movie.
That said… I hope I’m wrong with that prediction. I hope he sincerely admits to and apologizes for weaponizing his privilege and abusing sexist double standards (among other things), and maybe even calls the women to personally say sorry.
And even more than that, I hope this transcends the Justin and Britney of it all, by influencing the industry to stop promoting men at the expense of women, and to say enough is enough when it comes to exploiting double standards.
UPDATE: In response to growing calls to apologize, Justin finally released an apology to Britney and Janet Jackson on his Instagram on Friday.
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Images: Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage via Getty Images; RealDylanFarrow / Twitter