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Justin Timberlake's apology to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson is too little, too late

Almost 19 years ago, Justin Timberlake was the one to blame Britney Spears in the press for their break up. 17 years ago, Timberlake barely lifted a finger to defend Janet Jackson from public blowback after he ripped off her bodice during their Super Bowl halftime show.

Both those events, plus others, have cast a long shadow on Timberlake’s likability with some fans who can’t and shouldn’t forgive him for the way he treated both those women.

Now, almost 20 years later, Timberlake has issued an apology on social media, saying he is “deeply sorry for the times my actions contributed to the problem.” Yet, the apology, like all celebrity mea culpa’s, lacks specifics and comes so far after the events it’s close to meaningless.

Timberlake starts by saying he feels pressure to respond due to the increased social media attention brought on him by the new FX, Hulu and New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears. 

The documentary has brought renewed focus to the harsh and sexist treatment the pop sensation received throughout her career. In it, Timberlake does not come off looking good. In hindsight, and through a trove of old interviews and clips, it’s clear that his behavior over their breakup played into a misogynistic narrative. All those years of mistreatment, coupled with his lack of support of Jackson, have never really been addressed by Timberlake in any meaningful way, and this apology doesn’t change that.

The social media post hits many of the beats people apologizing for their part in propping up structural racism and sexism seem to think they need to hit. Timberlake admits he made mistakes, he acknowledges that he has privilege, he also says he wants to learn and grow…and yet, there are no specifics, nothing that sounds like a PR team didn’t huddle over various smart phones market testing each word.

It is clinical, it is a Bingo card of “woke” sentiment, devoid of any heart, meaning or real empathy. None of these words mean anything compared to the lasting damage the women he’s addressing have already suffered. Spears was subject to gross, sexist treatment from the press, Jackson was banned from the Super Bowl halftime show for something she had no control over. A few words tossed on a Notes app aren’t enough to make up for years of neglect and willful ignorance.

We’re at the stage in our public discourse where, for many people, a white man simply acknowledging his faults and his privilege is treated as worthy of applause. Yet, while Timberlake does say that he’s decided to be more “vocal about this,” he doesn’t give any specifics, only trots out that well used chestnut, “I can do better and will do better.”

I am not particularly interested in Timberlake’s slow and way too late reckoning with his faults. It would take years and years, quite frankly, to prove that he’s actually changed. Some may say an apology is a good start, but this doesn’t even meet the very low bar for that. This is not an apology, but crisis management from an actor who has a new movie to promote.

In the Timberlake’s case, the sad truth is that there’s little recourse to all the damage he’s caused. He’s stayed silent for so long and reaped so many rewards for his shrewd manipulation of the system that almost anything he says now wouldn’t be enough. He trampled Spears into the ground to further his own career and he stayed quiet while Jackson was being unfairly maligned for his actions. Unless he can go back in time, there’s nothing he can do or say that would make any of that OK.

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