Getting my morning cup of coffee, I raised my head from the container where the varying forms of milk products were and listened to what was playing over the speakers…again. It wasn’t a surprise. This same experience has taken place on a nearly weekly basis since the late-spring of 2016. They were playing Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling.”
Before we start traveling down the road where one complains about me complaining about Timberlake, let me first add this: I don’t mind the song. This is not one of those instances where everyone is being force-fed some mystery substance and I have to remind the world that Soylent Green is people. “Can’t Stop The Feeling” is a competent earworm of a song, hardly Timberlake’s best but not bad. Therein lies the main problem with the song. It’s truly difficult to be passionate about it toward either pole. You can’t really hate it, but there isn’t much there to outright love either. It’s…okay.
That’s partly by design and partly by mechanical force. The design portion is that “Can’t Stop The Feeling” was written and recorded for Dreamworks Animation’s film Trolls (in which Timberlake provided a voice). You’re not bound to get a lot of complex or adult emotions out of a movie tailored very strictly for the family entertainment market, nor should you. It is nice when that happens, but in most cases, you need to be mindful of your audience and cognizant of where this song will be placed. It was designed to be middle-of-the-road dance-pop and so it is.
It was also meant to be the Trolls movie’s “Happy.” If you recall, “Happy,” recorded by Pharrell Williams, was the hit from another Dreamworks Animation film, Despicable Me 2. The promotion machine set loose for “Happy” was massive and unrelenting, and you either acquiesced to it or you suffered through it. Many really took to the song. I wasn’t one of them. I was told it had a neo-Stevie Wonder vibe and that it was meant to be a feel-good track and accomplished its goal. I felt it was too little played far too much, but at least there was a real sentiment behind the feeling of both camps. You loved it or you certainly didn’t love it, and it wasn’t at all ambiguous.
But “Can’t Stop The Feeling” is awash in listener mixed emotions. I recall a Timberlake superfan saying of the song, “You keep expecting it to jump into awesomeness, but it never gets there.” Another person said the track, referencing another animated movie featuring toys, felt modular. “You could see all the joins like Lego pieces of differing colors, and while everything fits together, nothing quite matches up.”
None of that stopped the marketing forces behind the movie and the song from jamming it down the collective public throat. We’ve seen this level of exertion before on the part of the big pop machine, so it’s not that much of a surprise. What is a surprise is that the song was being treated as if it was being re-re-replayed by massive public request, and the public response was a bit like an unenthusiastic shrugging of shoulders. Something like, “Well, it’s not bad, but we really don’t care either way.”
That could be a good sign for the pop music sphere, in my opinion. To experience a level of lightly-entertained indifference to the promotional insistences is, if not new, then definitely something not frequently seen. It means that the audience may be on the verge of a real sea change, when the pop music carnival barkers shout into the megaphones, “You love it! Admit you love it!” but the crowds are perfectly content to just say “meh.”
That might not mean the pop to come will be better or any good at all, but it might indicate that listeners aren’t as interested in the manufactured group-think on the same level as only a couple of years ago. That’s a little like progress, right?