Take Back the Night (Fisking Pop Songs)


I heard the new single from pop icon Justin Timberlake over the weekend and was completely floored. Not by the musical stylings, of course, those sound exactly as I would expect them to, and I generally love Timberlake’s style.

But the name of the song is exactly the name of a campaign of night walks to promote women having a right to feel safe at night. I figured the song might have something to do with that, I mean, how genius would it be to write a song specifically knowing that a certain group of people would make that their anthem, and play it over and over again at all of their rallies and walks! But with four writers, including Timberlake, Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley and Jerome “J-Roc” Harmon, and James Fauntleroy, none of them seemed to be aware of the campaign at all. Beyond that, the lyrics show a complete lack of knowledge about the problems that “Take back the Night” walks are trying to address.

Yeah, uh, feels good, don’t it?
Listen, Yeah, this was your city
You did it all and more, broke every law except for one, babe
Attraction, are you ready
I know you feel it
Pull you nearer ’til you feel it again, oh

The song starts by asking a loaded question with a rhetorical feel to it. It’s a question that can be asked with the expectation that if no response is given, then everything is assumed to be fine. The first verse ends by telling the woman that the singer will make her feel attraction to him again by physically pulling her towards him.

I wanna do something right
But we can do something better
Ain’t no time like tonight
And we ain’t trying to save it ’til later

All of these are statements he makes FOR her, and makes me feel like he’s reminding her of things she’s said before. This is an issue, because having sexual agency and personal control means being able to set boundaries and have them respected the moment you set them, even if you’ve “gone further” before, or said you wanted something different in the past.

Stay out here living the life
Nobody cares who we are tomorrow
You got that lil’ something I like
A little something I’ve been wanting to borrow

I love the way the language flows here. She has something he wants to “borrow” but to him its just a “lil’” something. No stretch to say this is sex, no stretch to say that it is all he is focused on, and no stretch at all to say it is the one thing he values.

Tonight the night’s, come on surrender
I won’t lead your love astray, astray, yeah

Surrender is a word that is used to imply a conqueror, someone is a winner if the other person surrenders. On the positive side, however, he does amend this by saying he won’t “lead her love astray”. This is a very vague statement, but interpreted charitably it could mean he won’t mistreat her once he gets that “lil’ something”. However, no cookies for being a decent human being.

Your love’s a weapon
Give your body some direction
That’s my aim

Here we see the reversal, its not the man who is dangerous, it’s the woman. Her sexuality and personal agency is a weapon, and needs to be directed by a man who can handle it.

Then, we could
Take back the night
Come on, use me up until there’s nothing left

He really hasn’t made it clear what “Take back the night” even means. They are taking it back from where, to where?

Take back the night
Dizzy, spinning, sweating, you can’t catch your breath
Take back the night
Ooh, don’t know when the sun is rising next
Take back the night
So if the feeling’s right, raise your glass and let’s take back the night

I guess they are taking the night back from the sunlight, as the sun rising always seems to be the worst thing ever in these party songs. Maybe the idea is if they take back the night and run in the right direction, they can keep from ever seeing the sun rising. (Reminds me of the small planet in the “Little Prince”.)

Take back the night
They gon’ try to shut us down, I’ll be damned if we gon’ let them
Take back the night, take back the night
You know you gon’ mess around and find out there ain’t no one better
Take back the night, oh

Another statement he makes for her, that no one else she could mess around with could possibly be better than him.

[Verse 2]
Rare, there’s not too many
No one but you and crowded rooms, we can do anything (yeah)

This reminds me of the mindset of men who are able to move beyond their partner’s comfort zone on the dance floor simply because it is packed. On the surface, yeah, you’d think being in a room full of witnesses would be the worst place to molest someone, but actually it’s a very permissive environment because it’s very hard for the woman to voice her disapproval.

Attraction can drive you crazy
The way you move, you go crazy, that’s incentive for me

The way she moves drives him crazy and that is incentive enough to pursue her. Sounds like a way of saying she was asking for it.

I wanna do something right
But we can do something better
Ain’t no time like tonight
And we ain’t trying to save it ’til later

A typical tactic for people who pressure others into sex is to point out that there is no point in waiting, if you think you might go for it in the future, then why not now. You aren’t one of those prudes who waits forever, are you? Just because you aren’t “saving yourself” for any particular purpose, doesn’t mean you want sex now as much as later. Getting to know a person or being comfortable with yourself before engaging in sexual activities is just fine.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one who noticed that the hook was the name of a popular anti-harrassment campaign. The group had trademarked the name, and contacted JT. It looks like there will not be a lawsuit, and Justin responded to the situation fairly humbly and directly:

“Upon the release of my new single, ‘Take Back The Night,’ I was made aware of an organization of the same name called The Take Back the Night Foundation. I wanted to take this opportunity to let all know that neither my song nor its lyrics have any association with the organization. As I’ve learned more about The Take Back the Night Foundation, I’m moved by its efforts to stop violence against women, create safe communities and encourage respectful relationships for women — something we all should rally around. It is my hope that this coincidence will bring more awareness to this cause.”

I have absolutely no doubt of his sincerity, and I completely believe that this was an accident. What it shows, however, is that people who have the privilege to see the world around them as consensual and possessing agency as a matter of course, don’t see the way the words they use casually are used deliberately by predators. Of course JT doesn’t mean that a girl was “asking for it” when she is assaulted.
I believe it is very likely that he is the person he portrays in interviews, a generally intelligent, caring individual with a great sense of comedy and is very in touch with his emotions. Watch his emotionally wrenching portrayal of a tortured young man in love in Black Snake Moan, and you see a person who is unafraid to cry, to connect with women and show his vulnerability. Which is why it is important that we not give him a pass on this song. He cares about women’s issues, he needs to be shown that cliches like “no one could be better for you than me” can be phased out of the public consciousness if pop stars would stop using them so casually. Wordsmiths in the artistic world can be held accountable because intent isn’t magic.

“It just shows how far we have to go when Take Back the Night as a historic movement to end sexual violence in all forms is still not widely enough known, according to Mr. Timberlake, that he claims he didn’t know that we existed,” Katherine Koestner, executive director of “Take Back the Night”.

I think the best thing that JT could do would be to take the hook, the sound and the feeling of his brassy song and rewrite it as an anthem for the group “Take Back the Night” to use. Do a remix with Gaga (whom he’s worked with before informally on SNL) or Pink to show the other perspective, or better yet, work with them and let them sing it entirely. Give it to the nonprofit royalty free and let any personal proceeds from both versions go to the group.