2018 has been a terrible year for music. It has featured songs that had big debuts and then flopped hard, songs that were released too late in the year to qualify for its year end top 100 list, and songs that stuck around forever. It featured artists that just need to go away (like Drake and XXXTentacion) and some surprising and mostly terrible popular music, including a lot of atrocious trap made by loathsome human beings. It is not an exaggeration to say that 2018 may be one of the worst years ever for popular music. Yet even in a musical wasteland of dreary and dull music and bland pop and adult contemporary songs that somehow remain popular (like Lauv’s “I Like Me Better”), there was still good music to be found, although one had to look for it in unexpected places, and today I would like to talk about one of those songs.
2018 was not a great year for Justin Timberlake. In fact, if a year told an artist to go away that might not have deserved to go away, 2018 was that year for Justin Timerlake. Neither first single “Filthy” nor follow-up “Say Something” stayed on the charts as long as expected, although “Say Something,” a duet with outlaw country artist Chris Stapleton, is likely to just barely make the 2018 Year End list and it was a top ten hit (if only briefly), and so we are talking about it here. Justin Timberlake originally came to fame as a member of the boy band ‘N Sync and then as boy bands were about to decline in popularity he was able to transition successfully into a smooth R&B and dancepop singer with a slew of successful albums. Perhaps the writing was on the wall when the massive soundtrack hit “Can’t Stop The Feeling” was viewed as lame and when he took heat for recording “Love Never Felt So Good” from some discarded Michael Jackson sessions with Paul Anka, but it was still a bit surprising for me to witness the hostility that music critics had for his latest album “Man Of The Woods,” which painted Justin Timberlake as lame for trying to stay hip as a middle aged man and new father who is just not in touch with contemporary trends any longer.
That’s not such a bad thing–the trends of 2018 were pretty terrible, and not to be in touch with those trends is no mark of shame. 2018’s musical trends were so bad that they sparked multiple albums whose point was to mock those trends and critics who had turned on them, including Eminem’s Kamikazi and J. Cole’s K.O.D. And included among those insightful songs of criticism about music criticism and celebrity itself, we can list “Say Something,” which is perhaps my favorite hit song of the year–and is certainly in the top 3. In most years, “Say Something” would be a good song, but not the sort of song that represents the top quality material. In 1983, for example, this song might not even be in my top 80 hit songs of the year, but 2018 was a terrible year for music and it makes sense that a song that is somewhat repetitive and features a singer (Chris Stapleton) whose voice I am not a huge fan of would be a rare gem in an otherwise dismal sonic landscape.
What is it that makes the song good, despite its flaws? For one, the song is a very Nathanish one. The song itself is about communication and its absence, a subject that is nothing if not relevant to my own writing . The two singers explore two different types of issues over communication, one of them focusing on the temptation that celebrities (including popular musicians) have in speaking out about all kinds of subjects where it would be better for them to remain silent, whether because they do not know what they are talking about or whether their communication of what they think and feel would alienate others, and the other focusing on the gaps in communication that occur in relationships between people. These are both struggles over communication and silence that I can definitely relate to given my own role as a public figure and private person with massive and awkward communications issues with others. So, the song has one massive advantage in that I can totally identify with the song and the struggle of its artists to make both their silence and communication meaningful.
There are some pointed tensions and contradictions that the song deals with effectively as well. For one, the song itself is an active of communication even if it explicitly praises silence and the desirability of silence in certain circumstances. Like Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence,” it is a moving song that praises silence while violating that silence through its own words. To defend silence, it is necessary to communicate one’s reasons for silence, and that defeats the purpose of using silence as a communications strategy. On a more fundamental level, though, silence is itself an act of communication. Even when we are trying our hardest to avoid talking with someone, we cannot help but communicate, because sooner or later we will come into contact with someone and we will be forced either to have awkward interactions where mere politeness requires heroic levels of self-command or our silence will move between a defensive act of seeking to avoid threatening communication into an offensive act of impoliteness that itself may provoke the sort of threatening communication we wish to avoid. Our silence may be seen as an act of violence, even when that is not our intention, and it may justify the sort of verbal violence from others which our silence is meant to prevent. Even against our own wishes and will, we are compelled to communicate with others. Sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all, indeed.
 See, for example: