…and what you’re shown is profound. Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River isn’t something we were prepared for in 2002. And since then, the methods used in creating such a sophisticated work have only improved.
Wasn’t it just a music video though?
“You are my sun, you are my earth”
The sound of rain and the first note of some melody that you somehow already know is epic. It’s going to tell the story of your champions, so it sounds grandiose like an opera. But what do you know about that?
For some seconds, the sounds you’re listening to exist as one sound. Flattened. The rain is a real-world sound given equal footing to this grand allegorical layer. The real world rain wasn’t faded-in (as in Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain, or Eminem’s Stan). Cry Me A River breaks with convention, and with that decision for a hard introduction, a statement was made.
Challenging material petitions your active engagement, and so there’s a level of respect you’re being extended here as the viewer/listener. This is your first exposure to the internal logic of this place. These sounds say something about the role of capital R Reality in this context…or recordings of reality…or…is there a difference? You are spared from the usual aural tricks used to prime you emotionally, otherwise known as laying it on thick you malleable baby. So you either turn on, or are caught off guard, but you are not lulled.
“You know that they say some things are better left unsaid”
Let me explain that art isn’t made for you. Products, like cultural garbage, are what are made for you and they’re engineered to be consumable, if not enjoyable. (I just discovered Freeway Cola and I like it even more than Coca-Cola.)
But, there are moments in this video where Justin Timberlake addresses his intended audience—the person he was in a relationship with and whom the song is about. There is truth encoded in these shots, for the intended recipient to decode. If I had to guess, I’d say that the most legible communications are folded into the spaces that are the extreme close-ups of his face (0:36). Human contact through the medium—for her (perhaps it’s even meant for Britney Spears). But you, as the not-her, do not have access to that truth. You know something other. You know the publicly known thing. Art here is a private thing.
So, what? Lauren Hynde was right when she crushed Sean Bateman’s heart by exclaiming, “What does that mean, ‘Know me, know me’? Nobody ever knows anybody else, ever! You will never know me.” 
No, you can know something about this. The intensity of Justin’s emotional distress is evident by how strongly he denies it, even to himself. What you’re supposed to see—because it’s what he’s showing you—is that he has reached the next stage (he hasn’t). The one where he’s making decisions, because he’s in control again (he isn’t).
Unfortunately, in the realm of human social interactions, there is no way of returning to initial conditions in order to repeat the experiment. Doors slam behind us, effectively rendering us powerless.
One of the things one can do in such a state of powerlessness is tell a story. The story told must be a strong refutation, so that one can feel like a self again. Selves decide things. And the optimist within even thinks that a corresponding, healthier state of mind will follow this correct action. This is otherwise known as, fake it ’til you make it. Notice how only your most depressed friends post inspirational quotes.
“Girl I refuse / You must have me confused with some other guy”
So the pain is real, but the developmental arc is a fiction. One where he is not the victim but the aggressor—the predator—and we navigate this psychological space with him both lyrically and visually, and specifically in watching his movement.
He enters the house through a shattered window. A window that we are led to believe he broke himself. We are shown him walking towards the house, picking up a stone, and even a close-up shot of this moment (0:45). But then when the window shatters—where we should see him in mid-throw—we see him standing perfectly still with his arms at his sides (1:10). There is a break from reality here. The slow motion shot, conveys a numb calm, and the phrase that almost reflexively comes to mind is Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. It takes more imagination to omit that gesture than to show it—so you can question whether there’s something to this. Some private information that isn’t for you.
A shift occurs as he transitions into the house. This is the first time the lyrics are no longer a commentary on the reality of the past, and instead allude to some wish—a desire necessarily anchored in future events.
“Now it’s your turn, to cry / Cry me a River”
As the second verse begins, we find ourselves in his fantasy where he’s inexplicably dry and has acquired gravity defying powers (1:44). It’s important that he moves through the house alone here. When he co-occupies the space with others, his fragile fantasy collapses, relegating him to realistic movement. When moving through the space alone, however, he is free to navigate his fabricated reality as he wishes, unburdened by the objectivity others bring. The violence of invading a person’s personal space is portrayed as graceful movement as he dances throughout the house. The portrayal of the unfolding events is thus abstracted—even distorted—at will. This is the story he is telling himself.
This graceful violence is a beautiful way to imply cognitive dissonance within the made up world the video. But I suggest there is a level of cognitive dissonance present in Justin Timberlake, not as a character, but as the person who is making the video. What you’re watching is a video made by a person rendered powerless, desperately trying to claim that he is in control. Really you’re watching someone self-soothe, and this is the layer that is infinitely more interesting to me.
“I don’t wanna cry no more”
If you’ve ever undergone a difficult break-up, and had tried to fuck away your emotional distress, reflect on how in control you were. Maybe at some point you even imagined them as that other person (I have). Search your memories for a moment like this. Are you watching it all from a third person perspective? (I am.) Did you also create something in the moment as it was all unfolding? Did you videotape yourself while doing something in this state of detachment and emotional triage? It doesn’t have to be a sex tape. It can be a music video about making a sex tape that you imagine will hurt someone as badly as they hurt you.
This is Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River.
He’s put a camera on himself, to put a camera on himself while in such a state (2:40). Detached, and watching his body play out the scene. And the brilliant thing is that because the stage is his domain, and has been since he was a child on The Mickey Mouse Club, the way he navigates and plays with what he makes public and what he keeps private is going to be different, if not more sophisticated, than what you and I can do. He squared a camera on himself, to demonstrate clearly, his aptitude for keeping something perfectly private, while still basing his hit single on it—for everyone.
“I’m damaged, so I guess I be leaving”
Taking a step back from this in-video local level, which is in itself remarkable, we see other curiosities at its edges. In actual Reality (the everyday reality you and I occupy), this music video plays the role the sex tape is playing in the reality of the music video. This is reinforced by the final shot where faux-Britney steps out of the shower to encounter a glitching video on her TV screen (4:44). So one of the intended effects is to encourage the audience to imagine themselves as Britney Spears as they watch from their living rooms.
Imagine faux-Britney’s shock at seeing such a thing. Chances are you were able to imagine real-Britney’s shock at seeing a music video like this made by an ex-lover, and metaphorically speaking, in her house (directed at her same fan base, utilizing shared pop culture channels). Notice how we don’t see her reaction at the end—we already know her reaction by imagining that we’re watching it through her eyes. Understand that this too is part of the intended experience. This is for you.
“Don’t it make you sad about it?”
But what can we really know about what Britney Spears thinks? If you give it any thought at all, it’s quite likely that she really didn’t give a shit, but that’s beside the point. This video betrays Justin, not Britney.
Interestingly, because Britney also came up in the same way (The Mickey Mouse Club and all), it’d be fair to say portions of the relationship she had with Justin were made available for consumption in a way that non-celebrity relationships aren’t. This is the right time to ask to what extent did it resemble something like a relationship that you or I might have, and to what extent was it different, specifically in terms of it as performance art? (Remember the rain?) Consider how real any of this drama was to begin with. How far do we have to zoom out before we’re sure we’re clear of fantasies and fictions?
“Baby go on and just…”
(4:51+) Go beyond the edges of the music video that you thought contained it, and consider that over the last 15 years the mechanism for creating this fantastic theatre has only grown more sophisticated.
“Cry Me A River”
Justin Timberlake, 2002