To be fair, there may be words in the English language less arousing than supplies. But Justin Timberlake didn’t name his latest single “Pliers,” or “401(k),” or “Arbitration,” or “Chernobyl,” or “Larry King Live.” He named it “Supplies.” The beat, crafted by the Neptunes, might have been sinuous, or at least slinky, had it been paired with vocals and lyrics that made an effort to summon emotion, any emotion — even disgust might have served in a pinch. But Timberlake’s lover-man tone is subdued without being subtle, his images so tepid they barely qualify as images. The right music video might have imbued “Supplies” with some semblance of aesthetic value, and to his credit Dave Meyers’s visual production can be striking. But thematically, it’s not just shapeless but hopelessly trite, splicing together a bunch of warmed-over dystopian and postapocalyptic tropes.
There’s a young woman, played by singer and rising actress Eiza Gonzalez, who goes through the motions — rest in peace, Molotov-charred pyramid of slaves! — of Taking on the System. But Gonzalez’s stunning beauty is no match for the intractable dullness it contends against, a dullness so absolute as to be stunning in its own right. We know the brain experiences no sensation on its own: lacking nerve endings of its own, it registers everything in the body except its own presence. Yet as the sounds, sights, and abortive meanings of the “Supplies” video filtered through our nervous system, our brains seemed to cease feeling at every level: not only did our eyes glaze over and our ears shut down, but our capacity to form coherent thoughts imploded as well. The experience, or lack of experience — all that money, craft, and beauty gone completely to waste — was awe-inspiring. It was truly sublime: Anyone can make a mediocre song and music video, but to make a song and video that feels like a lobotomy is rare and remarkable.
And so Timberlake’s video, though it stirs together activist postures and insurrectionary scenes into a vacuous slurry, ends up being kind of revolutionary after all: To paraphrase Jaden Smith, how can we feel oppressed if we can’t feel? The System functions by playing on strong emotions: fear, fury, shame, and shrieking pain keep the have-nots in line while the haves enjoy the ecstasies and beauties of command. But after viewing such a supremely incoherent collage, it felt like we would never experience anything at all; neither the agonies of the deprived nor the privileges of pleasure could touch us. We were free, at last, of all emotional connection: The People Rising Up Against the System wasn’t working out, but perhaps the people coming down with crippling major depression — and that’s what the total lack of feeling brought on by “Supplies,” for all intents and purposes, amounts to — would bring it down with them. Had we still been capable of being thrilled, we might have found the prospect thrilling! Fortunately, we were not.