The music video begins inconspicuously, with a city cross section at night, a lonely train horn in the distance. Though, if you're not in Memphis when you see it, you'll do a double take, so familiar and distinctive is that sound. But when the image cuts to a dim recording studio and the guitar begins the song, only those who noted the street signs in the opening shot will guess what studio it is.
Justin Timberlake & Ant Clemons
By then a listener will be focused on the powerful, earnest vocal delivery of Ant Clemons. It was his idea to make the video happen in the first place. And for a while, the significance of where Clemons is singing is not obvious. For so many who are watching the video premiere, the words that ring so true are what matter.
Cause we’re on our way to better
It gets worse before it gets better
But better's ahead
Better days are coming
Clemons and Memphis homeboy Justin Timberlake originally created the song, “Better Days,” for “Rock the Runoff,” a virtual fundraiser held last December 3rd for Stacy Abrams’ organization, Fair Fight. Clemons began the composition months before last year's presidential election and brought it to Timberlake, who also contributed to the songwriting. As fate would have it, Timberlake recorded his vocal track on election night as he watched the returns rolling in.
Butlast night's video was a re-imagining of the song. And the makeover made it both more universal, as part of the prime time broadcast special, “Celebrating America,” honoring the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and more local, as expressed in the street signs you see when the video starts: East McLemore Avenue and College Street.
As the video goes on, and Timberlake takes a verse, you see more of the room they're singing in as they walk along. When they walk out the front door, it's unmistakable: They are at Stax. Clemons and Timberlake wing and walk down the empty street at night, the better to see the marquee and signs of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy, in all their neon glory. But as they stroll along, and the song's intensity builds, others gather around them at the crossroads. And many of those faces may have been familiar to Memphis viewers.
As it turned out, Clemons and Timberlake invited students and alumni of Stax Music Academy to perform alongside them in the new video, with a band led by Emmy-nominated musical director Adam Blackstone. The end result was a powerful moment in the history of Memphis music, and the history of America.
"The fact that the Stax Museum and Stax Music Academy were chosen by Justin Timberlake, Ant Clemons and the Presidential Inaugural Committee to represent Memphis, Tennessee, in the 2021 presidential inauguration, speaks not only volumes about the power, magic, and timelessness of soul music, but also casts a bright light on the work we have been doing here at the Soulsville Foundation for more than 20 years now,” said Soulsville Foundation President and CEO Richard Greenwald. “We are grateful to our friend Justin Timberlake for embracing our mission and genuinely caring about the young people with whom we work every day.”
Timberlake began his relationship with Stax Music Academy in 2019, when he partnered with Levi’s for their Levi’s Music Project, surprising students with a two-day songwriting workshop with Timbaland, Danja and Rob Knox and Elliot Ives. Levi’s and Timberlake also equipped the school with a new room called “The Song Lab” — a remodeled facility meant for songwriting workshops. Timberlake also brought attention to Stax Music Academy during a taping of Ellen’s “Greatest Night of Giveaways,” holiday special where he surprised one of the students with tickets to the Grammys, a full scholarship to the Grammys camp and $50,000 on behalf of Green Dot. In addition, Green Dot also gave Stax Music Academy $250,000.
Last night, the video for "Better Days" was a fine capstone to a day that positively blossomed with artful expressions of hope and determination, such as National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman's recitation, or the Benediction by the Rev. Dr. Silvester Beaman. And it immersed viewers in a tableaux that rings true and familiar to many Memphians. At the song's height, as people gather and sing, the gently lilting tune has risen to a wave of gospel fervor out in the streets. And then, suddenly, it ends, and we're left standing there at the crossroads a while longer, back to the quiet, and the casual laughter of friends, and the train wailing in the distance.