Mr Nice Guy
The everyman charm of Justin Timberlake
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Justin Timberlake, who tours Australia this month, was born in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s the city where Elvis Presley began his musical career, and, like Presley before him, Timberlake is besotted with the sounds of black American music.
Beginning with Justified in 2002, Timberlake’s four solo albums have been a melange of pop, R&B, soul and funk, his music skating over genres without ever settling into one for longer than the length of a song, or even a verse. It’s a hybridity that owes a lot to Prince. Timberlake’s skilled dancing and high, fluid tenor follow a template set by Michael Jackson. Timberlake, who is white, is not marked by the outsiderness that defined those two musical titans; like Presley, his enormous commercial success is predicated on his being, beneath the amorous surface, a nice guy, which is not a role that America allows its black male stars to inhabit so easily.
Timberlake’s career began in 1993, when he joined TV show The All-New Mickey Mouse Club as a 12-year-old Mouseketeer, alongside future pop stars Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, and future man-candy Ryan Gosling. Two years later he became the youngest member of the boy band ’N Sync. The group became as well known for their legal entanglements with manager Lou Pearlman – who had also put together ’N Sync’s chart rivals Backstreet Boys, and is now serving a lengthy prison sentence for money laundering and fraud – as for their sales figures. The second ’N Sync album, No Strings Attached, was released in 2000 and became the second biggest-selling album of that decade in the United States, surpassed only by The Beatles’ compilation 1. Earlier this year Timberlake sang on the posthumous Michael Jackson single ‘Love Never Felt So Good’, and his contribution was as pleasant as it was underwhelming. Timberlake has talent, but he does not carry the burden of extreme giftedness that made Jackson, at the height of his powers, so magical and so unsettling, and Timberlake will never fall as completely from grace as Jackson did.
The great pop stars, of whom Jackson was the greatest, have a way of making you believe that they do not – could not – exist offstage. The devotion of an audience is what brings them to life, and between public appearances they exist in a state of suspended animation, like sleeping aliens in amniotic sacs. Great pop stars are alien, in the incandescence of their talent or in their fundamental strangeness, or both. Would you dare ask David Bowie out on a date or over for dinner? In 2011 a young marine named Kelsey DeSantis invited Timberlake to accompany her to the United States Marine Corps birthday ball, and he agreed. You could invite Timberlake around for dinner, and he’d bring a home-baked chocolate cake and chop the salad and wash the dishes and teach your old dog a new trick, too. He can sing, he can dance, he can act (a bit). He’s just so bloody competent.
But should we trust a grown man who compares sex to confectionery? “Don’t ever change your flavour ’cause I love the taste,” he declares on ‘Strawberry Bubblegum’, a song from his 2013 album The 20/20 Experience. His “little girl” is the bubblegum, and Justin, in case you were wondering, is the blueberry lollipop. It’s a bit creepy – not just because the metaphor is so childish, but because it isn’t delivered with enough conviction to make you forget that it is childish. “Brown sugar / How come you taste so good?” sang Mick Jagger, in 1971. Jagger, being Jagger, radiated arrogance; Timberlake, being Timberlake, never veers from amiable. He retains the child star’s eagerness to please, even when he’s trying to be naughty.
Timberlake released The 20/20 Experience seven years after his previous album, FutureSex/LoveSounds. In the interval, he took on several acting roles – including a turn in Aaron Sorkin’s much-praised film The Social Network – and made guest appearances on numerous songs by Madonna, Rihanna, 50 Cent and others, almost all of which were massive hits. Not every pop star could come back from an extended break without so much as a hiccup in their career trajectory, but Timberlake did: The 20/20 Experience went to number one in 11 countries. This third solo album was swiftly followed by a fourth, The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2, which was largely a collection of outtakes from the former record.
On all of his solo albums, Timberlake has worked with the producer Timbaland. The music they create together relies less on the kind of stark, programmed rhythms that have characterised much of Timbaland’s production career and more on real instrumentation (horns, string sections, guitars). The majority of songs on The 20/20 Experience are longer than seven minutes, ambitiously arranged into multipart suites, and the album has a retro aesthetic, glossed with a futuristic sheen; the British critic Simon Price described it as “the Isley Brothers gone intergalactic”.
The video for ‘Suit & Tie’, the album’s lead single, sees Timberlake in the role of old-fashioned, tuxedo-wearing crooner, like a young Frank Sinatra or Marvin Gaye – but the music is saved from pure nostalgia by Timbaland’s flourishes, whether a distorted synthesiser or outré sample. Like many musicians of his generation, Timberlake is at home with pastiche. Young enough to have inherited several decades’ worth of genre conventions, and skilled enough to deploy them with confidence, Timberlake knows that his listeners, too, will pick up on the cues. He knows, for instance, that the bright, unison horn melody on ‘That Girl’ will bring Memphis soul to mind, and that the guitar solo which bisects ‘Spaceship Coupe’ will call up the ghost of power ballads past.
Last year on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon he performed his 2006 hit ‘SexyBack’ in barbershop quartet style with the US television host, and together they’ve sung the history of rap as a series of vocal medleys. It can be hard to shake the impression that Timberlake doesn’t always take his chosen medium very seriously. On the one hand, that’s fine – who wants to be the fool that takes pop music too seriously? On the other, it’s frustrating, because taking pop music seriously can lead to astonishing results. (See: Jackson, Michael, or Beatles, The.)
Timberlake is least appealing when he’s content to coast on his charm, which is often, and most interesting when he lets a little sincerity creep through. ‘Mirrors’, a single from The 20/20 Experience, was inspired by his grandparents’ long marriage. The first five minutes of the song are standard radio balladry – big chorus, handclaps, orchestra – so far, so Mr Nice Guy. Then the arrangement drops away, leaving a sampled vocal chant that also serves as robotic groove. “You are / You are / The love of my life” goes the sample. It’s an old production trick of Timbaland’s to use vocals as percussion, and here the combination of beatboxing and a corny but heartfelt lyric produces something oddly compelling. Timberlake adds falsetto runs over the top – the vocal is wordless, but he sounds like he means it.
The emotional inverse of ‘Mirrors’ is ‘Cry Me a River’, from Timberlake’s first solo album Justified. It’s still the best thing he’s ever done, a gleaming revenge fantasy made even more unsparing by Timbaland’s jaw-dropping arrangement, which incorporates samples of Gregorian chant, clavinet, violins and yet more beatboxing. Again, the standout element is Timberlake’s falsetto, here pushed into chipmunk territory by heavy use of effects. Though it borrows its title from the torch song made famous by Julie London, ‘Cry Me a River’ is spiky and pitiless where its predecessor is self-pitying and lush. “Now it’s your turn to cry,” Timberlake sings.
‘Cry Me a River’ was widely understood to have been prompted by Timberlake’s 2002 break-up with Britney Spears, a woman who has not managed to navigate the waters of adult fame with nearly the same success as Timberlake. Spears, in the wake of her much-publicised nervous breakdown in 2008, has become something of a joke; Timberlake, on the other hand, is still a byword for pop quality. Commercial pop is a relentless machine that chews up female artists a lot more quickly than their male peers.
In the end, though, the contemporary artist who Timberlake most reminds me of is another woman, Beyoncé. Both have been trained in pop music since childhood, and both combine unwearying musical professionalism with a business acumen that has seen each turn their fame into a personal brand. They have worked together – Timberlake has producer credits on Beyoncé’s most recent, self-titled album – and though Beyoncé is the better vocalist, there is little otherwise to separate them. They are 21st-century pop stars, who, like 21st-century sports stars, are afforded little room for either personal strife or professional troughs. Timberlake tries so hard to be likeable, but I wish he wouldn’t.
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.