He already brought sexy back. Now can Justin Timberlake shed his boy-band image and become a music legend?
LADY KILLER, yet J.T. is loath to be seen as an insensitive asshole.
Justin Timberlake turned 26 years old last week. Even though his cross-country stadium tour is booked through July, I have no doubt that he took time to celebrate himself. I don’t presume to know what he did, though I have an idea of who might have been on his guest list. Certainly best friend and business partner for the William Rast clothing line, Trace Ayala. And Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley — the reigning deity of hip-hop production who co-wrote nearly all of the tracks on Justin’s new solo album, FutureSex/Love Sounds (Jive) — although he may have been too busy to show up. Guaranteed to be present would be Justin’s mom, Lynn Harless, who still manages her son’s finances; at least one former ’NSYNC bandmate; and a semi-special femme fatale whom Justin may or may not have taken home at the end of the night. You can bet she’d be the type he sings about on “Love Stoned/I Think She Knows (Interlude),” a girl who “looks like a model, except she’s got a little more ass.” Yes, that’s J.T.: mid 20s. Mama’s boy. On the rebound. An ass man.
However he chose to spend the evening, it seems fair to assume Justin privately congratulated himself on what he’s accomplished so far. He got his start performing kiddie-friendly skits and songs for the 1989 revival of Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club, the final incarnation of which also featured contemporaries Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and future ’NSYNC member J.C. Chasez. And since then, Justin’s proved that it’s possible to dance with a carefree elegance while sporting an absurd bandana tied around his neck. He took a band on a small, promotional club tour and played his own guitar. He thrust his box-wrapped dick back and forth on late-night television. He survived a break-up with his famous older girlfriend without going on a Mel Gibson–esque DUI bender.
Impressive by Hollywood standards, indeed. Except Justin has the capacity to be so much more. Just as the most inspired modern novelists are able to write contemporary versions of classic coming-of-age tales, repackaged with different characters and settings, deceiving readers that theirs is the first narrative of its kind, Justin, too, has a gift. His is a familiar story — that of a clueless child star turned self-made man — yet what sets him apart is the potential to charm us into believing it’s never been done before. This is what made me fall for him.
Confessions of a true pop bottom feeder
I wish I could say he broke me down little by little, but that would be a lie. It was an easy sell. I have never been one to deny myself pop-culture’s lowest victors. Give me Kelly Clarkson over Bob Dylan, a Laguna Beach marathon instead of The Simpsons, 10 Things I Hate About You before The Godfather. Sometimes, I would much rather listen to hook-filled pop music than an arty track Pitchfork told me was good. It isn’t cool — nothing as irrationally indulgent as putting Aly & AJ’s “Chemicals React” on repeat on my iPod could be considered cool. Nonetheless, I think someone like Justin could change that.
It’s true that even after stripping away his celebrity pyrotechnics — the corny side-show act he left behind and the stylistic makeover he has worked so diligently to pull off — I can’t disregard how ridiculous he looked hanging from marionette strings in ’NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” video. But Justin has barely begun to shed the image that makes people so suspicious of his talent. This is someone who can push past the trite standards that limit the niche he’s been given, the one that needs him most. Give him some more time. If being a guilty pleasure isn’t hip yet, there’s a chance it will be by the time Justin’s had a shot at reinventing the genre.
That’s the point of FS/LS. It’s Justin’s opportunity to show everyone — snooty audiophiles, bubble-gum fans who haven’t filled out their training bras, hip-hop heads who only check him out because they worship Timbaland — that he doesn’t fuck around. Unless, of course, it’s with the ladies. Sexy ladies. Sexy ladies he can talk to at the clubs. Sexy ladies he’d prefer not to talk to at all. The new Justin’s got needs, ya’ll.
In recent tabloid photos and public appearances, I still see traces of the old Justin, the awkwardly guarded, kinky-haired harmonizer who took Britney’s V-card before she left him to carouse with freeloading back-up dancers. On top of that, however, Justin has layered on a veneer of poise and self-assurance that comes with age and a decent haircut. Right around the September release of FS/LS, did anyone expect him to turn up in their shrink-wrapped copy of Fashion Rocks magazine, which was included in all of Condé Nast’s fall publications, styled as a skinny-tied dandy in a Dolce & Gabbana suit and trash-talking American Idol? Think what you will about Top 40 artists, few have morphed physically into a genuine sex symbol with that much polished restraint. Just ask “Dirrty”-era X-tina.