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Published in Dazed & Confused 2006


Justin Timberlake’s pop dream

- Do you ever wake up in the morning and feel depressed that you will never make a greater impact than Michael Jackson?

Sometimes, when he’s thinking, Justin Timberlake locks his fingers together, rotates his torso and the vertebrae crack audibly.

- ‘…Oh. Umm. [Twist] That’s a specific - question. I mean I'd be [crack] lying if I said I haven’t had that feeling. But it’s always followed with the feeling of, you know, like who wants… I don’t want to be Michael Jackson. There are artists out there, who will remain nameless, that want to be the next Michael Jackson. But if it comes with all the shit he’s got, I don’t want it…’

In a sunny room of an expensive hotel in heatwave Paris, Timberlake sits back in a big chair next to a table spread with hospitality croissants that will remain uneaten and coffee that is going cold, and his non-stop life on the tightrope of ambition halts for several seconds over this question. The 25-year-old singer/dancer/actor falls into a furrow of contemplation and pause.

‘I don’t aspire to be the biggest pop star on the planet,’ he says, ‘I aspire to get people’s asses off the wall, make people sing, make people dance, make people feel something. And if in that way I do become the next Michael Jackson, then great. But I don’t have an aspiration to invent the next moonwalk. [Snap].’

When a subject animates Timberlake, he pulls to the edge of his seat, gesticulates and sometimes make his point by singing, tapping out a rhythm or beatboxing a break. When he is unsure and cogitating deeply his crystal sapphire eyes locks yours with a suspicious gaze so intense it could start a campfire. And when he just doesn’t know, he often stretches his lean limbs, snaps the knuckles, flexes the neck, aerobically rotates his spine and vertebrae grind and snap underneath his chequered work shirt, like it's his skeleton that is coming to a conclusion or his body is doing the talking. A man hardly given to introspection, Timberlake’s presence is intensely physical, and that’s only proper for a performer whose music works best where all populist music should – in the middle of a the Friday-night dancefloor.

But there has been a lot of thinking in the Timberlake camp recently, a lot of snap and crackle in the name of pop. And not a moment to soon, because after his fireball emergence in 2002, Timberlake resurfaces three years later with the plan, the players, the moves, the sounds and but most importantly the ambition to give pop music the kick in the ass it so desperately needs.

His album is called ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’, and his new single, ‘SexyBack’. Both use compound nouns to express joined-up pop thinking, and you hardly need to be a semiotician to pinpoint the key preoccupations of the next phase of his project to become a fully realized version of himself rather than a cut-price karaoke King of Pop. What’s more, there is the scent of revolution between the grooves of a caustic, overdriven disco stomp where the distorted vocals observe, ‘I’m Bringing Sexy Back/Those motherfuckers don't know how to act.’

‘Music needs an enema,’ he says. ‘It needs a fuckin’ kick to the balls, that's what it needs. It constantly needs that and If I'm not  going to do it, who's going to do it? I can't come out With Justified Pt II. Know what I mean? That’s too easy, I got to kick myself in the balls, and keep pushing myself  to do something new, cos If I’m not going to do that, what else is there do?’

It goes without saying Timberlake is fit, in every sense of the word. He is the idea of pop made flesh: a raw, sunny southern-states kid full of a Tom Sawyer vitality, a jockish awe at the unfolding possibilities life and the millionaire élan that got him become intimate with Kylie Minogue’s bottom. He is handsome, lean, clean, groomed, polite and starry, though in an untucked, low-wattage, have-some-coffee kinda way, and the singer wears his global, 7m-units-and-counting fame very lightly indeed. His okay-sized entourage – some brawny Southern guys with lists, his manager-mom Lynne, an assortment of American managerial and label folk who mill around in the hotel corridors – is no indicator of the calibre of his fame. Cameron Diaz is said to be on one of these rooms, but who knows. It doesn’t really matter. Starstruck female guests call Timberlake ‘sweet’ and then go knock-kneed as they fuss around trying to get their photograph taken with the star’s arm around them.

He has this effect on women, whether it’s one of them of it’s 5,000 of them. It is part of the day job if you’re the only serious millennial pretender to the throne of Jacko, and if we’re honest, only those with feet of lead, heart of stone or ears of cloth could really find much to dislike in him.  

Global fedora sales went through the roof back in 2002 when Timberlake peeled off his N’Sync shrinkwrapping, body-popped into the global consciousness and delivered three stone-cold smash hit singles you’re guaranteed to be hearing at wedding discos – the true mark of timeless music - for years to come. The NERD-produced ‘Rock Your Body’ and ‘Like I Love You’, along with Timbaland’s synthetically forlorn ‘Cry Me A River’ production, in all their emoted, falsetto effervescence, soundtracked the cause and effect of his messy breakup with Britney.

Ultimately it was her loss because for most of 2002 to 2003, the flamboyantly talented, fatally sexy performer seized hold of public imagination and moonwalked it all the way the top of the charts in firestorm of paparazzi flash, tearing Janet Jackson’s clothes off en route. Timberlake’s pop moment was the brightest, slickest and starriest in a long time, matched on this side of the millennium only by OutKast’s ‘Hey Ya!’. In 2003 Grown men – okay, style journalists – emerged from Timberlake’s showcase Adidas Y3 fashion week gig with NERD, gibbering, in all seriousness, that they had just witnessed the second coming of Michael. But what they were really watching was a dazzling metamorphosis from the fake to the authentic as true, but as unlikely as, say, Nick Moran being cast as the lead in a remake of ‘The Godfather’, and then breaking all box-office records.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the former Mickey Mouse Club star never have been allowed to get away with it, with minting gilt-edged credibility from the shrivelled plastic remains of his boyband years. And Timberlake, now deep into his recovery from the N’SYNC experience, is only too aware of the fact.

‘We’ve been here before, talking about Justified’,’ he says. ‘Everybody was like, you’ve never done this before!’ And now, with ‘FutureSex/ LoveSounds,’ it’s like, ‘You’ve never done this before!’ And that’s sort of the point. We should all take a nod from Madonna. She made a career out of that. And I’ve made a  career out of things I probably shouldn’t be trying. It’s intriguing. So fuck it.

Central to the trying of Timberlake Phase III is a dedication to mess once more with constrictions imposed upon him, for no other reason than because he can, or because he knows he ought to. He says he began two objectives. Firstly, he says, ‘to give people something new. And not necessarily something new for me, but something new. Like, listening to the radio, I mean personally, this sounds like shit. It's really like, these are good for a minute then not good at all and then you feel cheated you. Everything has become like an infomercial, an ad.’

And while that might sound rich coming from the guy who gave you the McTravesty of ‘I’m Loving It’, consider that his second objective is as audacious as the first: ‘to make a body of work,’ he says, ‘make an album,’ knowing that the album, in the era of downloading, is all but an obsolete format. ‘Because nobody does that any more. I mean, if I’m gonna  follow what everyone is doing, I might as well pick something else to do. You know, four more films. But that’s something that I won’t do. I'd rather people say this guy has completely lost his mind than say, oh well, we've heard that before,. But I’m not gonna completely lose my mind. I’m gonna push it as far as I can push it.’

Timbelake says he thinks he’s ‘sort of figured out that there is a way to do music and be considered a pop star and  be taken seriously,’ and today aims no lower than stretching the pop template – the three-minute, four-chord format that’s increasingly short on innovation – as far as it will from deep with the machine.

‘Sexy Ladies’, his second single, is a case in point. Typical of Timbaland’s pinballing digital trickery, it’s a brilliant mess of contradictions, but it also reconciles Justin Timberlake’s polarized personalities, the balladeer and the body-rocker. A four-the-floor stomp marks it initially a house music tempo; then a halftime snare pattern morphs it into slow-bounce hip hop song. Then, spiralling Kraftwerkish sythn lines float off into the stratosphere and in comes Timberlake’s falsetto. A torch song you can hop to, or rave track you can seduce to, ‘Sexy Ladies’ sounds threateningly futuristic, totally alien but completely familiar and immediate. In short, it sounds like the Number One that’s bound to happen when you multiply Timberlake to the power of Timbaland.

Which is why it indicates that ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ – album substantially co-produced by Timberlake and Timbaland with input from music biz’s resident Zen master Rick Rubin – is an brave idea confidently executed (or at least the few songs his paranoid record label graciously permitted Dazed & Confused to hear a couple of times). It is all very well for, say, Test Icicles to launch a blitzkrieg of total deconstruction on the three-minute pop song from the fringes of Shoreditch, selling a few copies in the process, but to attempt the same  on the back of 7million albums sold to 15-year-olds, aspiring dinner party hosts and wedding disco crowds across the globe  - it’s a different and altogether more laudable stripe of ambition.


‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ is a grandiose title that reveals Timberlake’s broadened horizons and soaring creative vision. He gets animated about listening to Bowie’s ‘Rebel Rebel’ vocals and how it inspired him to scour his own voice on ‘SexyBack’ by tracking it through a guitar amp. He trills about Josh Homme, the Eagles Of Death Metal and how Prince turned music on its head in the Eighties. He is fond of namedropping, but it is abundantly clear that in his search for himself, he sees far beyond Michael Jackson today. Working with Timbaland, the aspiration was to create at least ‘six or Seven ‘Cry Me A Rivers’ – songs smouldering with emotional incandescence.

Working with Timbaland, he reports, was like ‘being in a band. We pushed each other in the way that Paul and John used to push each other, like Don Henley and Glenn Frey used to push each other. Yet it is on ’Another Song’, a genuinely affecting doo-wopish piano ballad produced by Rick Rubin, that Timberlake edges closest to a raw expression of heartbreak. In the event, Rubin didn’t so much produce as facilitate the song’s coming into being. The producer assembled some players, ancient and accomplished jazz dudes, and sat on the couch radiating positive vibrations.

‘He said a lot of things that were like, profound,’ Timberlake says. ‘He’s like this buddha. He doesn't touch a button, he comes in and sits on the couch, indian style with no shoes on tugging his beard… and he listens. He doesn't try to craft the song, he lets you be the songwriter and he says ‘this would sound more good like this.’ It was, ‘play the song.’ It was a performance and that’s why it works against the Timbaland songs.

‘I sat on the piano and told them the chords – Emajor, you know, and they were all sat around with their guitars and the drummer was [taps out a beat] – and that’s how we did it. We let the performances be the performances.’

Timberlake more than hints that ‘Another Song’, and the other six or seven tracks he made with Rick Rubin, already constitute the beginning of the next project – as shift further way from the rigorous, piecemeal Timbaland constructions formulated for maximum dancefloor impact in discos, nightclubs and wedding reception. ‘It’s awesome to be at weddings,’ he says, but you suspect as he spread his wings and flexes a natural physical talent for emotional expression, he is increasingly thinking about the concert hall rather than the DJ booth.

We talk about ‘Dark Side Of The Moon,’ because already some of the tracks on ‘FutureSex/LoveSounds’ last for four or five minutes and bleed into one another. Does this mean it is not only an album, but also a concept album?


That's ambitious.

‘‘Well fuck it,’ Timberlake says. ‘If Pink Floyd can do it, why can't I? It's there for the taking, because quite frankly who else is going to do it? In a humble way I do realise I have a platform, so If I'm not going to push it. Who’s gonna push it?’

You're very confident about that.

‘Don't you feel that with the exception of the ballad, everything has this consistent like, …newness to it. Then fine. Mission accomplished.’

Dark Side of The Moon is the best concept album ever. The more you listen to it, the more you hear.


There is a risk that you could alienate the younger end of your fanbase.

‘Honestly? I’ve never tried to make music for 12-year-olds,’ he says.’ That’s sort of the point of being 12 though, that you want to listen to the things that the 18-year-olds listen to. When I was 12, 13, I wanted to know what pot was and what alcohol felt like. I wanted to know what sexual music felt like. That’s the point of growing up.’

Timberlake talks about the first time he felt the unexplainable nag of pop music in his groin. The track was George Michael’s ‘I Want Your Sex’. He was in the car, probably ten years old. ‘My mom was singing it. It was weird, it was disgusting. I remember listening to the song and thinking, ‘I wonder what he means by that?’ That and Prince, ‘Gett Off’ and ‘Kiss’, thinking - what is he talking about? Those songs are meant to like draw sexuality out of people.’

Timberlake has never had sex to his own music - ‘I can't. I have trouble having sex to music, because I’ll start picking out the chords – but equally he has never, ever forgotten the pop key function is to articulate the basic emotions: lust, heartbreak, anger. He wonders aloud if he can get all three into one song.

He and his friend Trey did their own pop-quality control on ‘FutureSex/ LoveSounds’ – the Car Test. ‘Always do the car test,’ he says. ‘You put the songs on a CD in their rough form and you put it in the CD player of the car and you turn it UP and you drive around with it. We did it in Miami, Virginia, LA, Tennessee…’

Needless to say, it sounded best in Miami.

‘Definitely. You know, like, driving by the ocean with the windows down?’ Timberlake says. ‘Trey said to me, ‘you know what this is? This is The Future. This is something new. This is what music should be. That’s what all the great have done. The Beatles took black music and made it their own. Michael Jackson took James Brown and turned it into Michael Jackson. Prince took Jimi Hendrix and turned it into Prince.’

But this time, he just took himself and invented his own future. That’s ‘great’. That’s pop. That’s why we need Justin Timberlake.

He pops his collars, locks his fingers and cracks his bones. Justin Timberlake is fresh, and he is ready.

© Kevin Braddock, 2006


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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