THE woman with the gray hair and pearls stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the hotel lobby. She glanced twice at the lanky young man standing next to her before she finally spoke. “You’re somebody, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
“I’m nobody,” he answered. Then he flashed a high-wattage smile that declared the opposite. “My name is Justin. What’s your name?”
The doors opened on the sunny atrium of the Landmark hotel and Justin Timberlake looked around for a quiet place to chat about fame, boy-band members who try to grow up and the high stakes involved in his forthcoming album. The CD, with the cyber-breathless title “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” arrives in stores Sept. 12, and the pressure is written in the face of Timberlake and everyone in his camp. It would be overstatement to call it a “make or break” career moment, but today’s pop culture has little tolerance for unsolved mysteries of persona; this, his second solo CD, feels like the necessary time for Timberlake to show definitively what he is and what he is not. People recognize him -- but not always for the reasons he wants.
“I have this joke, that my theme for 2006 is ‘Stay in your lane,’ ” said Timberlake, whose conversational voice is as boyish as his face. “I feel like maybe I’m trying to constantly reinvent what that lane is, but you have to know what your space is. I try to push it as far as I can and ride that road to the end -- but you need to see your lane.”
The Zen of safe driving in this case is navigating the treacherous boulevards of music and celebrity. Timberlake, now 25, hit voting age as the most famous member of ‘N Sync, a pop group that modeled itself on the R&B; vocal group Boyz II Men and pumped it up with pyrotechnics, syrupy lyrics and Tiger Beat stage aerobics. ‘N Sync came from the Orlando factory called TransContinental Music, which assembled and carefully coached slick harmony groups such as the Backstreet Boys and LFO. The results were a bit staggering. The ‘N Sync album “No Strings Attached” sold 2.4 million copies in a single week in 2000, an outlandish achievement that will likely never be broken now that the CD-selling industry has entered its own version of the ice age.
The audience for ‘N Sync and the rival Backstreet Boys was so young and so loud that it was reflexively mocked by pretty much anyone old enough to have a mortgage. But after it was all over, Timberlake emerged with a surprising amount of respect. In music industry circles, people compared his charisma, dancing and singing to young Michael Jackson’s, and many predicted that he (along with the vocally gifted Christina Aguilera) would be the talent that would rise from the empty froth of the whole youth pop surge in the late 1990s.
To deliver on that, though, Timberlake will have to copy one of Michael Jackson’s most impressive career pivots -- going from a kid-pop prince to the all-ages star of “Off the Wall.” Many people think he will; last year, The Times polled 21 of the top executives in the music industry and asked them to predict what artists would sell the most albums over the next five years. Timberlake -- whose first solo album sold 3.5 million copies -- finished sixth on the list, ahead of Kanye West, OutKast and 50 Cent.
“Justin is a talent, he is one of our artists, and he will be for a long, long time. It’s as simple as that,” said Barry Weiss, president and chief executive of Zomba Group, the Sony/BMG music conglomerate that encompasses Jive Records, the label home of Timberlake back to those frenzied days of ‘N Sync. Weiss and company know that Timberlake needs to redefine himself in the public mind, but he said that it’s a conversation that hasn’t come up. “Justin is one of those people who comes to us and says, ‘I want to do this,’ and we say OK.”
Much of the album was recorded in Virginia with Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley, the sonic alchemist of hip-hop who is known for taking chances and defying convention. Timbaland said the new album should change the entire conversation about the singer and his place. “He took it up a few notches, and people are going to be impressed. I have no doubt. He is the real deal.”
In Timbaland, Timberlake has more than a producer with a similar name. The rapper and studio guru brings street cred to the former youth-pop hero, and it’s clear in the funk-laced album that Timberlake is seeking to set aside his wholesome persona. His curly locks are now shorn tight to his head, and his first single is called “SexyBack,” which comes with a music video that seems to draw on “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Eyes Wide Shut” and maybe German porn. (“Well, we were going for Kubrick,” he said, “but that’s close to German porn. Very frightening.”)
Timberlake chewed on the idea of a panel of music executives praising him and then shrugged it off as unimportant.
“It’s flattering, but remember: You’re talking about people that rely on others to give them content. They rely on people like me to show the next thing, what it is. They all want the next thing. Then a lot of them rush in and churn like 100 versions of it and water it down and then it’s gone. But we’re the ones -- me and Kanye and Timbaland and Pharrell [Williams, the producer and rapper] -- we’re the ones that make the music that people want to hear.”
Low-key tabloid star
TIMBERLAKE is taller than he seems in photographs (he’s 6 foot 1), and that may be a function of his boyish looks. He is relentlessly polite and eager to please the people around him, friends and strangers alike, which is endearing but also makes him a bit bland and undefined. He grew up in a Navy town called Millington, Tenn., just north of Memphis. His father is the choir director at a Baptist church and former member of a bluegrass band. Timberlake’s grandfather, a minister, taught him his first chords on an acoustic guitar.
“It’s about music for me. I know that sounds simple, but that’s what I want to do: Make music and entertain people,” he said. “A lot of the other stuff that I have to deal with, a lot of it is no fun.”
People around Timberlake and peers say he wears his fame as comfortably as any star. “He is the nicest, calmest guy you’ll meet. All this stuff goes on around him and he just handles it like it’s the most natural thing in world,” said Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, an unlikely pal of Timberlake’s. Timberlake himself says it’s the lessons he learned growing up in a close-knit family. His mother, Lynn Harless, was his manager as he became a star.
For a polite Southern gentleman, Timberlake has a surprisingly large tabloid file, which has kept him in the public’s eye more than its ear. First he was famous for dating Britney Spears (they had met as kids on the glossy 1990s version of “The Mickey Mouse Club”), then for their messy breakup. The relationship was of such fascination to young America that Spears felt compelled to tell the world that she lost her virginity to Timberlake. After the split, you could read his bitter heartache between the lines of his biggest solo hit, the slinky and accusing “Cry Me a River,” and in case you couldn’t, well, the Spears look-alike in the video certainly hammered home the point. Then he dated Janet Jackson and Alyssa Milano before settling into a relationship. Timberlake’s pairing with Cameron Diaz, 34, now in its third year, has been more chum for predatory paparazzi, and the singer is clear in his disdain for the merciless gears of the gossip industry.
“I used to try to fight it or take things head-on and explain what’s really happening, what the truth is, and it just gets worse and worse,” he said. “Now I go the other way.”
That’s a big part of staying in his lane. Timberlake does show a willingness to go off-road with his risks, still. When he expanded his career into acting, it was a bumpy ride. He took on the starring role in the film “Edison Force,” which last year presented him as young, hungry investigative journalist who searches for a big byline in a corrupt police precinct. He shared the screen with a pair of Oscar winners, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, and the reviews were spectacular in their cruelty. After a few painful festival screenings, the film raced to the DVD rack for shelter.
“It was an experience I’m glad I had. I think everything you try teaches you something, and the process was interesting,” Timberlake said. Hollywood apparently is still interested in him; he’s landed four movie roles since “Edison.” He joins Diaz next year in “Shrek the Third.”
“At the end of the day, what I enjoy is being on stage and entertaining people, and that’s why I’m here and that’s what I’m focused on right now.” What about the ranking by industry powers, the one that put Timberlake in the top 10 of artists?
“That just shows,” Timberlake said, “that I’m completely underrated.” He grinned with sly satisfaction. He was asked if he was surprised to finish ahead of Kanye West. “Kanye? Has he ever had a song that wasn’t already a song before he did it?” He waited a long beat before surrendering to his familiar nice-guy mode. “That’s a joke, OK? Please tell me you know that was a joke.”
‘I love you too’
A few nights earlier a mostly female crowd jammed the floor of the Hammersmith Palais, one of the clubs that Timberlake has visited in the last month to premiere his new music and stoke curiosity about it. (Six shows in Europe and Asia were followed last week with bookings at the House of Blues sites in Anaheim and Hollywood; the tickets were selling online for more than $600.)
The show in Hammersmith was crowded with young women who still had schoolbooks on their shelves when ‘N Sync was the pinnacle of pinup. Now they held up their Cosmos and cellphone cameras and cheered for their old MTV boyfriend. The fashion-conscious Timberlake arrived on stage looking natty like Alfie, which was fine except for the heat wave outside. London was wearing spaghetti straps and shorts and the kid from the States was in a scarf and sweating by the end of the first song.
No matter. They loved Timberlake.
“I love you too,” he answered a few times.
In ‘N Sync he shared the stage with four other guys (J.C. Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone and Lance Bass), but now he crams onto the stage with a dozen people, including a squad of backup singers.
The band played a set that leaned heavily on the new material, and it was all over the musical map. Smoky R&B;, pop ballad and dance-floor groove, all with more than a few moments sprinkled in that reminded you of that Jackson comparison.
Timberlake’s lyrics are hardly elaborate word craft, and he’s more attuned to James Brown than John Lennon. Take “SexyBack,” which Timbaland has shaped into a catchy, techno-vamp for the dance floor. The song begins: “I’m bringin’ sexy back / Them other boys don’t know how to act / I think it’s special what’s behind your back / So turn around and I’ll pick up the slack.”
R. Kelly, a fellow Jive Records artist, would be proud of that wolfish theme, but Timberlake pulls it off with detached cool that makes the whole affair feel like a flirt, not a leer. The song is already a hit; it’s the No. 1 most-requested song at the top pop stations in New York and L.A. and the No. 1 video on MTV. The album as a whole has a syncopated, ultra-modern feel with odd nods to 1980s new wave and even cribs of high-polish rock moments from FM heroes like Fleetwood Mac and Queen. “The songs run together because Pink Floyd did that, and we wanted to have a concept album like them,” Timbaland said in one of the least expected sentences of the year.
Like so many in pop and hip-hop today, the album is as much about the celebrity producers on board as it is about the famous fellow photographed on the cover stomping a disco ball. In addition to Timbaland, there’s Will.i.am, the maestro of the Black Eyed Peas, and the ubiquitous rock guru Rick Rubin. Oscar-winning rappers Three 6 Mafia drop in on one track, as do Nelly Furtado and rappers T.I. and Snoop Dogg. The presence of street-minded rap stars is a nod that Timberlake is in full urban mode; his generation, of course, was the first to be fully immersed in the full blend of rock and hip-hop, and he embraced both with a genre-flipping comfort that earlier pop fans did not commonly exhibit.
On stage, though, the hip-hop soundscapes take a backseat to Timberlake’s goal of channeling James Brown, Stevie Wonder and 1970s bands where the rhythm section and backup singers put far more emphasis on stage groove than in today’s pop, which usually feels carefully calibrated with canned, backstage music and a strident emphasis on choreography that can make concerts about as spontaneous as a NASA launch.
That’s not to say Timberlake doesn’t dance -- he does (and if you’re standing outside the venue, it’s usually right when you hear all the women screaming). But he spends more time playing instruments, keyboards and guitar.
The Hammersmith fans loved that too, even if his attempts were fairly modest in ambition. It’s a far cry from ‘N Sync, and don’t think that’s unintended.
“That wasn’t the aesthetic then. We came on stage and we danced and we performed and we delivered a show. There were 12-year-olds in the audience, and that’s what they wanted, that’s what impressed them. They wanted to see things blow up and watch us ride mechanical bulls and fly across the audience. They wanted to see us levitate. And the reason we were so successful is that we catered to that audience and gave them just what they wanted.”
Now, the stage show is the music that Timberlake wants it to be. “I’m never going to do anything that doesn’t feel natural on stage. I’ve learned that. And what you see out there now is who I am and the direction I’m going. It is different than the album, but they’re both me.”
The other members of ‘N Sync are falling further and further away from the circles Timberlake walks in. Chasez, considered the most likely to rival Timberlake as a solo act, had some success, but the biggest splash by any of them was Bass’ declaration on a magazine cover last month that he is gay. The story seemed to be as much a cry for publicity as a declaration of self.
Timberlake remains loyal to his old pals. In London, asked if he is surprised that their modest successes of late have not resonated more with the public, he wiped his brow, looked at the floor and mulled the appropriate answer. “I think that now, more than ever,” he said slowly, “success to all of us is a different thing.”
On his own
TIMBERLAKE has really got to work on his stage banter. At the London show, it consisted on variations of “How you doin’ tonight?” and “Great to be back” and “Thanks, you’re a great audience.” He has a reputation as the baby-faced, aw-shucks Tennessean who can look a bit wide-eyed when the music stops and real life starts. Many fans find it endearing, but it has made him a bit of a target. On a 2003 episode of the MTV celebrity-prank show “Punk’d,” faux IRS agents showed up at his house to repossess just about everything to cover a supposed tax debt. Timberlake looked to be on the verge of tears and called his mom before they told him it was a gag.
He gained a lot of points, though, by going on “Saturday Night Live” a few years ago and goofing hysterically on “Punk’d” host Ashton Kutcher (“I’m Ashton Kutcher and I’m awesome”), singing a duet with his childhood hero Kermit the Frog (it ended with the amphibian calling the singer a “douche bag”) and portraying a dense teenager gleefully explaining his legal good luck in being “diddled” while he was an altar boy.
Still, for a lot of America he is most famous as the “accomplice” to Janet Jackson’s good-taste misdemeanor at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 when he exposed her pierced nipple to the world, one of pop culture’s stranger and most overexamined moments. That was clearly not “staying in his lane.”
Sitting at the Landmark, he groused about the nature of gossip. He fumed about a “thing that just happened that I can’t believe they printed” (presumably, he was referring to a London Guardian article that made a headline out of his admission that he has experimented with drugs). “I’m just sick of it all,” he said of the tabloid thirst. So he doesn’t want to talk about Diaz (but, yes, they are still dating, they live in Los Angeles and, yes, he is “extremely happy”) or anything else that isn’t on stage or on the new CD.
A few weeks after London, he was in Hollywood on a soundstage off Santa Monica Boulevard. The place was huge and deserted and Timberlake was there to pose for the photos accompanying this article. Timberlake arrived with his publicist, his wardrobe person, his groomer and his hairstylist -- the latter raising the question of whether his soldier-boy cut really requires a full-time staffer.
The crowd was small, but Timberlake is always on. This time he was entertaining with impersonations of Muppets and the idea of using them as a personality test. “I like Kermit the Frog; it’s hard to beat Kermit. There’s Beaker. Fozzie is pretty great. ‘Wocka wocka.’ Do you count ‘Sesame Street’? Because if you do, then you got Grover. And Ernie. ‘Hey, Bert.’ Ernie is my favorite. Can I get ‘Sesame Street’ characters? And what does it say about my personality that I need more options?”
Like so many of his generation, Timberlake flips through pop culture with the clipped attention of a remote control with a hair trigger. He asks: “Who’s your favorite Beatle? Right, John Lennon. That’s easy.” “Star Wars” character? “Chewbacca or Boba Fett, is that the two? I want to be Han Solo. He’s cool.” “The Wizard of Oz” requires no deliberation -- “The Scarecrow, c’mon, it has to be. Ray Bolger. Easy.” He goes on to name Jordan Knight as his favorite New Kid and Chasez as his most beloved ‘N Sync member.
Soon after, the small squad of handlers and the photographer leave, but the star lingers on the chilly soundstage to chat some more. He apologizes several times for not answering questions about his personal life and ends that topic by saying, “Some of us, we have to draw a line on this, it’s getting worse every year.” For a moment, he seems very grown-up and, for the first time, a bit weary.
One last question: Right now, what does the singer covet more: critical acclaim or a return to super-star sales? Do you long for five-star reviews or 5 million copies sold? “That’s a tough question; it’s not really fair.” He looks down, then up and then nods to himself. “I’ll take the 5 million in sales because I don’t know if they are ready, the critics, to give me five stars. I don’t know if that’s something they would even do. So I’ll take the sales.”
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