Justin and Britney: A tale of two lives and careers

Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards.
(Associated Press)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The same week that Britney Spears’ downward spiral garnered more ink than the latest Indonesian natural disaster, her former paramour, Justin Timberlake, further cemented his position as one of the decade’s most respected pop stars.

Not only did he clean up at the very ceremony that brought Spears shame, winning four MTV Video Music Awards, he also nabbed his first Emmy for ". . . in a Box,” a “Saturday Night Live” spoof of R&B’s bedroom ballads that hilariously played off the young soulman’s sex-symbol status and race-crossing appeal.

Reports that Timberlake and his main producer, Timbaland, offered to collaborate with Spears only to be rejected, further beg the question: Why has one teen phenomenon made such a spectacular transition to adulthood, while the other languishes in the muck of her own misdeeds?

Some reasons are obvious. At 22, Spears retreated from music-making into a marriage that produced two children and landfills of bad publicity. As Timberlake honed his musical talents, mentored by the ingenious Timbaland, Spears let herself go -- as a performer as well as in those ways documented by beauty-obsessed gossip rags. Soon the complications of her private life completely overshadowed her always tenuous artistic reputation.

There also was a time when Timberlake earned little respect as an artist. He was in a boy band, remember? ‘N Sync epitomized the packaged toy-pop of the new millennium, roundly derided as pabulum that would do in “serious” rock and ‘n’ roll and hip-hop. In this milieu, Timberlake was just another bright-eyed pre-teen’s pet -- talented but apparently vapid. Britney seemed more sophisticated, playing off her schoolgirl-vixen image in her videos and live shows.

Timberlake started changing his game as early as 2000, when ‘N Sync appeared as marionettes on the album cover and lead video for “No Strings Attached.” That pose acknowledged everything detractors said about the band.

Though he dates A-list actresses, Timberlake has since worked to maintain emotional distance from celebrity culture, making clear that becoming a better musician is his primary interest. When he released “Cry Me A River,” a song allegedly about his breakup with Spears, the real news was its striking production and nuanced vocals. Timberlake had arrived as an artist and in doing so made his private life not a nonissue but not the main issue.

The sad thing is, Spears could have taken this route. Her 2001 “Dream Within a Dream” tour spun an elaborate fantasy about girl culture and the role of the princess that suggested Spears might actually be really thinking about the image she was trying to maintain. By 2004, when she covered fellow celebrity disaster Bobby Brown’s biggest hit, “My Prerogative,” she was publicly struggling with her bad reputation but doing so through music, not by stumbling through the tabloids.

But Spears lost the thread by choosing -- or being forced by the very media-driven culture now busy chastising her -- to make her private life the main focus of her fame. Yes, she had children young, and yes, she’s proven herself an exhibitionist unable to handle the excesses she can afford. But the absence of Britney the Artist (and yes, she deserves to be called an artist) is what made space for Britney the Wreck to take over.

Like many creative women, she took time off to start a family and lost career momentum, reduced by many to the role of “bad mom.” Like her tragic spiritual sister, Anna Nicole Smith, she soon found that fame for its own sake is a toxic pursuit.

Every reader of trash gossip or viewer of tabloid television is implicated in what’s happened to Spears, because that shift toward existential celebrity is what drags such characters down. The inability to separate fantasy from reality is a mark of psychosis. More and more, we are rewarding stars for blurring those boundaries.

Timberlake is lucky. He has learned how to place his music between himself and his fame, using it as a shelter and a motivation. He’s also learned to laugh at himself. ". . . in a Box” is proof of that and deserves not only an Emmy but credit for helping Timberlake save his own soul.