You know, when telling somebody’s life story you want to take it in pieces that make sense, identify the distinct eras while still taking a continuous flow. As a fan, I want to tell you what it is about Justin Timberlake that I think makes him the artist he is and why I like him so much. How does one go about this? Do we take it album by album, career venture by career venture, celebrity girlfriend by celebrity girlfriend?
No. Any true Justin girl would tell you that’s just silly. If you want to plot out the stages of Justin’s life… you gotta do it by his hair.
Stage One: Baby!Justin to MMC!Justin – The Wire Brush Years
Let’s get the boring particulars over with first, shall we? Justin Randall Timberlake was born to parents Lynn and Randy on the 31st of January 1981, making him an Aquarius – or a Monkey under the Chinese system, which given what a total goofball he is I find very apt. This momentous occasion took place in Memphis, Tennessee.
Come to think of it that detail isn’t so boring, because coming from a town like Memphis is going to deeply influence your musical style. Justin was exposed to a number of different genres from a very early age – country, Motown, soul, blues. He grew up on Johnny Cash, Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Anybody looking to explain Justin’s musical style doesn’t need to ask about his producers or his writers or how he got into the business, they just need to look at where he grew up. The classics influenced him to make modern classics.
His aptitude for singing became quickly apparent to his mother; poor woman, it has to be unnerving when your toddler is singing harmonies to the radio while most are still struggling with sentences. It seems safe to say that if not for her unending support and willingness to do whatever it took to help her son with his dream (whether that be entering him in pageants or running around Germany after him), he wouldn’t be who he is. No wonder he worships her. As a fan, I adore her for releasing tapes of him in that pageant – wearing his little white tuxedo, being a complete ham. Some things never change.
Two things marked him out as a child – intelligence, which put him in an advanced placement group at school and talent, which made him a hit at local shows. I mention them because both I feel are a key part to getting this guy’s success; he’s not just pretty, he’s smart. He’s a good businessman with an eye for the future, which is why he’s so successfully branched out into charity, restaurants, fashion, sports, acting. Combined with his talent, it’s what keeps him a trendsetter and front runner in the industry.
After an unsuccessful appearance on Ed McMahon’s Star Search, in 1993 Justin was fatefully chosen to become one of the new regulars on The Mickey Mouse Club or MMC. Not only was he part of the class with future star names Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Keri Russell and Christina Aguilera, this also brought him to a very fateful meeting with his future band mate JC Chasez. MMC was far more than that though – it was training for stardom. Not only did he constantly show himself up as a triple threat, singing, dancing and acting in comedy sketches he was being taught how to work it for a camera, his work ethic, media training, the works. He may be a little less wholesome and squeaky clean these days, but Mickey taught Justin everything he knows (funky style!).
During this period, his hair looked like what I can only describe as a Brillo pad. It was wiry, it was poofy, and it’s no wonder he grew up hating his hair.
Stage Two: Bleach!Justin to Fro!Justin – The Fashion Disaster Years
What happened after the cancellation of MMC is now the stuff of myth and legend… mostly because so many different versions of the story have gone out over the years I’m not sure even the band members remember the correct one. What does seem sure is this – Lou Pearlman and Chris Kirkpatrick wanted to set up a group. Chris knew Joey Fatone from Universal Studios, who knew JC via another MMC member. Justin pulled JC in, and via his vocal coach Justin found Lance Bass. History was made. They became *NSYNC.
Success came in Germany and Europe first before their native United States – which led to some very amusing and embarrassing early techno efforts aimed at the German market. I suggest you try Riddle. Where the boys excelled, however, was in good old pop, and pop was what finally broke them in the States after a supremely successful Disney concert special (thank God the Backstreet Boys decided they couldn’t be bothered). Their debut album shot up the charts, the screaming girls followed, and a phenomenon was born.
The early album now sounds pretty dated and very late 1990s, some of it is very cheesy, but what it showed off from the start was incredible vocals and musicality from the boys. Right from the get go, these guys were able to drop into a perfect acapella harmony at the drop of a hat – not a skill many bands can boast. They were able to jump around like maniacs while still maintaining vocal quality, and best of all they didn’t take themselves the slightest bit seriously. These are all qualities which Justin has maintained as a solo artist, along with the incredible showmanship that went into the live performances.
Those were the days of the ‘Eminem before Eminem’ look, and my God was I glad when Justin grew out of that and put the peroxide down. With the massive fro, however, came massive stardom. After a much publicised battle to break free of Pearlman’s clutches, *NSYNC released their sophomore effort No Strings Attached which still holds the Guinness World Record for most albums sold in a week. 2.4 million, that was – and *NSYNC became even bigger than they already were. As one of the two lead vocalists, Justin quickly took on an even higher profile. And, yeah, there was this low profile (sic) romance with Britney Spears.
The second album was harder, better, faster, stronger – more grown up, slick production, more two step and dance mixed in with the pop melodies, a little flicker of depth from a seemingly bubblegum band. I put this entirely down to the fro. Girls loved the fro. Again it set a pattern for Justin’s approach to his music – constant progression, each album being a step forward and to the left of the last. The boy’s never happy unless he’s constantly raising the bar.
Stage Three: From Celebrity to Self-Justification – The Bare It All Years
Two things happened in 2001 that turned Justin from cute boy bander into sex God hotness. The first was shaving his head – a few girls cried at the loss of the curls, but most agreed he looked much better. I still agree it’s his best look. The second was the Celebrity album, which really showcased him as multi-talented and a genuine musician rather than the product of ProTools and a good producer. From the haunting melody of Gone to the hard edged electronic dance of a song ironically called Pop, Justin proved himself as a writer and producer. *NSYNC took on a much more urban sound, one which for the first time showed crossover appeal and made the industry take them seriously as more than a pretty manufactured boy band. The Justin penned Girlfriend was a massive hit in territories which had previously shown themselves indifferent to the boys – the UK, urban radio.
A few things went badly for him. There was a very infamous and painful break up. The start of a hiatus which proved *NSYNC had little concept of what kind of timeframe eight months is (seven years later). But in 2002, Justin broke free of *NSYNC – when I say that I’m not talking about the other members, with whom he’s still pals, but of the neat box they’d been put into by the industry and media. He came out urban, R&B, hailed the new Michael Jackson for his debut solo album Justified. Suddenly he was cool. Suddenly he had credibility and the little pop boy bander who had sung about a girl tearing up his heart could boast the support of hip hop heavyweights like Timbaland. He also won two Grammys for his efforts, which was a high point.
I was very smug about it when he hit big in England. They were only just catching on while I was like “yeah, known this for years now, where’ve you been?”
*NSYNC was a brilliant stage of his life but going solo, for me, is the point when Justin really started blossoming into the musical tour de force he now is. Suddenly he wasn’t part of a bigger whole, he was the whole. Justin without the limits or restrictions, Justin who could cuss on stage if he felt like it. Which he often does. That messy break up might have been nasty but the raw emotion he showed made me start seeing him as a person, rather than a personality. I’d always thought he was cute, always thought he seemed like a cool guy. But Justified, for me, is when Justin became something far better and more interesting – human, a real flesh and bone human who hurts and bleeds just like the rest of us, not just some untouchable ideal. It showed in the music, the anger of Cry Me a River and pain of Never Again; good music touches the soul and awakens emotion, and Justin showed an astounding ability to do that. And also to make you want to shake your ass.
Stage Four: To Mountain Man and Back Again – From Branching Out to Future Sex
I really don’t like the stage Justin went through between albums when he grew that horrendous straggly beard that he didn’t keep very tidy. I understand that being clean shaven makes him look seventeen again but looking like a hobo suits nobody. It was like something had died on his chin. Still, this was an important time for Justin because it set a pattern for two things: one was taking time between albums, being guided by the direction of the music rather than the desire to keep himself out there and selling. It’s frustrating for fans who are hungry for more, but it ensures ongoing quality and that he always goes away while people are still going to miss him, rather than outstaying his welcome. There were four years between the releases of Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds.
The other was an eye for keeping himself busy with other projects and succeeding at anything he turned his hand to. His first movie Edison didn’t set the world alight, but next Justin was named as a standout performer in the critically acclaimed Alpha Dog. He opened restaurants; he set up a Southern lifestyle fashion label with best pal Trace Ayala, named William Rast after their grandfathers. He had a successful partnership with McDonalds – he wasn’t plastered all over their adverts, they just “wanted my brain” as he put it. Justin was quickly being recognised as a very savvy businessman with an eye for a good investment, and everyone wanted his time.
It wasn’t all good – a major controversy at the 2004 Superbowl after the sighting of Janet Jackson’s breast and some blithe remarks about drugs caused him media grief – but Justin as ever played it cool and played to his strengths, riding out the storms until they were done. Nobody in his business gets away without weathering some scandals, but his never threatened to overshadow his talent. Still, he got to console himself with dating Cameron Diaz and then Jessica Biel – nothing like a hot actress girlfriend to soothe the pain.
Then with the release of the second album in 2006, he exploded into an even bigger star (I note here that he shaved his head – I told you he gets sexier and hotter when he does that, I think it was key to the album’s success). He wore a waistcoat and suit with sneakers, suddenly every clubbing male was wearing the same. He used a beat, six months later everyone in the charts was using the same. Everyone from Reba McEntire to Madonna to Rihanna was clamouring to have him write and produce for them. He set up his own music label. When Justin Timberlake talked, not just Hollywood but the world listened. He was ahead of the zeitgeist, he was the one to emulate, the one to beat. He was the leader of the pack. Yet he still found time to show us the dork within during his brilliantly received stints on Saturday Night Live. He brought sexy back and we loved it.
Stage Five – What Now?
Where Justin and his hair go from here, nobody knows. That however is precisely the beauty of what Justin does for me. He’s not predictable, but everything he does makes perfect sense when he does it. His music is catchy, melodic, infectious, raw and emotional. He manages to be smart and sexy while also silly and a geek at the same time. One moment you’re laughing at him because he’s a freak, the next he’s got you salivating over his cocksure ability to work a stage and tease his audience.
I was asked to write a biography, but I think what I’ve really done here is given you a passing glance over his life and career as an explanation of why I think this guy is a bad ass. Which I do. One great big dorky bad ass.
He can bring me on into Omletteville anytime.