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Justin Timberlake: The secret of his success

About the author

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom's Highway.

(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Teen pop idols tend to disappear when their fans grow up. So how did child star Justin Timberlake become one of America’s biggest stars? Greg Kot explains.

Justin Timberlake is only 32, but his CV is already stuffed with Grammy Awards, critical accolades and multi-platinum albums. His recent one, 20/20, his first studio release since 2006, is the year’s biggest-seller so far in the US, with a sequel on the way in September. In between, he’s squeezing in a few stadium concerts with his pal Jay-Z, as one half of Legends of the Summer, which is shaping up to be  one of the summer’s biggest tours.

But his most impressive accomplishment just might be that he hasn’t turned into Shaun Cassidy, Tiffany or any number of former teen idols. Nobody thinks of him as the former singer in N’Sync anymore, let alone a Mouseketeer.

For what might’ve been, check out 19-year-old Justin Bieber. “I’m an artist and I should be taken seriously,” Bieber complained at the Billboard Music Awards a few weeks ago. This from a guy who tried to smuggle his pet monkey across international borders. He appears to have entered the temper-tantrum stage of his kiddie-pop years, prompting many pundits to question whether he’ll have any kind of career left once he hits adulthood.

Such is the way for most pop idols who find fame around the same time they reach puberty. The usual lifespan for most is about three or four years, and then they become punch lines or has-beens. Each decade had a few who burned holes in the hearts of adolescents and then burned out when their audience grew up. The ‘60s packaged the Monkees and the Cowsills; the ‘70s served up Bobby Sherman, the Partridge Family andthe Osmonds,; for a brief time in the ‘80s, it was all about Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and New Kids on the Block; the ‘90s produced Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync; and the 2000s brought the flourishing of the Disney/Nickelodeon franchise and the emergence of Lindsey Lohan, Hilary Duff and Miley Cyrus.

A cunning plan?

So how did Timberlake avoid tumbling from pin-up to afterthought like so many others before him? He had a sense of humour, for starters. Even as N’Sync was selling millions of albums to giddy pre-teens, he appeared to be in on the joke. A few seconds say it all in the video for one of the group’s biggest hits, Bye Bye Bye: the music stops and a curly-haired Timberlake lifts his head, smiles slyly, laughs and darts off. Who really knows if that’s Timberlake’s little take-the-money-and-run inside joke, but it sure plays that way in retrospect.

The turning point arrived with his 2002 solo debut, Justified. The energetic and surprisingly sophisticated mix of dance tunes and ballads, pop and soul, instantly cast him as an adult, and earned comparisons to the Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, another teen star who grew into a substantial artist (at least until it all started to go horribly wrong in the ‘90s). Timberlake took his notoriety to a whole new level when he accidentally-but-not-really ripped Janet Jackson’s costume during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time, which gave the world the indelible phrase ‘wardrobe malfunction’. Even that bit of naughtiness couldn’t tarnish the singer’s likeability rating, though. He dutifully apologised at the Grammys a few weeks later and went home with two awards.

Hollywood beckons

A series of films followed and then a second solo album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, another leap in ambition with its suite-like songs. On tour, he presented himself not just as a piece of gyrating eye candy, but as a serious musician and band leader, a lithe, loose-limbed singer-songwriter fronting a 12-piece band.

Yet as his Hollywood profile ramped up, questions arose about whether Timberlake would ever make another album. The carefully orchestrated campaign to introduce 20/20 was his response. The music pushes even further than its predecessor, with seven songs clocking in at seven-plus minutes.

The album’s genre-busting sprawl is another example of Timberlake’s survival instinct. He’s surveyed the musical landscape and realises he can’t compete with Nicki Minaj or Katy Perry for sheer pop pizzazz. So instead he’s moved into a hybrid area, gliding through a series of Frank Ocean-like moves in the way he’s mixing and matching styles. It’s a bit of a stretch – too often 20/20 sounds unfocused, emotionally remote, a series of unnecessarily busy arrangements that convey ambition more than heart.

As resilient as Timberlake has been, he still has a way to go as an artist. When he appeared at the Grammys this year, wearing a tuxedo in a sepia-toned Cotton Club-style big-band setting, he looked fantastic, a suave retro-soul man for the 21st Century. But as this former teen idol surely realises, making sophisticated music for adults requires more of an investment than just looking good. Somehow, one senses Timberlake will figure it out. He usually does.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here:

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