Have We Reached Peak Timberlake?


Every day for the past week, Justin Timberlake has appeared as guest on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (the last episode of Timberweek airs tonight). He also has a brand new album out, a Target commercial, a highly publicized marriage, keeps getting his photo snapped with the likes of Beyoncé and Jay-Z, hosted SNL last weekend and he’ll be closing out SXSW. If you haven’t noticed, that’s quite a bit of Timberlake, but maybe it’s a bit…much? Then again, how does one even define “too much” when it comes to JT? He exists on a plane that is somehow beyond overexposure.

Justin Timberlake has remained steadily in the public eye since about 1998 (earlier if you count the MMC) when he broke onto the scene as the unofficial frontman of ‘N Sync. Unlike the rest of the group — or anyone to come out of the late nineties boy band boom — he’s never really gotten bad publicity, nor did he start hanging out with the Kris Jenner or fade into obscurity. On the contrary. If anything, he parlayed his boy band career into a career as a massively successful solo musician and several starring roles in big studio pictures.

This success is as almost as much about Timberlake’s charisma as it is about his skills as a performer. Sure, Justified is one of the best pop albums of all time and he can host a sketch show like no other, but huge part of his appeal rests in his charm and personality, which is a little strange because — and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this — he’s kind of an egotistical shit.

Once, a couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to sit in the same room as JT. It was for a press junket for The Social Network and while I was super excited to breathe the same air as the singer behind “Rock Your Body” — a song that I recently named as the most important song of my high school career (“Ignition (Remix)” being a close second) — I also couldn’t help but notice that Timberlake would not stop talking. All the other stars of the movie were present and yet Justin Timberlake was the one answering all of the questions. Maybe it’s because he enjoys the whole dog and pony show more than the others, but it got to the point where he was interrupting and discussing points of the film that had nothing to do with him. It was annoying, it was a little rude…and the audience (myself included) loved it.

Other pop stars like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift get constantly lambasted for their supposed overexposure, self-promotion and egocentrism, but Timberlake, who is guilty of all those things, remains relatively uncriticized and universally adored. Swift faces a barrage of criticism for referencing her past relationships in her songs and videos, but have you watched “Cry Me a River” lately? The video where Timberlake gets back at a cheating Britney Spears doppelgänger by videotaping himself hooking up with a brunette in Not-Britney’s bed? When it first came out, everyone thought that video was awesome. They still think it’s awesome even though it’s basically just a catchy, addictive Crap Email from a Dude with extremely high production values.

Judging from the songs he’s performed on television thus far, Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, his first solo album in seven years, might be a touch underwhelming. The songs are certainly good and listenable, but nothing has come close to the smoothness of “SexyBack” or the jovial call and repeat of “Señorita.” Regardless of that, regardless of all of the previous shit-talking and whatever mixed feelings I have about him and the fact that the dude is practically omnipotent right now, I still can’t get enough JT. And judging from the fact that he’s everywhere, all the time, the American public is in the same boat. What is it it about him that makes this possible? Why haven’t we hit peak Timberlake?

This is a different situation than what we had with Ryan Lochte, whose exposure quickly revealed him to be America’s Sexiest Douchebag. Justin, in contrast, seems smart and has style; his business ventures actually go somewhere. None of those things make him a viable contender for a sex idiot, but that’s never been his appeal anyway. Timberlake’s sexiness comes from his cockiness and, better yet, his ability to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

Every time Timberlake steps onstage to start his SNL monologue, he already knows that he’s gonna be a great host. He’s been trained to be a likable performer since his childhood days in the Mickey Mouse Club and he’s fully confident in his ability to win over an audience. Go in knowing that — knowing that the audience is already on your side — and you’re automatically going to do better than someone who doesn’t have that luxury. And it works for him very, very well.

But did the love of the audience make Justin Timberlake into a confident celebrity personality or did Timberlake’s confident celebrity personality make the audience love him? And what happens if either side of the balance is disrupted? Somehow — unless Timberlake kills Grumpy Cat or insults Jennifer Lawrence — I doubt that we’ll ever have to find out. Justin Timberlake is both the chicken and the egg.

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