Full Circle: JT and The 20/20 Experience

I seem to have come full circle with Justin Timberlake.  An opera-loving friend of mine moaned that Justin Timberlake is among the “Time 100“, a list purporting to identify the 100 most influential people in the world.  I don’t think the facts were in question.  JT is important.  His concern what what this seems to say about American culture.

Oh tempora oh whatever…

Nobody from the operatic realm (or classical music or visual art) made it onto a list that also includes Jay Z, Beyoncé and The Jimmies, Fallon & Kimmel.  But I’m okay with it.  Of course I don’t read Time so my friend’s tirade was the first I’d heard of it.  Even so, JT has come a long way, and that’s what i mean by full circle.

Sure, I heard he’d been a Mousketeer, a fact you can confirm if you have a look.  He’s listed there with Britney Spears , Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling.  While at least two of that threesome might seem to underline my friend’s point (about the depths to which he claims we’ve sunk), I don’t believe in trashing any of the popular forms of music.  If anything the matter deserves more study, which is what brings me here in the first place.  I get especially interested in debates about work that’s denigrated because lots of people love it.  I’ve written about Tosca for example.  And although it’s hard to believe, poor Bernard Herrmann denigrated his own work in film, all the while seeking success in a concert hall or the opera house; meanwhile history has caught up, as it’s now normal to consider his scores for such films as Psycho or North by Northwest as genuine art.

No, JT isn’t to be confused with Herrmann or Puccini.  But I’d rather not dismiss him just yet.

  • He played in a boy band from the 90s called ‘N Sync.  I can’t remember a single tune, even after playing through a greatest hits compilation I found on youtube.
  • My current opinion about him begins about ten years ago, at the Toronto SARS concert.  In July 2003 Toronto hosted a huge concert featuring the Rolling Stones, and lots of other talent.  Timberlake came as well, perhaps a fish out of water among so many established acts with a particular heavy rock sound.  I saw him play while dodging bottles hurled at him on the stage.   Whatever else you might call him, he’s a trouper.  It was one of the most impressive displays I’ve ever seen.  Nothing would seem hard after that, I suspect.
  • Timberlake has been in several films.  I don’t think he’s made much of an impact yet, but there was nothing wrong with his work in The Social Network.  He’s also in a bunch of films I never saw (Trouble with the Curve, The Love Guru, Friends with Benefits, and Bad Teacher).
  • And he’s been on television a fair bit recently.  I always liked his appearances on Saturday Night Live, especially alongside Andy Samberg in those crazy retro duets    A few weeks ago JT hosted a very good episode, his fifth time as host.
  • And he was on Jimmy Fallon several times, interviewed and playing his music.
  • And of course he was on the Grammys, playing from his new album The 20/20 Experience.

I was given The 20/20 Experience as a present recently.  It’s a polished piece of work that has a lot of the same canny awareness of history, musical styles & the fashion that we see in the video with Samberg.   I am reminded of some of my favourite pieces in pop music, that boldly fuse old and new, and never mind if it makes sense.  Life is full of contradictions, right?

  • The Band did it regularly in most of their biggest hits. In this piece, how does one reconcile the contrary stylistic elements, except to simply listen, enjoying the juxtaposition of idioms and associations? decades later i am still in complete reverent awe.  
  • And at least on this one occasion, so too did Little River Band.  When in time exactly are we in this musical vortex?

Timberlake knows his history & his styles.  “Retro” is a very imprecise and sloppy word for what JT is able to do.   The juxtaposition of older styles with the edginess supplied by Jay Z makes them both better.

Yes I find myself feeling old listening to lyrics that seem designed for kids going out to dance.  Or maybe it’s because I am listening to this as though it were jazz or classical music.  The production values are excellent, the charisma of the star unmistakeable.  My one complaint is that I find it very difficult to resist the urge to exceed the speed limit when driving.

As I listened to JT on any of these performances, especially playing to a live audience on SNL, i can still see the brave trouper dodging bottles at the SARS concert, still eager to find an audience who will love him.

I think he’s found it, and then some…

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