Transformation Tuesday: Justin Timberlake

October 8, 2013
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When Jimmy Fallon presented Justin Timberlake with the Michael Jackson Video Vangaurd Award this year at the VMA’s, he lovingly dubbed him the ‘President of Pop,’ a title no one has the wherewithal to dispute. It is perhaps the most accurate declaration I have ever heard.

JT’s prestigious new position is supported by the fact that he continues to outdo himself. His mastery of social media marketing paired with his faith in his craft have set the stage for a whole new wave of JT-ness.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and examine how Justin Timberlake has evolved into the President of Pop. Young stars who are currently making this transition would probably benefit from taking a few notes…

Tennessee Kid

JT got his start at age 11 singing country songs as “Justin Randall” on the televised talent competition, Star Search. Although he did not win, the competition gave him important exposure and he was later cast on the Disney TV show, The All New Mickey Mouse Club in 1993.

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The All New Mickey Mouse Club

The show was known for its sketch comedy (*cough* SNL *cough*), live concerts, and music videos of the Mouseketeers performing covers of popular songs.

Several of JT’s fellow cast members turned out to be notable icons and successful artists, such as pop superstar Britney Spears (whom he would later share a highly publicized celebrity romance with), future tour mate Christina Aguilera, and band mate-to-be, JC Chasez. Man, he had soul, even back then.

Watch Justin, Britney and “the gang” back in the day!

NSYNC: the Rise to Stardom

It was JT’s Mouseketeer tapes that caught then manager Lou Pearlman’s eye, and nabbed him a spot in the boy band, *NSYNC, that would later soar into an international pop sensation. Although Justin was the baby of the group, he shared the role of lead singer with JC Chasez. His sentimental falsetto, heartfelt crooning, and innocent blonde curls were an integral cog in the *NSYNC machine. Justin was often made the visual centerpiece of the group as well.

In the group’s third album, Celebrity the group had significantly altered their image and style. JT chopped off his curly blonde locks, and the group looked more “rebellious” in general. Listeners also observed a distinct change in sound due to the addition of hip-hop elements, edgier lyrical content, and increased creative involvement from the group – especially from JC and Justin. JT’s beat boxing solo in the song “Pop” gave him significantly more spotlight time than his band mates. Moreover, the album’s second single “Gone” signified Justin’s natural transition into a solo artist. In the song, the rest of NSYNC serves as backup vocalists while JT sings the song in its entirety.

His strong and soulful vocals on the track proved he no longer needed NSYNC. After their Celebrity tour in 2002, the group took a “hiatus” from NSYNC that would later prove permanent.

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The “Justified” Era

Because of the general decline in the popularity of boy bands, and the rise of Justin’s own stardom, the tone was already set for JT’s solo debut. His first single “Like I Love You” was released August 2002 on the MTV Video Music Awards, and the song peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.  In November, he released his first solo studio album Justified, which contained two Top 10 singles, “Rock Your Body” and “Cry Me a River”. The album was characterized by a Michael Jackson-like quality, hip-hip influences, and an R&B singing style. These musical choices were highly complimented by critics, and earned him five Grammy nominations.

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Soon thereafter, a matured Justin Timberlake emerged with the music video for “Cry Me a River.” The video is commonly interpreted as a sour farewell to Justin’s ex-girlfriend Britney Spears. We all clutched our pillows and intently watched JT in his character’s vengeful pursuit. In the video Justin sneaks into the home of a Britney Spears look-a-like and records footage of he and a brunette sharing a heated kiss on the faux Britney’s bed.

To add to his new and rebellious image, JT signed on to be a co-headliner for the Justified/Stripped Tour with former Mouseketeer, Christina Aguilera who was going through her own “Dirty” transformation at the time.

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The Return of ‘Sexy’

We hadn’t even noticed that Sexy had left, until JT brought it back in July 2006 with a completely new and unexpected sound! Needless to say, our minds were blown. It was completely original, and like nothing else we had heard before. His sophomore album FutureSex/LoveSounds echoed “Sexy Back” in terms of originality and musical creativity. In his recording process, JT used influences like Prince and David Bowie, while the composition for the album was based on a complex blend of rap, rock, funk, soul, opera, world music, gospel and new wave.

“I wanted to sing the song like a rock and roll singer, not an R&B singer,” Justin said of the album.

The album’s lyrical content was focused on romance, lust, and sex. JT and main producer Timbaland used musical interludes to add length and stretch the flow of the tracks, making the album feel elastic, yet cohesive. Hip-hop oriented producers and featured artists such as T.I. and Three 6 Mafia helped the album to transcend genre lines, reach a wider audience, and change the sound of pop music in general.

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FutureSex/LoveSounds, resulted in two Grammy wins – Male Pop Performance Award for “What Goes Around…Comes Around”, and Dance Recording Award for “LoveStoned.”

After FutureSex/LoveSounds, JT did some collaboration with other artists. To name a few, he did “4 Minutes” with Madonna, “Ayo Technology,” with 50 Cent, and “Love Sex Magic” with Ciara. Almost all of his musical team-ups were rich with adult content and usually involved a music video of JT looking extra suave. Yes, please!

While the collaborations did tide us over for a while, we were still starving for a new album. We even created a public service announcement to put an end to the madness.

The Musical Hiatus

Still, JT explained on multiple occasions that he didn’t want to make any music that he wasn’t absolutely stoked about. In the meantime, he proved that he’s hilarious in the Lonely Island series, hosted SNL 4 times (and once more since his latest album), and appeared in films like The Social Network and Friends With Benefits. While his fanbase was largely female prior to his SNL presence, his comedic acts like “D*ck in a Box” diversified his fanbase, earning him more male fans.

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During Justin Timberlake’s 6-year musical hiatus, social media became a gigantic part of how artists promote their music. Even I was skeptical of whether JT would be savvy enough to properly utilize this colossal form of artist-to-fan interaction. I just about lost my marbles when I received an announcement of his long awaited return to music. “I’m Ready,” JT told us via YouTube/Facebook/Instagram/Twitter. I’ll say it again: I lost my marbles. What would follow this announcement was a series of Instagram “Finders Keepers” games, a revamping of his website, and various other social media marketing strategies that engages his fans in a rewarding way.

The Comeback

Now with a new band, The Tennessee Kids (no doubt a nod to his home state), JT has made the world a better place by lighting up the land with his many talents. He will embark on his world tour for his latest 2-part album The 20/20 Experience on October 31st.

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The complete album is a melting pot of JT’s musical journey. It is characterized by even longer tracks that average on about 7 minutes. Although there are less interludes than FS/LS, the musical tide of the album is comparable. Each song flows intricately and purposefully into the next, creating a complete listening “experience”. While fans bask in the lengthy tracks, critics have called the songs “overlong” and “self-indulgent.” Luckily, Justin Timberlake didn’t write this album for the critic.

“At the end of the day, it’s just music,” he said. “You try to go in and not over-think it and just make something that feels honest.”

Our favorite part about JT’s transformation is that he is now at a place in his career where he is free to create 7-minute song after 7-minute song despite the fact that the radio won’t play anything over 5 minutes. No longer does he rely on the support of Disney, *NSYNC, or radio airplay to keep listeners listening. His music is celebrated enough that the radio will still play a butchered 5-minute version of hits like “What Goes Around…Comes Around,” and “Mirrors” in order to please the masses.

The man might be 32, but I think there’s plenty more where that came from! Sigh. It’s just one kick in the feels after another with this guy.

King of Pop? That’s a hard ‘no’. That title will always belong to the great Michael Jackson. But in his many years in the business, JT has smoothly transformed from child star to adult legend. The process has been gradual, relatively clean, and an absolute joy to watch. He is certainly qualified to be running things in the Pop world – at least for the time being.

JT_onstage_now copy– Jenni M. @JenniferKayMo

 

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