Like We Love Him

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

How Justin Timberlake grew into America's favorite pop star.

zjustin Timberlake is our biggest male pop star. I realized this for the first time the other day. It hit me during the final leg of Timberlake's dizzying campaign to promote The 20/20 Experience, his first LP in nearly seven years, which comes out March 19. He'd just hosted Saturday Night Live and was about to begin a weeklong stint on Jimmy Fallon; at that point I half-expected him to burst forth from my recycling bin with a winning smile and stack of CDs under his arm. I'm not sure why it took me so long to size up Timberlake's stardom. Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Rihanna are bigger, of course, but they are very much not boys. Usher is a bore these days. Bruno Mars could evaporate at any moment. And Justin Bieber is still trapped in Tiger Beat territory. Timberlake is all we have.

And yet for some reason we have been slow to acknowledge his place in the pop cosmos--not just me, but the culture at large. Most of the talk about Timberlake still centers on his improbable transformation from *NSYNC puff pastry--tight blond curls, paint-splattered jeans, matching diamond studs--to a credible, grown-up R&B artist. But the metamorphosis itself is old news. What hasn't been adequately examined is the position he now occupies as our era's equivalent of a Michael Jackson or an Elvis Presley, as strange as that sounds. I'm not just referring to the 17 million records Timberlake has sold, or the seven inventive, unshakable singles he's released since the start of the 21st century. Every star reflects the generation that produces and sustains him: its character and its neuroses, its needs and its wants. So why have we settled on Justin Timberlake?

First things first: his talent is undeniable. At 2, he was singing along to the radio. "Is anyone listening to him?" his uncle asked. "He's singing f--king harmony parts!" Later, Timberlake locked himself in his room, switched off the lights, and listened to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" for 48 hours straight. "I'd only come out for food or water," he recently recalled. "I wanted to dissect every part of it." He may have been the youngest member of *NSYNC, but he was also the most musical; as Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes told Rolling Stone in 2000, "to say that he's got soul is something you expect me to say, but it's true." Timberlake proved Williams right. His first two albums were remarkably consistent, and remarkably good, and the new one extends the streak: inventive production; precise, supple vocals; relentless hooks. "Pusher Love Girl," with its strutting beat, Curtis Mayfield falsetto, and crafty central metaphor (lover = drug dealer), will sound particularly excellent on the car stereo this spring.

That said, plenty of contemporary performers--like Robin Thicke, for one--were blessed with talent. None of them are Timberlake. The reason, I think, is that his persona, and his taste, are preternaturally in tune with the times. At root, this has as much to do with biography as anything else: the contours of Timberlake's life mirror every Millennial trend line. An estimated 40 percent of us are children of divorce, Timberlake included; his mother, Lynn Harless, split up with his father, Randy Timberlake, a bluegrass bassist, when Justin was 2. She and her second husband, Paul, went on to co-manage their son's career--the ne plus ultra of helicopter parenting. By all reports, Timberlake and his mother have one of those peculiarly Millennial relationships in which the line between parent and pal is blurred. He lived with her even after his solo debut, and the two have been seen smoking pot together. "I had Justin when I was 20, and he seemed about 20 when he was born, so we've pretty much shared everything," Lynn has said. "We're weird like that. But there's a lot of stuff he starts telling me about ... Some things you are not supposed to say to your mother. …