The smartest career move Justin Timberlake ever made was to stop making music.
This is not to say Justin Timberlake is a poor musician, and that a third JT solo album wouldn’t have shaken the earth to its very core. Quite the opposite is true, actually. Timberlake definitely has talent — we saw but glimpses of it during his boy band days with N*SYNC and sporadically on his two solo efforts, collaborations with other artists, and the production jobs he undertook after N*SYNC dissolved in 2004.
There are very few musicians out there like Rod Stewart who can sing about getting girls they don’t love into bed while still being the guy most of those girls would love to take home to their parents. For a while, Timberlake was one of them.
Unfortunately, that was also his biggest shortcoming. Because of Timberlake’s mega-stardom in the early 2000s, every detail of his life was
chronicled — more specifically, every detail of his very public relationship with pop princess Britney Spears and especially the nasty fallout that came after she cheated on him.
When the single “Cry Me a River,” which depicts a heartbroken Timberlake getting his revenge over Brit, appeared on his first solo record, Justified, pop fans only fell deeper in love with music’s most famous cuckold.
Justified was supposed to sever the tie between Timberlake and N*SYNC. It was supposed to be more soulful and grittier than any of the pre-packaged bubblegum N*SYNC released on its four albums. It was supposed to give Timberlake credibility for the first time in his singing career and in many ways, Justified was able to do that.
But a song like “Cry Me a River” presented Timberlake as the sad puppy who’s so pathetic and adorable, that you just have to pet him until he falls asleep. No matter what he recorded next, we would always see him as the jilted lover putting notches in his bedposts. He
deserved it. We came to expect it. And because we expected it, Timberlake once again became a pre-packaged pop icon — rinse, lather, repeat.
Timberlake realized that with songs like “Cry Me a River” — or its follow-up, 2006’s “What Goes Aroun Comes Around,” likely another shot at Spears — he had compromised himself as an artist. His act once again came with a gimmick — only this time, it was cooler than seeing him dance with four other guys in matching outfits. So of course he took time off after his second and, at this point, final solo album, 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds.
Timberlake’s a smart guy, an entrepreneur who has tried his hand at numerous business endeavors outside the music world. He began to realize that his musical experience had far outweighed his life experience, and the only way to grow as an artist would be to grow as a person first.
Of course, no amount of time away from music could possibly turn Justin Timberlake into John Lennon. That’s not really the point. In taking time off and letting his albums collect dust within your now-centuries old CD collections, Timberlake let the merit of his work rise higher than his own personal fame, even if his celebrity faded some in the process. If and when he returns to the music business, he will be older and wiser than the teenage heartthrob we first saw with N*SYNC.
Unfortunately, not all musicians can gain credibility simply by going on hiatus—Timberlake did, after all, stay in the public eye with highly-publicized acting roles and guest spots on Saturday Night Live. A singer like Joe Jonas, a Disney product like Timberlake, might have waited too long to try his hand at legitimate music, with his solo record FastLife coming nearly a year after Justin Bieber exploded into the mainstream and snagged most of the Jonas Brothers’ fan base. Pretty soon, a newer, younger popstar will emerge and unseat Bieber, and he will find himself in the very same predicament.
People have seemingly forgotten about Joe Jonas — and his dynamite hair — despite his first single’s release in June, his upcoming tour with Spears, and the swiftly approaching Oct. 11 release of Fastlife. Unless Fastlife is a conceptual masterpiece, we may — gasp! — long for another Joe Jonas record, if for no other reason than it’ll be the pre-packaged material with which devoted Jonas fans are used to.
Anything Timberlake writes in the future will undoubtedly sound more mature and honest than either of his first two records. If Timberlake decides to cut another solo record, it’s doubtful we’ll see another song on it about Britney Spears. The two are ancient
history, with each now doing plenty of public well-wishing for the other.
In the time since their break-up, Timberlake has dated some pretty famous women and taken solace in bachelor life, while Spears now has a family and a reviving career herself. There is simply too great a wealth of good going on in Timberlake’s life to continue focus on one bad break-up from nearly a decade ago.
No matter what he does — from movie roles to goofing around on Saturday Night Live with Andy Samberg and those ridiculous beards — Justin Timberlake now seems like a different man than he was five years ago. By doing so many other things with his life, we almost forget that Timberlake was, once upon a time, a musician.
Justin Bieber, let’s hope you’ve been taking notes.