Justin Timberlake’s latest album, The 20/20 Experience, sold nearly 1 million copies its first week. Back in 2000, this wouldn’t have been considered a great feat. But given the demise of music sales due to piracy and Internet streaming, it’s a surprise. Even more surprising: in a culture of instant rises and falls from fame, how has Timberlake been able to sustain his popularity?
Timberlake, who got his start as the teen heartthrob lead singer of the 90s boy band ’N Sync, came out with his first solo album soon after the band’s breakup in 2002. It wasn’t until 2006 that the release of his second album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, put him on the map as a more legitimate artist.
Teaming up with producer and cowriter Timbaland, Timberlake became more experimental, opting out of the traditional three-minute, radio-length songs and instead fully developing a song in eight minutes. His genre bending is also significant, combining elements of club and dance beats with sounds from pop, reggae, R&B, and even some big band and classical elements. His signature vocals, with a wide range and a high falsetto, complete a very tight sound.
Timberlake’s status as a pop presence, beyond base sex appeal, can be attributed to at least three things. First, he has been able to stay in the public consciousness through his acting career and by avoiding the personal scandals that often ensnare celebrities in American culture. Second, while his music stays within the bounds of pop music, his vocal talent and use of varied instrumentation subtly challenge the traditional rules of popular music. Finally, Timberlake has found a way to channel older forms of pop music, most notably the influence of Michael Jackson. Justin hasn’t replaced the king of pop, but he is an up-and-coming prince.
But back to the sex appeal. Some say that Christians have gravitated toward folk music in popular culture because lyrically it avoids talk of sexuality. While this might be the music we are comfortable talking about, we cannot avoid the conversations about being sexual and embodied creatures.
If we do not engage this conversation inside the church, we allow popular culture to be the disciplining force about how to think and enact our God given-sexual nature. And while Timberlake doesn’t complete a Christian perspective on this topic, his song “Mirrors” does get at how we as men and women together image and reflect a true humanity. Music like his might make us uncomfortable, but for the sake of the next generation, we shouldn’t just ignore it.
Timberlake’s ability to combine vintage influences and sounds in a new and contemporary way has kept him in that ideal space between tradition and innovation. Ultimately, his audience is attracted to something with which Christians are familiar: the old made new. (RCA)