I had multiple conversations about Justin Timberlake with friends, co-workers, and acquaintances in the week leading up to his local concert Saturday, August 19th. And in nearly every case the very notion of taking Timberlake seriously was broached with some hesitation, caveat, or apologetic tone. While the generalist in me finds it preposterous that people would so readily resist acknowledging the worth of such good music, it isn't really surprising.
People are more self-conscious about pop music than other forms of cultural production. More so than books, movies, or television shows, the music you consume seems to define who you are. People -- especially youngish people and more especially people who like to think of themselves as hipper than the norm -- use their musical taste to establish or advertise a cultural identity. And, for a lot of people, a former Mickey Mouse Club member who made his fame with the ridiculously named (gasp!) boy band *NSync doesn't fit comfortably into that self-image. This is a powerful force -- it has to be to cause someone to risk denying his or herself a record as great as "Rock Your Body."
And if you think this self-consciousness doesn't extend to Timberlake himself, you obviously weren't at the New Daisy Theatre Saturday. Playing a "hometown" date on his month-long SexyBack club tour, Timberlake divided his 12-song set evenly between selections from his 2002 solo debut Justified and the long-time-coming September follow-up Future Sex/Love Sounds. Despite being a full-fledged star and grown-ass man of 25 (or is it now 26?), Timberlake is still a little skittish about his teen-pop past. In recent years, both Timberlake and his "people" have discouraged the use of the word "pop" to describe him. And onstage at the Daisy, his attempts to make his demeanor more "adult" were often transparent and a little desperate. Timberlake seemed too proud of himself when he'd cup his hands and thrust his hips in imitation of rear-entry sex, utter a profanity, take a swig from a bottle of beer, or make a marijuana reference.
While playing up this supposedly transgressive content only ratifies the hesitation his doubters have about him, it's also indicative of a boyishness that, however unintentional, is still one of Timberlake's great strengths.
Part of what made Justified so charming was the way the residual sweetness of Timberlake's boy-band period cut against the sex-symbol striving of his career makeover. This was but one of many reasons the record reminded so many people of Michael Jackson's Off the Wall, another young pop star/producer collaboration that had a similar energy. And regardless of whether this dynamic will fuel Future Sex/Love Sounds, it most definitely still fuels Timberlake's live performance.
Leading an 11-piece, all African-American band somehow made Timberlake look like a kid, especially since everyone in the band seemed older than him. And though the racial contrast could have been a turnoff, it wasn't. Timberlake's boyishness came through in his call-and-response crowd request on "Senorita," the way he beat-boxed like a 13-year-old who just discovered Biz Markie, and the way he jumped up and down like a teenager in front of the bedroom mirror while lacing the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff into his own "Like I Love You."
And yet, in full-on seduction mode, Timberlake was never less than believable. Issuing the sexual threat "If that's your girl, better watch your back" on a show-closing performance of his current hit "SexyBack," Timberlake evoked the coltish come-on that opens Justified: "Gentlemen, good night. Ladies, good mornin'." Making age-appropriate sexuality seem precocious was part of the appeal that made Michael Jackson a superstar, back in the distantly remembered days before he became (or was revealed to be) a weirdo. Timberlake's combination of cuteness and carnality -- if not, of course, his perfectly acceptable voice -- isn't too far from Al Green himself.
And that isn't the only aspect of Timberlake's performance that evoked a Memphis legend: When Timberlake straps on an acoustic guitar, it seems nearly as pointless as when Elvis Presley did.
Joking aside, Timberlake's presumed plasticity also contrasts with his status as a Memphis artist, since so much of the best Memphis music tends to be defined and extolled in terms of authenticity and purity: Elvis at Sun vs. Elvis post-Sun; Stax vs. Motown; hill-country blues vs. modern bar-band blooze, etc.
Despite claims made for or by him, Timberlake's music has nothing to do with Memphis tradition. It's a disco/hip-hop/chart-pop synthesis that's rooted in his showbiz-kid training in Orlando but is otherwise placeless. That didn't stop Timberlake from the hard-sell last weekend: "I travel too much. I gotta come home more often," he said early on. More to the point, Timberlake introduced the new "Until the End of Time" with a "Let's go back to Soulsville tonight. Back to the days of Stax." The result, unsurprisingly, was a lot more Philly or late-period Motown. (Bringing Three 6 Mafia on stage for their collaboration "Chop Me Up," Timberlake seemed more comfortably Memphis.)
Fronting a full band and taking his turns behind a piano or with that acoustic guitar, Timberlake is exchanging Jackson-style pop star for Prince-style bandleader, an evolution the very Prince-like title of his upcoming album suggests. And Timberlake's show did have some of the feel of Prince's more R&B-oriented, post-Purple Rain period (Parade, Sign O' the Times).
But Timberlake's certainly no Prince -- or even D'Angelo -- as a bandleader. Planting himself at the piano for half a show denies the physicality that is part of his appeal. The guitar did lead to the one album-to-concert improvement, where Timberlake fronted a three-acoustic-guitar attack through a propulsive reading of the Justified standout "Like I Love You," stripping the Neptunes track down and pushing the song forward. I'll take Timberlake's acoustic soul over India.Arie's any day.
That exception merely underscored Timberlake's biggest problem as a live performer: translating his very studio-bound music to the stage. Timberlake has the same problem as a lot of hip-hop artists do, and for good reason: All his tracks are the creation of hip-hop producers (Timbaland, Neptunes), not of live bands. On Justified, Timbaland's "Cry Me a River" is a maelstrom -- it engulfs you. Live, in a harder, more rock-oriented, less nimble version, it merely comes at you. The Neptunes' "Rock Your Body" is a dance-floor megaton bomb. On stage at the Daisy, it sounded distressingly ordinary.
That Timberlake's great studio pop doesn't always translate to the stage shouldn't be considered an indictment of his artistry. This is a problem that his music shares with an awful lot of the best pop music. But I suspect most of the fans already resistant to him would take it that way. Real music is live music, right? Not always. Timberlake proved a viable live performer and bandleader last week. But I'm betting the record sounds even better.