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Buckeye Nation’s basketball team has just ascended to the top of the NCAA coaches’ poll. But that’s not why, on a cold night in Columbus, Ohio, seemingly every undergrad in the city is shitfaced. It’s not just another Monday evening, just another happy hour at the Distillery over on High Street. The kegs are whirring with particular purpose tonight. FutureSex/LoveShow is in town.
Justin. Fucking. Timberlake. Here. At Ohio State.
The Benetton-like tableau of black kids, white kids, goths, sluts, outcasts, and douchebags outside the Value City Arena has been waiting for four hours in the cold to worship at Timberlake’s sneakered feet. All those little girls who first felt stone strike flint in their panties while listening to the G-rated cooing of early ’N Sync are legal now. And they’re wasted. Boobs served up on underwire platters. Hair moussed, sprayed, and lacquered. Fists wrapped around cans of Bud Light, they’re gyrating against the metal crowd barrier like it’s a stripper’s pole. Inhaling alcohol, exuding sex, they pile in on top of one another for tonight’s “in the round” performance
Later, when Timberlake’s robo-sexual call to arms—“futuresex . . . lovesound . . . futuresex . . . lovesound”—begins to quake through the speakers in quickening repetition, the earsplitting, high-pitched shrieking is expected. The thick, raspy baritone harmonizing with it is not.
Guys are howling for Timberlake with the same animal intensity as their pop-loving sisters. Frat boys in backward ball caps. Gay men in their tightest-fitting tees. White-belted hipsters with mohawks. And an aging hood rat who looks like he got lost on the way to a Van Halen show. With plastic cups of beer hoisted in the air, they bellow in unison:
As the house lights go dark, Timberlake—looking sharp in a tailored slate-gray suit, skinny black tie, and ivory tennis shoes—rises slowly from beneath the stage on a platform. Ringed by pimped-out backup singers and bathed in the red light of a rotating, million-dollar spotlight, he takes the microphone stand in one hand.
As three-story swaths of hanging curtain lift, Justin Timberlake lets out a single, high-pitched “Whoo,” and 15,000 people lose their minds.
“I’m having a moment. . . . I’m having a moment. . . . I’m having a moment.”
Sitting at attention on a leather sofa in a dressing room backstage at the Value City Arena, Justin Timberlake bites into his pre-performance peanut-butter-and-grape-jelly sandwich (there was no strawberry. Did nobody read the tour rider?). He test-drives the phrase that’s been reverberating in the media for the past year, during which time the now 26-year-old performer was the linchpin of the Grammy Awards ceremony; held his own opposite Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson in the indie movie Black Snake Moan; nurtured his fledgling clothing line, William Rast; and launched the chart-busting FutureSex/LoveSounds album (along with a much-watched video in which he tongue-wrestles Scarlett Johansson): Justin Timberlake is having a moment. He rolls the words over on his tongue, trying to find the syntax to help him understand the phrase. “I don’t know what it means. I really don’t,” he says, crunching into a Fritos Flavor Twist.
This weary-eyed pop star is more endearing than the flashy homeboy he projects to the public. In person, he’s more boyish, even with thick stubble. His voice is even reedier than you’d think, almost pubescent. He really is a kid from Tennessee who can go from mama’s boy to lova-lova man in 60 seconds flat. No wonder then, as he sits in the greenroom of this stadium, eating his PB&J, he’s not convinced of his status as the pope of pop culture.
The Timberlake caravan arrived here at 5:30 this morning from Buffalo, New York. J.T. fit in a little shut-eye, a little NPR (“This American Life” is a favorite), and a little quality time with his two boxers, Buckley and Brennan, before getting back to work.
“It’s a bitch. Way more intense than anything I’ve done before,” Timberlake says, sipping a cream soda he got from a nearby catering spread of sandwich-making materials, chips, soft drinks, and an unmarked brown liquor. On the coffee table in front of him is an assortment of antacids, aspirin, and Beano. For gas. You know, just in case.
Timberlake has been blinking in the glare of stage lights since he was 11. But he’s never done anything like this. Over the next two and a half hours, he’ll sing, pop-and-lock like a break-dancer on ’ludes, play the keytar, strum a white guitar, dry-hump some backup dancers, trade rhymes with Timbaland (a collaborator on FutureSex), and down a shot of Patrón to show solidarity with the fucked-up crowd. He will do this 21 more times over the next six weeks. Then it’s on to Europe.
Bringing sexy back is hard work.
“Last tour, we were doing four concerts a week, but I wasn’t singing as much,” he says. “The show wasn’t as long, it wasn’t as involved, and I didn’t have as much responsibility vocally.”
All the red-eyed road-tripping through middle-of-nowhere America may tucker Timberlake out and upset his tummy, but it has its advantages. The people who make a living covering his sex life have been working almost as hard as he has lately; his “tour bubble” is a relative safe haven. The end of Timberlake’s nearly four-year relationship with Cameron Diaz is still selling copies of Us Weekly and People. His handlers have been frantically applying a just friends rubber stamp to sightings of Timberlake with Jessica Biel and Scarlett Johansson. And then there’s Britney.
Five years after they broke up and their careers took opposite paths, Timberlake and Spears, our Kmart-ified version of Charles and Diana, are still shackled together in the public eye. Yesterday she shaved her head. Tomorrow she’ll go to rehab. Again. Never mind K-Fed. Everyone wants to know what Justin thinks.
Justin, predictably, has basically no comment. For someone so eager to repel the stereotype of the media-coached pop star (“All of a sudden you’re Mr. ‘SexyBack,’ and before that you were Mr. ‘Cry Me a River.’ I knew I had to take a break when they said the new King of Pop,” he says), Timberlake shuts down with astonishing, practiced speed when asked about tabloid reports. He responds to inquiries about his personal life (are those run-ins with Cameron awkward?) with an attack on the gossip magazines that scrutinize it.
“I despise what they do,” he says, leaning forward, in response to the Britney Question. There’s a flush of red in his cheeks, but he stays meticulously on-point. “They create soap operas out of people’s lives. We had our thing, and it’s over. They edit that stuff like MTV edits reality shows. It’s a spin game, and I choose not to take part in it.”
Timberlake’s skill at appearing to feel much but say little has served him well. It’s not just his voice and hips and five-o’clock shadow that have transformed the one-dimensional ex-boy-bander into a legitimate five-tool stud. He may say he doesn’t grasp the concept of “having a moment,” but he clearly knows how to stoke the flames of one. Rule No. 1: Don’t make an ass of yourself—at least not when the cameras are rolling. “I would never say anything bad about anyone,” he says, winding down. His eyes scan the floor uncomfortably. Then he issues the safe statement: “I love a lot of those people.”
A person as large as Tiny, Timberlake’s man-mountain of a bodyguard, could get away with wearing this much pink. Shirt, tie, pocket handkerchief. When he tells the assembled catering crew, security guards, and ushers watching sound check to “clear the bowl,” there is an immediate mass exodus.
Timberlake makes his way to the stage for a quick run-through with his band, working out bits of “What Goes Around . . . ,” “Damn Girl,” even Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” for an empty arena. Then he has one final bit of business: a few grip-and-grins with tour sponsors from Dell and awkward group shots with local contest winners.
“Somebody has to pay for this tour,” he says over his shoulder. He dives in—pumping flesh, posing for photos, feigning being pinched in the ass by hyperventilating fans, accepting personalized Ohio State football jerseys that will end up slung in a corner of the management office—before heading back to the greenroom.
Timberlake is not a kiss-ass. Selling more than 13 million records has earned him a lot of rope, and he knows that. He relishes battles with his label, Jive, about single-release choices (“SexyBack” was his call. The label, he says, was “scared shitless”), dictates tour demands (no more than four shows a week), and claims he generally doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks.
“I tried so hard to be an R&B artist [on his first solo album, Justified] and it was the pop album of the year, and I was like, ‘Fuck. That’s the last thing I wanted,’” Timberlake says, taking a swig from another can of cream soda. “But I was like, ‘So everyone considers me a pop artist? Well, fuck it. I’m going to do whatever I want to do.’”
But moonwalking the line between manchild and hipster mascot is tough. On one hand, Timberlake beams when he recalls a recent article in the New York Times about punk fans who unexpectedly love him. On the other, he says he resents feeling like he owes indie rockers an apology for his candy-pop past. The internal battle is most evident when he talks about this year’s Grammys. Weeks in advance of the telecast, he was asked to be the star of “My Grammy Moment,” a cheesy, American Idol rip-off bit in which the winner of a contest got to perform onstage with him. Before the idea was fleshed out, Timberlake agreed. As the potentially disastrous plan hurtled to fruition, he ached to back out. He couldn’t. “Because I’m the nice guy who follows through on the things he commits to,” he says, a mock smile locked into place. “But I don’t know if I’ll be going through that sort of thing again. I feel like the Grammys used me for ratings. And look at it—they were up 18 percent.”
Roughly five years after bubblegum pop’s Vaseline-lensed heyday, the boy “most likely to” is trash-talking the Grammys. He has survived the boy-band apocalypse and become a man.
“I could give you a bunch of analogies about why I’m still around that would sound like hippie self-help bullshit,” he says, popping a throat lozenge. “‘I saw an opportunity and I took it?’ Fuck you. Sure, there’s a lot of luck involved. But on some level I have to believe in my ability. And I’m not apologizing to anyone. I worked fucking hard to get here.” Timberlake is done chatting. In 30 minutes, he’ll have a group prayer with his backing band and dancers. Then he’ll be whisked underneath the stage to wait for the madness to begin.
Outside the dimly lit serenity of his dressing room, the gears are grinding furiously toward showtime. Opening act Pink, fresh off her 45-minute set of you-go-girl-isms, tears down the backstage hallway in a fuchsia bathrobe. “Great crowd tonight,” she yells to her handler. “I think they were all drunk.”
Nope. Sorry, Pink. They’re hammered. All in the name of J.T.
It’s the most understated song of the night, and for the purist, the set closer, “(Another Song) All Over Again”—a slow-building, “gimme one more chance, baby” weeper—is the clear highlight. No solos, no costumes, no gyrating come-ons, just “Jaaaaayyyy-Teeeeee” underlining his “moment” by trumping style with substance. This is how Timberlake made it to the other side of the ’N Sync era: with his voice. Not the falsetto Jackson-lite of his hits, but the strong, wide-ranging blue-eyed Memphis soul burning in his gut. As the closing notes of “Another Song” give way to the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” Timberlake, gray T-shirt soaked through with sweat, takes a four-corner bow with his backing band and dancers. The mass exodus of horny, happy drunks begins, everyone walking, stumbling—and, in some cases, being carried—from the arena. All except for the two frat boys who insist on staying behind to yell—again—for Timberlake to sing “Dick in a Box.” As for Timberlake, he’ll get a quick shower and a ride back to the hotel. Then a few hours of sleep before an early-morning wake-up call. As his fleet of souped-up tour buses—each furnished with a flat-screen TV, leather seats, bunks, and a nicely stocked bar—weaves through traffic, Tiny relaxes for the first time all day. His night of crowd control included, among other things, breaking up a tag-team match that involved eight women, a gay man, and lots of beer. Nothing a gentle choke hold and a few choice words couldn’t soothe. “I’ve never seen that many girls so drunk,” he says, relaxing his ample frame into the couch. “Those girls can drink.” At 1:30 in the morning, the lobby of the Westin Hotel is empty, but Timberlake’s two bodyguards head through the glass doors first just to make sure. Coast sufficiently clear, Timberlake—hoodie pulled tight over his head, hands in his pockets—emerges from the bus and slowly walks toward the elevator. At first, nobody sees the twentysomething female hidden behind a marble pillar. “Ma’am,” Tiny says curtly, shaking his head deliberately for emphasis. She tries to defend herself: “But I’m a guest of the—” “Ma’am,” Tiny repeats, more sternly this time. “Not tonight, ma’am. You can take the next one.” Timberlake, exhausted, appears not to notice the minor ruckus. And with a polite nod, he vanishes behind the gold elevator doors. Hopefully he’s got something a little more potent than cream soda waiting for him upstairs.