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Homme Arena + 2001

Multi-millionnaire  teen dream? Novel-writing R&B connoisseur? Hot, naked fashion  icon? Justin Timberlake faces up and explains why he’s got  bare & bloodied


Interview by Dimitri Erlich


Music is about something that touches the human soul, and  decidedly not about numbers. But in the case of *NSYNC, the  numbers are sufficiently staggering for the maths to say  something significant about the 5-man boy band’s capacity to  connect with teenage souls everywhere. Their self-titled  debut, released in 1998, has sold more than 10 million copies.  The group’s second album, No Strings Attached, released last  year, sold 2.4 million copies in a week; it has since sold 11  million copies. Their third effort, Celebrity, which came out  in July, sold 3.3 million copies in the first 3 weeks of  release.


What’s the band’s secret? And for those of us over the age of  14, what distinguishes them from the current crop of other  bright-faced boy bands?


One of their not-so-secret weapons is Justin Timberlake.  Although he’s only a fifth of *NSYNC, he’s taken a particular  interest in reshaping the band’s sound, making their music  dirtier and grittier – and consequently, more contemporary –  than that of their rivals. He co-wrote 7 songs on their new  album, and collaborated with ultra-hot production duo the  Neptunes, on Girlfriend, a sparse, body-rocking track that  mixes bubble-gum pop with cutting edge hip-hop beats.


Like Elvis, Timberlake was born in Memphis and – also like the  King – he’s a white kid with great pipes and an equally strong  instinct for making black music accessible to the masses. His  inspiration is Michael Jackson, and in many ways, Celebrity is  the album Jackson should have made by now. With its stuttering  beats and aggressive on-point harmonizing, it nobly upholds  the tradition of Jacko’s Thriller-era best: high energy dance  pop driven by lyrics that express the particular yearning of  being a teen with riveting intensity.


Timberlake should know those adolescent yearnings pretty well  since, until last year, he was still a teenager himself.  Encouraged from an early age to take voice lessons by his  mother (who is now his manager), he made the rounds of US TV’s  amateur talent show Star Search and, aged 12, won a spot on  the Mickey Mouse Club. It was there that he had his first kiss  with Britney Spears (it was hers too). Eight years later, the  2 are America’s hottest star couple, having sold 40 million  albums between them.


As Timberlake grows up, he’s also hoping to survive the  impending bust of the teen boy band phenomenon, by  diversifying into acting and writing (he’s working on a  mystery novel in his spare time). According to those who know  him well, he’s always been bigger than this teen pop trend,  even if pop has made him astonishingly wealthy. Renee Earnest,  who now works as part of *NSYNC’s management team, first met  Timberlake when she was a grade school teacher. “Justin was  involved in my gifted students program at EE Jester school in  Millington, TN”, Earnest says. “He was 12 when I first met  him. He has been away from the beginning of the year with the  MMC, and I’d heard that he was kind of pompous and he was a  star, but he was wonderful. He was Mr. Jeeter in 8th grade, he  was the homecoming king, he was everything.” According to  Earnest, Timberlake’s success is no accident. “Justin observes  the mannerisms of everything in life.” She says “He’s very  quiet. He gets the reputation of being snobby or elitist, but  it isn’t that – it’s that he’s very shy. And he’s extremely  competitive. If he can’t win, or figure out how to win, he’s  not gonna play. It’s not a negative thing at all; it’s just  that he likes to conquer things in life.”


I spoke with the pop gladiator in Washington, DC where he was  doing a sound check for another night on *NSYNC’s 44-city  PopOdyssey tour. The moment our conversation ended, he hopped  onstage and brought in $2.5 million for 105 minutes of work.


Dimitri Ehrlich: In the 6 years since you joined *NSYNC,  you’ve missed out on a lot of everyday life. Do you regret it?  And how do you retain a sense of normality?


Justin Timberlake: Perspective is the first work that comes to  mind. What I know as normal, is not what someone else knows as  normal. But I don’t really feel like I’ve missed out. For me,  this is like a calling. So many times I hear the word “talent”  when someone describes us or me, but I don’t feel like it’s  talent I’ve developed so much as something God has given me.  And when you have a calling like that, you’re born to do it.


DE: The darkest side of your success must be all the security  you need to have. You’re a stylish kid, but you can’t go to  the mall without a security guard. Does that freak you out?


JT: That’s the only part that bothers me, that I do have to  take precautions. Sometimes you just wanna go to the movies. I  mean hell, I’m only 20 years old. But I’m not complaining,  obviously. It’s something you get used to. My perspective of  normalcy is way different to someone else’s.


DE: There’s a tension between wanting to provide for your fans  and wanting some kind of normal life. How do you deal with it?


JT: It’s tricky, I can’t lie. Sometimes I get lonely. I get  depressed on the road because you feel like the whole you –  mentally, physically and emotionally has been spent in front  of everyone. You feel like you have nothing left for yourself.  I have this theory that when you lose it all, that’s when you  can start again. So when I feel I’ve lost my spirit, I sit  down and close my eyes and do some meditation. That’s when  everything starts to flow back into me. It’s cool to know that  you can bring yourself back to your full life.


DE: I understand you sometimes get verbal abuse from teenage  boys. Why do you think they do that?


JT: Insecurity, I guess. I don’t get it so much anymore. When  we first came out, we got some verbal abuse, but it was just  because that’s how young American kids fight back from  insecurity. I think the group has been accepted into the male  audience more now. For some reason we’re starting to bridge  the generation gap too, from younger to older kids to adults.  And we’re starting to see ourselves on BET (Black  Entertainment Television).


DE: Yeah, I noticed an article in Vibe about how *NSYNC is  appealing to African-American audiences more and more these  days.


JT: We’re starting to bridge the cultural gaps and that’s a  cool place to be, because we’re just doing what we do. There’s  no big analysis. We just do what’s comfortable.


DE: What are your personal priorities these days and how have  they shifted over the years?


JT: I think that just growing up, your priorities change. Mine  have drastically changed this year. My family and the people I  love have become a big priority. You kind of take them for  granted until you can’t see them because of your career. I  don’t care what anyone says – you can have all these riches,  and I’m happy with myself, but to have someone to share it  with, you can’t beat that.


DE: I assume that your career gets in the way of spending time  with Britney, right?


JT: Yeah, but if anybody understands anything I’m going  through, it’s her. And she knows that I can understand  anything she’s going through because I’m on that end of the  spectrum with her. Some people think the schedules make it  harder for us, but in a lot of ways, mentally and emotionally,  our careers make it easier, because we understand eachother.  I’ve dated people who are not in the business before, and they  just did not understand my life. On top of that, I think I’ve  scored with her being just a wonderful person. I don’t know  anyone in this world who has as big a heart as she does.  That’s the greatest thing about her. Even when she doesn’t  understand, she understands that she doesn’t understand,  because she has such a big heart.


DE: Are you worried about having a distinctive public image  outside of *NSYNC?


JT: I don’t think any of us look at it that way. We don’t even  look at ourselves as *NSYNC; I think of them as each being  their own person. So establishing myself as an individual is  not a priority – it’s just something everyone’s gonna do,  because everyone is an individual. But all 5 of us are  friends. And that makes a big damn difference. There have been  record companies that have put groups together and they don’t  work out; but we practically live together. If you’re not  friends, it’s gonna show. We’ve had problems, but there’s  never been a problem we couldn’t work out because we have that  friendship. Even if we stopped selling records tomorrow, we’d  still be friends.


DE: What makes you different, in terms of the creative  process, from the other 4 guys?


JT: I don’t know that there is a distinct role. We all take  turns, but it’s a very unconscious and involuntary type of  process. We kinda feed off each other. Everybody has a million  ideas and we just kinda go. It’s a great process.


DE: Do you trust yourself?


JT: Most definitely. Ever since I was a kid, I always knew who  I was and I knew what I felt. So many times you hear adults  telling their children, “you should think before you act.” But  I think you should act first, because otherwise your  insecurities start to come in. People don’t realize the power  of their minds – it can push you in either a positive or  negative direction. Animals work out of pure instinct and  that’s a beautiful thing. I’ve started living my life more  like that because people say one thing and do other things.  Words to me have become the most useless form of  communication. When my mind, heart and soul link up, and I  don’t have to think about what I’m doing and that’s when I  really trust myself. People in the entertainment business are  full of BS and they talk a lot of crap. The great ones are the  ones that walk the walk.


DE: What is your agenda, assuming it isn’t just to sell tons  of albums?


JT: I don’t think I have an agenda. It’s good to set goals,  but we’re here to experience. People can tell you all kinds of  things, but it’s only when you experience something that you  can make a decision about how you feel about it. I’ve always  understood how I related to everything in the world. The days  go by and sometimes I don’t feel as good about myself as other  days. But I look at life like an album full of songs; if you  push play and you let it run, in some songs, you really like  the beat. Everything has a rhythm to it. But that doesn’t mean  the beat will last forever. With some songs, you don’t enjoy  the beat; but after 4 and 1/2 minutes, you’ll be on to the  next song. Some days you wake up and your rhythm is on. Some  days it’s sketchy; but every day you wake up. Maybe that’s the  agenda: to find your rhythm everyday.


DE: What is your take on the last few years of *NSYNC’s  career?


JT: Chaos. That’s why we chose a title like Celebrity for this  new album: that’s not how we look at ourselves, but we know  that’s how a lot of people see us, because they don’t get to  meet us. That’s why the album sleeve is all glitzy on the  outside, whereas inside it’s us in very natural settings, in  black and white, shot in documentary style. It’s me drinking a  cup of coffee just waking up. That’s how we look at our lives.  If we weren’t *NSYNC, we’d still be who we are.


DE: The photos for this story are edgier than anything you’ve  done in the past. Why did you want to do them?


JT: When the photo shoot first came up, Steven Klein said,  “When I do these shoots, I like the subjects to play a role.”  He explained the scenarios and I was down for it. I know the  pictures he takes are like pieces of art in themselves, and  that’s where you kind of have to trust who you’re working  with. I trusted him the whole time. And he made it really  comfortable for me. I’m obviously a bit more naked in these  photos than I have been in the past, but it’s what it is. For  me it’s like a still in film.


DE: I saw you in an ad supporting gun control and I thought  that was great because you’re from the Bible belt, which tends  to have more conservative views. Does the stance you’ve taken  alienate the people you grew up with?


JT: I grew up in a very southern family, and basically the  constitution was my stance on gun control – the right to bear  arms and all that. But times are different now. The  constitution was written a long time ago, and things are  always gonna change; it was meant for people to adapt and  things evolve. It’s one thing to have a musket 200 years ago,  to shoot bears and get food to eat, but it’s another thing to  be 17 today walking around with an AK-47.


DE: Do you have trouble sleeping?


JT: Insomnia comes, but I just embrace it. I roll with it  because you never know – that could be when the next hit song  comes up. Everything in my life, I never shielded myself from  it. I’ve just embraced it. It’s like meditation: the more you  know about your mind, the easier it is to deal with.


DE: You once said you think women have older souls than men in  general. What are your relationships with women like – your  mother, or Britney, for example?


JT: Very open. My mom is my best friend and there’s nothing I  haven’t done or that I’m gonna do that my mom doesn’t know  about. I feel like women have lived more lives because look at  how much more responsibility is put on a woman than a man.  Each one of us has been raised by a woman. Look in a mirror: I  guarantee you’ve been raised by a woman. Their connection to  others is instinctive because of giving birth. It’s a process  they go through that we don’t. That’s why you don’t see girls  in elementary school burping and farting, like boys do. They  have an understanding of themselves that men don’t have. The  problem is that women also have insecurities that men don’t  have. Mars lets its mind get in the way of its heart. Venus  sometimes lets its heart get in the way of its mind. Guys in  general won’t say what they really feel for a woman because  their mind gets in the way. And a lot of times, women get so  emotional that they don’t know what’s logical. But everybody’s  got issues. Some people just handle it better than others.  Some women handle logic better than men, and some men handle  their emotions better than women.


DE: Pop, the first single from your new album, was co-written  by you, and is a rallying cry in defence of pop music. It’s  also a way for you to defend your own musical longevity and  legitimacy. What made you write lines such as “the thing you  got to realize, what we’re doin is not a trend/we got the gift  of melody, we’re gonna bring it to the end”?


JT: I think I was testifying for anyone who does what people  consider bubble-gum pop – not just us. But Christina, Britney,  Backstreet, anybody. First of all, it wasn’t meant to be so  serious, but everyone took those lyrics to heart. Like, I was  flipping through Entertainment Weekly and they quoted the  song. I was like, “Wow, I didn’t know it would have such an  effect on people.” But damn it, the music is fun, so get over  it. When we do that song, I’ve never seen people dance so hard  in a stadium! They enjoy it. That’s the point.


DE: The song failed to crack the Top Ten initially because  some stations were reportedly scared off by the more  aggressive sound you’d gone for. How did that response make  you feel?


JT: We knew that was gonna happen. But let’s go back to the  beginning of the summer. Let’s think. Let’s analyze this.  We’ve had Bye Bye Bye (a single from *NSYNC’s previous album),  which reached about 97% of American in terms of radio and  sales. That’s a whole lot of people. At the point we’re at in  our careers, it was like, where do we want to go? We can’t do  Bye Bye Bye II. That’s played. That would be like the Rolling  Stones doing “Satisfaction” again. They didn’t just do it  again. There was a point when the Beatles stopped doing “A  Hard Day’s Night” and went into something else. For us it was  like, “Look, if people don’t like the song itself, they’ll  appreciate that we did something original.” For us, this was a  growth record. You have to switch it up every time you go out.  That’s what makes you an artist: the fact that you make  something different every time. Maybe this is our puberty  record.


DE: Where do your songs come from?


JT: Songs can come from any place. Sometimes they’re a  concept, like Celebrity. But Gone, the ballad on our new  album, started off as just a guitar riff and a melody and it  became this sad thing, so I wanted to make the concept sad to  go with the very dark melody. When I start to get an idea for  a song, I hear the whole thing before I hear the steps to  getting there, and in the meantime it’s about being patient.  There is such a thing as messing up a great song. Sometimes I  hear demos and the final song doesn’t turn out as good. The  main thing is patience. And it can’t always come to you the  way it came before. Like, we have a ballad called Something  Like You that Stevie Wonder played on – I just started playing  piano and humming a melody, and it just started growing off my  tongue. A lot of my experience as a songwriter comes from  writing with Wade Robson, our choreographer. He’s like the  other half of me as far as creativity goes. We just really  click. I went to him with these ideas and we turned them into  real-life specimens. The coolest thing about songwriting is to  know it started with this little guitar riff, and the next  thing you know it’s being played on the radio.


DE: Since you have so much, what do you pray for?


JT: Peace of mind.

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