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.