At the Butcher Shop, a steakhouse in downtown Memphis, a banquet-size table is crowded with people who are all somehow associated with Justin Timberlake: his mother and stepfather, Lynn and Paul Harless (who co-manage his career), his best friend’s girlfriend, his publicist, some family friends, business associates, me. We pass our time laughing and drinking wine and eating filet mignon and twice-baked potatoes, but we’re really just waiting for Timberlake. It’s early October, and he is on his way home to film a prime-time concert for NBC, scheduled to air the day after Thanksgiving. He won’t arrive in Memphis until later tonight, when he flies in on a private plane from Detroit. Arrangements are made for a car to pick him up at the airport, but Timberlake calls more than once to see if his parents are willing to come get him. “He sounds cranky,” says Lynn, more with affection than annoyance, after chatting with her son on her cell.
Timberlake’s name doesn’t come up again at the dinner table until Lynn notices my tattoos and starts telling me about getting her own ink backstage at one of her son’s shows. Paul is reminded of how Timberlake persuaded them to let him pierce his ear when he was thirteen. All of his friends had done it, and Justin was begging to get his pierced, too. So Paul came up with a way to make him earn the privilege. “I told him, ‘You have to write a song and sing it at a family gathering,'” he says, beaming with fatherly pride. Paul even drew up a little contract, to show his resolve. Timberlake went to his room and wrote “The Earring Song” — a little ditty that stole its tune from Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” He sang it for his parents on the beach during a Hawaiian vacation, and as soon as they got back to Memphis, he went to the mall and got his earring put in.
When I finally lay eyes on Timberlake the following afternoon, he is a moving target. He is shooting background material for the TV special, and for hours he zips from location to location — Sun Studio, a Beale Street blues club, an old-school general store in the sticks, his parents’ house — in an iridescent-blue Jeep, trailed closely by a police escort. Really, it’s just another busy day in what has been a relentlessly busy year for the twenty-two-year-old Timberlake. He has been hustling almost nonstop during the eleven months since his solo debut, Justified, was released; his only break was a two-week trip to Hawaii in September that he says was marred by the constant assault of paparazzi stalking him and his girlfriend, Cameron Diaz. But the work paid off: Justified has sold more than 3 million copies, surpassing even his own expectations. In October, his performance as host of Saturday Night Live, where he dressed in drag as Jessica Simpson, did a note-perfect impersonation of his pal Ashton Kutcher and donned an omelet costume to play a pitchman, was so unexpectedly funny that he’s fielding offers for feature-film roles. He spent the summer touring Europe and the U.S. on a blockbuster double bill with Christina Aguilera. In August, he won three MTV Video Music Awards, and then won three more at the European version of the VMAs a few weeks ago.
His position as the biggest pop star of 2003 is not uncontested — 50 Cent sold more albums and Clay Aiken generated more cultish hysteria — but Timberlake was the man of the year for a more substantive reason: This was his time to prove he’s not just a boy-band star, not just Britney Spears’ ex-boyfriend or Cameron Diaz’s current boyfriend, not just a hunky white boy emulating Michael Jackson. During the tour with Aguilera, he played late-night aftershows at small venues, just him and his band — no glitzy props or choreography, just a good old-fashioned rock show. Instead of running with bubblegum pop stars, he hangs out with the Neptunes, John Mayer, Black Eyed Peas, Coldplay’s Chris Martin and even the Strokes. Somewhere along the way, Timberlake attained the one thing most pop stars don’t, and the one thing he wanted more than anything else: credibility.
“It’s a liberating thing to walk out onstage and see people your age and up,” he says when we sit down alone together over beers two weeks later in New York. “And they’re not screaming just because you’re standing there, they’re screaming because you did something to impress them. They don’t put your poster on their wall — they just like your record.” Timberlake is dressed, casually, in what is either a vintage T-shirt or a very good facsimile thereof, a brown polyester Pony sweat jacket, jeans and sneakers. His newly shorn hair is barely an inch long, and he has grown a bit of a goatee since I saw him in Memphis.
“I know people have an image of me in their head, but I want them to be able to see past that,” he says. “I want them to see the musicality of what I’m doing. There’s a portion of people who enjoy what I do. And it’s been proven. There’s a weight lifted off my shoulders. I don’t have to worry about that part anymore.”
Lynn Harless says that Timberlake’s success this year has come as a welcome surprise. “At the VMAs, when he won the award [for Best Male Video] and Eminem and 50 Cent stood up to applaud, that left such an impression on him,” she says. “That was respect from a part of the industry that had dogged the boy-band thing. Not that he’s ever been lacking in confidence — because the child would argue with God — but I think it’s made him feel more confident.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Timberlake this year. When I ask whether he would change anything that happened in 2003, he laughs and says, “The SARS concert in Toronto. That was really tough for me to go through.” It was a rude awakening for a guy who was feeling pretty on top of the world. At the summer benefit concert, Timberlake was the odd pop star on a bill headlined by the Rolling Stones and also featuring AC/DC, the Guess Who and Rush. During his three-song set, an audience full of angry Canadians pelted him with water bottles. “It messed with my head for a good two weeks,” he says. “But I saw it coming. I woke up that morning, and I said, ‘I think these people who are coming to the show are just really going to hate me.’ But when Mick Jagger asks you to come do a benefit concert, do you say no? And then he says, ‘I want you to do “Miss You” with me, as well.’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? I might actually spontaneously combust if I get to grace the same stage with you. I might actually shoot a wad into the crowd.'”