- Justin Timberlake’s Two-Part Complementary Forms: Groove, Extension, and Maturity in Twenty-First-Century Popular Music
Throughout their short-lived but commercially lucrative career, which ran principally from “I Want You Back” in 1996 to the third and final album, 2001’s Celebrity, Justin Timberlake’s boyband NSYNC plowed a familiar late twentieth-century pop musical furrow.1 NSYNC flirted with the perceived authenticity of various black urban forms, from the balladry of groups such as Boys II Men to the swinging R&B of New Edition, while sticking closely to marketable “white” imagery all the same. This can be seen in the soft-focus, vocal-led acoustic balladry of audience-flattering songs such as “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You” (1998) and “This I Promise You” (2000), as much as it can on the more urgent and driving dance pop with echoes of New Jack Swing of “Tearin’ Up My Heart” (1997), “Bye Bye Bye” (2000), and “It’s Gonna Be Me” (2000).2 All of this music walks a fine line between, on the one hand, sexual danger and supposed credibility and, on the other, a carefully managed and canny “marketing of androgyny” similar to that discussed by Daryl Jamieson chiefly in relation to the Backstreet Boys, a group that shared early managers and an ethos with NSYNC.3
Complicating these sexual and racial codes in NSYNC’s work were various other influences, from a prevalence of propulsive, programmed sounds derived from recent Eurodance musics to more up-to-date bells and whistles from club and pop music of the time as sourced by leading [End Page 448] writers and producers such as Kristian Lundin and Max Martin at Cheiron Productions in Sweden. All of these various influences from 1980s and 1990s black and white club, R&B, and pop music were blended together, via typical backroom creative control, to produce pop surfaces of gleaming, safe hybridity. In this NSYNC managed the neat pop trick of successfully juggling complex racial and generic signifiers for commercial and creative ends that also defines many other acts, from recent boybands such as New Kids on the Block to earlier figures like Elvis Presley.4 NSYNC, then, drew on “portable blackness” in the sounds of and imagery attached to their music while hewing closely to normative whiteness at the same time, or at least to what was left of it in an era where whiteness was in some ways “becoming dislodged from the center of US life.”5
But the familiar narrative of bright-eyed boyband shilling for the pop dollar within a racially and generically complex musical environment that I’ve been laying out doesn’t tell the full story. Already with their second album, 1998’s No Strings Attached, NSYNC were both engaging in legal battles against their former manager (Lou Pearlman) and label (Sony BMG) and explicitly trying to send up their image, the cover wittily playing against the album’s title by picturing the group’s members as puppets hanging limply from strings. The prominence of group member JC Chasez as a featured writer on No Strings, in contrast to the roster of producers credited on the band’s eponymous 1997 debut, was also significant. This was matched and surpassed on the 2001 follow-up by the emergence of another member, Justin Timberlake, as key creative figure-head (though Chasez also contributed heavily to this release). Sowing seeds he’d reap on his debut solo release, 2002’s Justified, Timberlake fruitfully collaborated on Celebrity with leading contemporary dance and hip-hop producers, such as the Neptunes and Wade Robson.6 This level of authorial control was matched by a new band image and sound from top to bottom, mature, knowing, and seen to be more in control. Celebrity still featured the ballads and R&B-influenced beats from before, but the emotions were less canned and the sounds more box fresh than on previous releases, just as the pop poses of the videos and visuals could be compared to those of the band’s previous work but also seemed to operate with different goals in mind.
Trappings of early 2000s...