Young men fumbling to grasp the power of their hormones usually look to the brawny lead singers of hard rock bands to learn machismo and sexual confidence. Unfortunately, these same impressionable teens simultaneously lap up the music's misogyny, and so they only develop into self-pitying sexist pigs with an overactive interest in power chords.
But if you're a 15-year-old boy clueless in the art of love, there's hope for you: Justin Timberlake. Don't roll your eyes sure, he dances in his videos and hits high notes. But as a male role model, he's cooler than Brandon Flowers of the Killers, and less of a drama queen than Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance. So many pop commodities today are either aggressively masculine or harmlessly neutered. Timberlake stands out by being suave, bitter, sensitive, sly, funny, and playful. He may work in a highly formulaic musical style, but he manages to exude a discernible, sexually healthy personality. He gets the girl without acting like a jerk or a pimp.
The first hints of the J.T. persona peeked through on Justified, his 2002 solo debut. It's easy to forget now, but Timberlake's post-*NSYNC stardom was far from assured back then. (Boy bands were done, and he and his girl, the megapopular Britney Spears, had recently split up.) But helped by some of the best beats the Neptunes (and Miami producer Scott Storch) ever devised, Timberlake negotiated one of the freshest break-up records in recent pop history. Justified was filled with a swagger, but the album's centerpiece was the despondent, Storch-produced "Cry Me a River," the sort of tart kiss-off that you know belies the singer's underlying sadness. Michael Jackson's showmanship was an obvious inspiration for Timberlake's craft, but Prince's fascination with women in their many forms not just as lovers, but also as mothers, friends and soul mates seemed to have rubbed off on him, too.
While the key word in the title to his followup, the Timbaland-produced FutureSex/LoveSounds, is undoubtedly sex, Timberlake's attitude toward carnality remains more nuanced than his contemporaries'. "SexyBack" inspired a lot of snarky comments about his boast to bring sexy back, but in a year when other popular white artists complained about their feelings or tried to channel Springsteen, Timberlake came across as debonair, like the one guy at the junior high dance comfortable enough to talk to the girls.
Charming but rugged, dashing but horny. You don't need to have his moves or his voice (or even his producers) to appreciate how he makes most other men in the pop firmament look like boys. Tim Grierson
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