I Hated Timberlake, Too. Then I Heard the Record

My judgment, I soon discovered, was markedly premature.

Several months ago, my wife came home from work, beaming. Her assistant had burned her Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds, which she immediately slipped into the stereo, cranking up the volume. "If ah wrote choo a love note," Justy whimpered to a throbbing synth. I groaned.

As someone whose record collection is heavy with records by Blue Cheer, Pharoah Sanders, the Grateful Dead, and Neil Young, I find pop music such as Timberlake's a little too metropolitan for my tastes. My wife, on the other hand, couldn't get enough. She put it on every morning before work and every evening when she came home. She listened to it in the car and blasted it when we'd stumble across his songs on 92.5 FM while driving home from shows late at night. I'd shake my head and wish the classic-rock station (102.5 FM) weren't so far up the dial.

I won't listen to something I run the risk of hearing at QFC. My wife is simply much more confident in her musical taste—she has no trouble enjoying Timberlake alongside weirdo acts like Gang Gang Dance—whereas I'm pessimistic and jaded. But my judgment of Timberlake, I soon discovered, was markedly premature.

Slowly, usually when drunk, I found myself singing along. "If ah wrote choo a symphawneee," I'd whine, aping his falsetto. If my wife had a rough day at work, I'd throw Timberlake on the stereo under the pretense of trying to cheer her up. But secretly, I wanted to listen to it myself.

I wasn't the only one. I was aware that music critics had been drooling all over JT's Timbaland-produced masterpiece. I was also aware that my own inner critic has a knee-jerk distaste for artists who "sell to girls," as The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones puts it.

I was aware of critics using Timberlake as the line in the sand between what is "real" and "false" in pop music. But Timberlake's legitimacy wasn't what was troubling me. What nagged me was the critical question: Why the hell do I like this? This was a goddamn dance record, and I hate dancing. Am I gay?

At a bar one night, my wife and a male friend of ours got to talking about what they'd been listening to. They admitted to digging Beyoncé, Pussycat Dolls, Shakira, and, of course, Timberlake. For them, it was cathartic. They talked about how this sort of pop music made them feel in touch with their inner 13-year-old girl.

I thought about my own inner 13-year-old. Then, I was on the cusp of discarding my C&C Music Factory tapes, buying Nirvana's Nevermind and Metallica's Black Album, all while discovering my parents' vinyl collection, which tended toward Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and the like. So my inner 13-year-old offered no excuse for liking Timberlake.

A few weeks later, this same male friend and I were walking downtown. Somehow, we got to talking about Timberlake. I finally told him: I have no idea why I like Justin Timberlake, but I do.

"You know, I think most of that stuff speaks to teenage girls in shopping malls," he replied. "But Justin Timberlake...I always think of people snorting coke in a club bathroom."

Good point. Unlike Prince or Madonna, who aspire to high art, Timberlake's music is just catchy, awkwardly hubristic, and kind of goofy. The few times he tries his hand at being tough or thuggy, it comes off as awfully forced, as though Michael Jackson were being held up at gunpoint.

Doesn't matter; I still like him—and I guess I don't care that I don't know why.


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