On Musical Maturity—Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Start Loving Justin Timberlake


By Jen Zoratti

I have a long, complicated and completely one-sided personal relationship with Justin Timberlake.

When I was introduced to JT, it was via ’N Sync’s 1998 self-titled debut — which I made a point of making sure everyone knew I thought was the lamest album ever. You see, I was a thirteen-year-old girl at the time who, after being bullied for two years by two different but equally merciless groups of popular girls, was carving out an identity of her own.

That identity most certainly did not include boy bands. To my mind, The Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync existed to make anthems for popular girls. What they were doing didn’t feel like my music, no matter how hard I tried to shuffle along to it at junior high dances. (Although I will admit that, somewhat paradoxically, The Spice Girls really spoke to me.)

I was introduced to “my” music via a copy of Big Shiny Tunes 2, which led down a rabbit hole that pretty much defined not only my music tastes, but my whole reason for living. I started listening to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Pixies, The Breeders and Soundgarden. I eschewed the bubblegum feminism of The Spice Girls for the Riot Grrrl politics of L7, Bikini Kill, Hole and Sleater Kinney. I started dressing differently. If I wasn’t wearing a band T-shirt, it was paramount to me that my musical tastes were literally worn on my sleeve in another way, namely a pin-scarred, patch-covered corduroy messenger bag that I carried well into college. After all, it was an easy shorthand when it came to meeting potential new friends: this is the music I like, this is the culture I’m part of.

That little self-styled ’90s-loving alternagirl (which was totally my hotmail address, BTW) grew up to be a bookish, bang-wearing indie rock fan with an unquenchable thirst for discovering new music and the unique thrill of stumbling upon something awesome and desperately needing to tell everyone who would listen about it — so much so she carved out a career as a music journalist.

Which brings us back to JT. I had just started writing for Winnipeg street weekly Uptown (RIP), which I later became music editor of, when a copy of Justin Timberlake’s 2006 sophomore solo album FutureSex/LoveSounds arrived in my review package. I gave it a B (we were all about the letter grades back then) and I was acutely embarrassed about how much I liked it. No, loved it. I had a hard time reconciling the fact that I was, quite possibly, a Justin Timberlake fan.

Of course, as far as guilty pleasures go, JT’s not so guilty. He’s one hell of a performer. He’s a likable dude who easily laughs at himself (see: his now legendary SNL appearances) but, more than that, dude has a fuckton of talent. If Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, JT was the heir apparent.

With the recently released The 20/20 Experience—his first studio album since FutureSex/LoveSounds — he proves he’s also an ambitious experimentalist (I never dreamed I’d call him that). Unlike its bawdy, club-banger predecessor, the new album is lush with unexpected beats and harmonies as well as heady, hazy soundscapes that pull from old-school hip hop and ’70s soul, courtesy of an estimable backing band, The Tennessee Kids. It’s not immediately accessible, either; most songs clock in over seven minutes, which is a radical — not to mention risky — departure from the 3:30 formula favoured by most Top 40 radio stations. The hooks aren’t always obvious and producer Timbaland’s touch is lighter here; in other words, there is no Sexyback equivalent. You have to respect a guy that returns from a seven-year hiatus with his most challenging record to date.

To that end, he’s also proof positive that one can take risks and still sell records; The 20/20 Experience has had the biggest release week of 2013 so far. Which is encouraging, considering he works within a genre of music that’s maligned for being vapid and plastic. Timberlake isn’t reinventing or even abandoning pop music; he’s getting back to its roots.

He’s also embracing being a grown man. Yes, he’s favouring impeccably tailored suits and ties these days but, at 32, he knows he’s too old to compete against that other Justin and his ilk— and he knows he doesn’t have to. He’s leaving that realm of pop music to the kids and exploring a sound that’s assured, confident and yes, mature.

While we’re on the subject of maturity, I feel that, at 28, I have a more mature appreciation of music. Just as I no longer feel the need to wear band T-shirts every day to prove I’m part of something, I no longer prematurely write off an album because it isn’t “my music.” Open-mindedness has made me a better music fan — or at least a more well-rounded one; I discovered I really love hip hop, for one example, through my career. “My music” is a much broader category now.

Who knew I’d have a boy band member to thank?

One Comment

  1. Susie
    Posted May 9, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    Great column! I’ve also had a love/hate of JT and have heard cuts from the new album and sort of liked them. Good on him for getting so elastic.

    (You had me from Big Shiny Tunes … I carted a couple of those halfway across the continent.)

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti writes about music and pop culture. This column will appear monthly.