Just fine on his own

July 18, 2003



Granted, this may not be saying much, but Justin Timberlake was always the most talented member of any of the much-vaunted boy bands, as well as the coolest.

It's hard to imagine any of the 22-year-old singer's peers in 'N Sync or the rival Backstreet Boys launching a credible dance-pop solo career, chronicling a turbulent split with girlfriend Britney Spears on "Justified" via well-crafted tracks with producers the Neptunes and Timbaland, much less recording on the side with the red-hot hip-hop band the Black Eyed Peas or jamming on the BBC's "Top of the Pops" with the Flaming Lips.


*7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont
*7:30 p.m. Wednesday, United Center, 1901 W. Madison
*Tickets, $39.50-$75
*(312) 559-1212

Just as Mark Wahlberg valiantly fought to shake off his early incarnation as kiddie-popster Marky Mark, Timberlake is trying so hard to forge a new identity for himself (with his music as well as with a new gig as a commentator for the Turner Sports network) that you have to give him a measure of grudging respect.

Advance reviews of his current tour--which finds him fronting a funky 12-piece band and co-headlining with Christina Aguilera--seem to agree that Timberlake may well succeed in reinventing himself. (If he doesn't, don't be surprised to find him hosting a VH1 nostalgia show about "the best of the boy bands" a few years down the line.)

The artist's label, Jive Records, initially offered the Sun-Times an interview as part of one of their notorious roundtable teleconferences. When I declined, Timberlake agreed to an exclusive one-on-one chat by phone shortly after the start of his European tour in May.

Q. Hi, Justin. You just finished one of those strange teleconferences talking to 30 journalists at once, right?

A. Actually, it was 80! It's so funny, because everybody gets one question, and a certain amount of time is allotted. It's really tough to do. I know it's tough for you guys to do, and it's a pain in the ass for me as well. I feel like as soon as I got to answer a question from one person, and they were able to move on to something that might make a complete thought, I had to go on to the next thing. And I didn't really realize that they were putting the journalists on mute right away.

Q. Well, that's what's annoying about it--you can't ask a followup question. I did one of those interviews once with an old friend of yours, Britney Spears, and someone asked her why she'd chosen Las Vegas as the site of her HBO special. She said she loved Vegas because that's where Elvis was born.

A. [Laughs heartily]

Q. She was also asked why she covered "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," and she said she'd always been a huge Pat Benatar fan. If the journalists weren't on mute and they could have asked a followup question, we could have found out if Britney knew that Elvis was actually born in Tupelo, Miss., and that it was Joan Jett, not Pat Benatar, who popularized "I Love Rock 'n' Roll."

A. Well, I think her answers were revealing!

Q. Fair enough. Other than that, I won't mention Britney again. I could care less.

A. I could care less, too!

Q. You're a Southern boy like Elvis. I've been reading a new biography of

his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, and it's striking how little control Presley had of his own career. I've always wanted to ask you: How much control do you really have over what you're able to do artistically? It seems as if you have a lot more now than you had with 'N Sync. I mean, you're recording with the Black Eyed Peas, you're popping up onstage with the Flaming Lips ...

A. Honestly, I don't think I have control issues; I just do what I enjoy doing. Like that thing with the Flaming Lips: Wayne from the Lips approached me and said, "Hey, do you wanna come play bass with us?" And I was like, "Sure!" I sat there that night and I actually learned the bass part. Or rather, there wasn't a bass part in the song, so I wrote one. It was a simple thing to do. But I don't think I have control issues.

There's always so much emphasis on how much control artists have. Even with these new artists who've come up, like Avril Lavigne--I don't want to seem like I'm talking about people, but from what I've seen, it's like, "Well, is this real?" There's always that question. But all I can do is just do what I do, and people can judge it any way that they want.

It was so funny to me because on one hand, when I read the reviews of "Justified," they were like, "Wow, the Neptunes have never sounded like this. Timbaland has never sounded like this." Then, when the actual statements come forward when they want to review what Justin Timberlake's record was about, it's, "Well, he had the Neptunes and he had Timbaland pulling all the strings." Aren't these the same people who just said that these producers never sounded this good, or they never sounded like this before? I went through this whole thing of, like, "Well, didn't I have something to do with that? Doesn't me contributing the lyrics and the melodies have something to do with that?"

Finally, I was just like, "Screw it! People can say whatever they want to say." I don't make these records for the critics. I make them for people who want to listen to them, and I make them for myself.

Q. I think that part of that criticism comes from how big a production 'N Sync's shows always were. In interviews, you'd always stress, "We can sing! We can do it a cappella! We're real; we're talented!" But then when I'd see you in concert, you'd be flying over the arena on a guide wire and dodging the fireworks. What did any of that have to do with singing and making music?

A. I see what you're saying. I think that because of what we were up against, because of what was going on around us, we felt like people were pointing their fingers at us and thinking we were the same thing--just show biz. I'm not going to go into mentioning names [laughs heartily--read: "the Backstreet Boys"], but s---, I was 17, you know? I got defensive! I was like, "Wait, hold on, I can sing!" But at the end of the day, I really don't care if people don't think I can sing. I enjoy doing what I enjoy doing. You know, half of the world didn't think Bob Dylan could sing, but look at what he's done with his music.

Q. Yes, but Bob Dylan never flew over the arena on a guide wire.

A. This is true! But you know, if we're gonna talk about what I'm gonna do this summer, don't hold me to what 'N Sync has done. We realized that kids were coming to see that show, and we wanted to entertain those kids. I think the crowd that's gonna come and see this show is kind of like the club crowd. It's somewhere between those teenagers who snuck into the club and 21 and up.

I had no expectations of what the crowd was gonna be, but I was really anxious to see what the demographic was gonna be. I've noticed here in the U.K.--and they're the most brutal market I think I've ever seen; your song is No. 1 one week and the next it's No. 52--what I've noticed is that the primary age range is, like, 23 to 27. And it's usually couples. It's like a gaggle of girlfriends, or I saw four or five guys that came together, and they were my age. I think when the crowd's like that, it changes the whole vibe of the show. It changes the aesthetic, because you're in the company of people your age.

Q. Here's the dilemma that artists in your position have always faced: How do you grow old gracefully in rock 'n' roll when it's a music that's about not doing anything gracefully? Michael Jackson, one of your heroes, was able to do it. But you can count the exceptions on one hand.

A. Of course. But as far as building a career, I think it always has to change. I think that's the beauty of music and artistry. I know I will never make another record like I just did. Whatever the next record is, it will be completely different in my eyes. There may be similarities, because obviously it's the same voice you're hearing. It's the same songwriter you're following. But I think it's all about the ability to change, to really evolve. You have to seek that ability, you have to find it somewhere, you have to say, "Where do I want to go from here?"

Q. It takes courage to change. I imagine there were a lot of people around you who wanted you to keep doing exactly what 'N Sync did. It takes intestinal fortitude to do something different.

A. I like the way you said that--intestinal fortitude! [Laughs] Really, it takes some balls. But at the end of the day, you have to say, "Am I really proud of what I'm doing?" And that's what I had to say with this record. When I made the conscious decision to step forward and really do this record, I was like, "I want to look back five or 10 years from now and say, 'Wow, I did that!'" and really be proud of it. I want to make something that just feels right right now. I want to make something that may take people a second to get into.

I think some of the songs on the record, especially "Like I Love You," I don't think it's a first-listen song. You have to spend some time with it. It gets your head going because that beat is there, but still, the melody is a little off the wall. It's a little left of what you're used to hearing, especially from what you would perceive as a Justin Timberlake song. That's why I thought it was the perfect single.

I could have come out with "Senorita" first, and I think that's probably going to be the next single. Now, I could be wrong, but I think it's a home run, especially for the summertime. I could have come out with that first, but I was like, "Why do you want to go with what's safe? Why do you want to ride a roller coaster you've already ridden?" I want to ride something new. I want to move on to something different.

"Like I Love You" wasn't a No. 1 single, but it had the purpose of showing people, "Hey, this is a bird of a different feather." I think it's more or less about saying, "Who do I want to be right now? Where do I want to go?" That's what I'm trying to do.