By Jordan Sargent
Just about the last time we heard from Justin Timberlake was at the end of 2013 in GQ’s “Man of the Year” issue (as… “#Hashtag of the Year”), where he said that he felt like “a bunch of people just took a s–t on my face.” This was after Runner Runner, his film with Ben Affleck, tanked at the box office and The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2, his second album of the year, was rightly savaged by critics. America had begged Timberlake to come back, but we turned on him. The star, so used to being beloved, was spurned. Then he more or less disappeared.
Timberlake has been on tour since November 6 of last year. He took a few weeks off here and there, but otherwise he has been working maniacally. Of the past 192 days in 2014, Timberlake has played a show on 59 of them, and he has dates scheduled in every month through December. Part of this is pure capitalism, of course: every Timberlake show rakes in millions, and even his small show at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City last night was sponsored by no less than three major credit card companies (Citi/AAdvantage & MasterCard Priceless Access). But his 13-month long work schedule insulated him from a public backlash so painful that he took to the pages of GQ to tell us how much we had hurt his feelings. “None of your opinions count,” he said in GQ of the press’ vitriol. “And by the way, none of you can do it.”
Thankfully, inside the four walls of a venue, Timberlake can be everything he wants America to believe he is. For instance, on Thursday he entered the stage to a Frank Sinatra song and a man standing directly next to me turned to his friend and said “he is the Sinatra of our time,” which is a fable you only repeat after hearing it so many times that you think it must be true. But Timberlake can be the Sinatra of our time in front of his screeching fan base — I either heard him call his tuxedoed band the “Rat Pack,” or I hallucinated it. But if not, it was certainly implied.
(Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
Of course, Timberlake is not the Sinatra of our time, whatever that even means. Timberlake has become too hard of a seller lately, like he is going to convince America that he’s a legend with sheer force. His band, which numbers over a dozen, is a symptom of that. Surely, Timberlake backs himself with such numbers to fill the air of the arenas and stadiums he normally finds himself in, but it’s also a status symbol of sorts, a way to signify his importance. In practice this cacophony of sound does as much harm as anything.
There are moments when The Tennessee Kids, as Timberlake calls them, shine. “Summer Love,” usually a glistening synth-pop song, now packs a bursting punch thanks to his horn section. “TKO,” a dreadful single that is Timberlake’s worst, picks up something of a rhythm thanks to a hand-drum pattern played by one of two drummers. The band makes full use of itself on the loose and limber “Señorita” without overwhelming the song’s easy shuffle.
But as many songs were ruined, especially with the band bulging at the seams of Hammerstein, which must have felt to them like a shoebox. The FutureSex/LoveSounds title track became a suffocating, ugly rock song. Searing, showy guitar solos burst out of a number of songs — “My Love,” “What Comes Around Goes Around” — where they didn’t belong, begging the question if the need for the solos came first, or if the solos had to be inserted into some songs in order to justify Timberlake carrying multiple guitarists.
(Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
The best songs were the ones he let move naturally, like “Rock Your Body,” “Like I Love You” and “Suit & Tie.” These are singles with propulsive grooves, and Timberlake played them straight — like wedding bands probably do. The show mostly made the argument that in Timberlake’s case less is more, though his 2013 already made clear that he doesn’t quite see it that way.
His show at Hammerstein ended on its strongest note with “Mirrors,” an unjustly maligned ballad that had all the sweep of a stadium staple. The song is ostensibly about Timberlake’s wife Jessica Biel, but it’s easy to read it as an allegory for his fans: “I don’t wanna lose you now/ I’m looking right at the other half of me/ The vacancy that sat in my heart/ Is a space that you now hold.” That is never more true than now, with Timberlake retreating to the road after being lashed by criticism.
As “Mirrors” ended on Thursday night, after a loud overhead clap-along, Timberlake dropped to his knees at the lip of the stage and bowed to the crowd, giving thanks instead of receiving it.