Hindsight is 20/20.
Justin Timberlake had every reason to think his good favor would never run out. Throughout the first few months of 2013, his surprise return to music was an unqualified success. From the very first video teaser onward, he was greeted as pop music’s lord and savior coming to reclaim his throne. Sure, “Suit & Tie” took its critical knocks, including from us, but a JT/Jay Z duet is a surefire radio killer, and the song stormed the Billboard 100 and became inescapable for the rest of the winter. (He got an iconic video out of it too.) Second single “Mirrors” was a progressive pop masterpiece (albeit a preposterously narcissistic masterpiece), and it became just as inescapable. Timberlake was all over TV, turning the Grammys sepiatone with his Tennessee Kids, pulling host/musical guest double duty on SNL, and posting up at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon for a full week. At the end of that week, he wowed a room full of industry people at SXSW, where his intimate “surprise” show was the hottest ticket by far. And when The 20/20 Experience finally dropped the following week, it was a marvelous display of pop-soul virtuosity, moving our own Tom Breihan to conclude: “Justin Timberlake knows what he’s doing.”
Not everyone fell for 20/20. The main critique was that both the album and its component parts dragged on to the point of tedium. Others bemoaned a traditionalist move from an artist whose previous LP had pioneered new ground for pop. But reviews were generally, rightfully positive, and the record moved just short of a million copies in its first week, notching the year’s largest sales debut on the way to becoming 2013’s best-selling album by far. At that point, between serenading the Obamas and prepping for a can’t-miss summer stadium tour with Jay Z, Timberlake couldn’t lose.
That’s when things started to go wrong. First came the rumblings that LiveNation attached Jay Z to Timberlake’s tour plans because the company was antsy about JT’s ability to sell out stadiums. Then, when Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” became the song of the summer by injecting a little adrenaline into Timberlake’s spaced-out blue-eyed soul, people started tossing unflattering comparisons Timberlake’s way, especially when YouTube arbitrarily allowed the nudity in Timberlake’s “Tunnel Vision” video on the basis of artistic merit but banned similar skin-baring in “Blurred Lines.” While anointing Thicke white soul’s new standard-bearer, The New York Times blamed a “newly mature, and newly dull” Timberlake for making conservatism cool, fostering a landscape to which (gulp) Miley Cyrus was a necessary corrective. Meanwhile, Runner Runner, his movie with the also-triumphant Ben Affleck, scored a 9 percent approval rating among critics and faceplanted at the box office.
Timberlake also caught wrongheaded flack from certain quarters for clumsily appropriating lyrics from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in Jay Z’s pompous “Holy Grail.” Of course, borrowing Nirvana lyrics for a (gasp!) pop song is nothing compared to jacking the name of a prominent anti-rape organization for your sexy disco single or performing that single for a Target commercial at a legendary venue that was just shuttered due to creeping corporate influence in the neighborhood. What’s a sacred cow to the most powerful man in music?
It didn’t help that all the while Timberlake was teasing a second installment of The 20/20 Experience, an album that had already tested listeners’ patience with one volume. It helped even less that the second 20/20 was a dud. Promoting his second album of 2013 also meant Timberlake kept saturating the airwaves: rocking the BET Awards, spending another full week on Fallon, taking over a full episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Most notoriously, Timberlake commandeered a 20-minute stretch of the VMA broadcast with an endlessly indulgent career-spanning medley, highlighted by an ever-so-brief *NSYNC reunion.
Dude was everywhere. And to a certain extent, he had to be everywhere. That’s the nature of the hype beast. The 2013 music industry demands a wall-to-wall media swarm lest your multi-million dollar campaign be drowned out by somebody else’s multi-million dollar campaign. But Timberlake pushed this wisdom beyond smart business strategy into the realm of greed — not one but two extra-long albums full of extra-long songs, strongarmed into the public consciousness by twin media blitzes. And, oh yeah, let’s talk about that VMA medley some more: It was really long, huh? Everywhere you looked, there was JT, impossibly suave and talented and quite possibly on autopilot. Timberlake was shoved down our throats so much that it’s no wonder some of us choked. As double-edged swords go, this one’s pretty dull — JT was unimaginably rich and famous before this year, and he’s even more so now — but overexposure does have its drawbacks, like prominent industry rags Billboard and Variety wishing you would just go away. (Maybe they know something we don’t about Inside Llewyn Davis?) Timberlake’s 2013 landed him among GQ’s Men Of The Year, but it also left him feeling like a bunch of people shit on his face.
Which brings me to the 20/20 Experience Tour, a behemoth production that steers directly into the skid that is JT fatigue. Timberlake must be feeling exceptionally stubborn about Billboard’s “too much of a good thing” critique because this show is super duper extra mega long. The gig I caught Saturday in Columbus spanned three hours and 33 songs, bifurcated by a 10-minute intermission because, per Timberlake, “I’m 32.” The difference, of course, is that people paid big bucks for this JT overload. He’s not subjecting his paying customers to anything they didn’t sign up for — he’s giving them their money’s worth.
And man, did he ever give them their money’s worth. From start to finish Timberlake was a pop powerhouse. When I get burned out on an overexposed musician, I tend to forget why I cared about them in the first place (see: Arcade Fire). So this was just what I needed to curtail my annoyance: a powerful reminder that Timberlake is one of the most gifted entertainers in the world.
He sang and danced with precision and even a little passion. He played guitar and piano convincingly enough. He performed every song you could possibly want short of the untapped *NSYNC catalog and even found room to cover twin inspirations Elvis Presley (“Heartbreak Hotel”) and Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”). He also covered Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” because why not? The setlist was sequenced brilliantly too, in a way that kept reminding me how many incredible singles he’s racked up over the years, that it wasn’t always just the blunt-metaphor coasting of “TKO” and “True Blood.” The FutureSex/LoveSounds numbers alone were worth the price of admission. (Do you remember how good “LoveStoned” is? Did you even remember that “LoveStoned” existed?) Only during the first half of the second act, which leaned a little too hard on covers and The 20/20 Experience — 2 of 2 tracks, did the show start to drag. And when he segued into the killer finishing one-two punch of “SexyBack” and “Mirrors,” it’s possible Columbus, Ohio temporarily became the endorphin capital of the world.
This tour is, of course, a highly professional affair, with a wildly capable backing band, dancers who didn’t miss a step, and exquisite backup singers who took over when Timberlake was in the midst of some extravagant choreography. The show also features a gigantic moving catwalk that rises up out of the stage to carry JT and parts of his ensemble to a second stage in the back of the room, allowing people all over the arena to get up close and personal along the way. That’s becoming standard fare for an arena headliner at this point (see: Drake; Taylor Swift), but I’ve never seen it executed so expertly. Everybody who had a hand in designing this show, including whoever put together the trippy “Strawberry Bubblegum” visuals, deserves a firm handshake.
Am I gushing? Well, it’s because I wonder if anybody else out there needs to be reminded that at the end of the day, Justin Timberlake is more of a blessing than a nuisance. After going without JT the musician for far too long, we got way more of him than we bargained for in 2013. Timberlake and his handlers bought into their own hype and pushed their maximal approach too far, yielding diminishing returns and sweeping the legs out from what should have been one of the year’s most satisfying victory laps. But a pop star’s stage show is the one place where bigger will always be better and more will never be less, and if anything is going to reignite your fire for Timberlake, it’s this tour. Curiously, the only cure for too much JT was even more JT.