Justin Timberlake "The 20/20 Experience" World Tour -  New York, New York

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.

Comments (32)
  1. I think if JT only released one album and it was really good, nobody would be complaining about his overexposure (see: Kanye West).

  2. Counterpoint: You could argue how Lady Gaga’s “brand” isn’t as strong as it once was because she, too, toured way too much and put herself all over the media. I was never a fan of hers to begin with and always looked at it as a gimmick, but presumptuously speaking, people I know who did like her a lot back in 2010 are now sick of her and aren’t even bothering to listen to her new album. Critics are panning her. Nobody wants to see her stage show regardless of how spectacular it is.

    • Besides some obvious skip-able songs, Artpop is pretty good. I don’t see why it’s getting panned, when it is certainly better than the shit show that was Born This Way. Do you REMEMBER how dumb that album art was?

      • Really? I find “Artpop” to be incredibly boring and just a huge drag overall. She seems to be on autopilot the whole time, basically just using some of her more successful song formulas and adding a little bit of EDM to fit into today’s top 40, None of the melodies really stick, and her lyrics are atrocious.

        “Do What U Want” is the one exception though, and it’s a killer banger.

  3. Totally unrelated, but I’d love to see a deconstructing on “sincerity” and all the Arcade Fire hullabaloo. Its weird how many of the criticisms vaulted at Arcade Fire are the exact same criticisms people use against bands like Mumford and Sons. “its all anthems and posturing, there’s no real emotion under any of it.” and What-not.

  4. i mean if either of the 20/20 experience albums were on par with future sex then the overexposure wouldnt be a problem, this isnt a case of too-much-of-a-good-thing this is a case of too-much-mediocrity

  5. The only artist I have seen make a success of overexposure is Rihanna, who released an album every year for four years in a row (2009 – 2012). But even with “Unapologetic” she started to get dated due to a lack of chart topping singles. That being said I agree with this. Releasing two albums like this in the same year was too much. Even a re-labeling of the 2nd part of 20/20 as an “Outtakes” of the first part I don’t think would’ve helped much. I guess he was just building it all up for the past seven years. Still, the first part of 20/20 is the BEST pop album of 2013, so hopefully some year end lists will redeem him a little.

  6. It really is too bad that JT got caught up in all of this and used up all his good will. Despite the bad taste he left in everyone’s mouth though (including mine), I still honestly think the first 20/20 Experience might be the best album of the year.

    • Yeah, I still love that first 20/20. “Mirrors” might be my favorite song of the year. I think it has actually influenced my listening habits for a lot of the year — I’ve listened to much more “pop” music in 2013 than I have in probably 6 or 7 years. I even found myself listening to a lot of post-Thriller Michael Jackson lately,and I haven’t listened to that stuff since … middle school?

      If he had just released both 20/20 albums as one double album to begin with, I think he’d get much less shit. It would be his “double album with some filler” that so many other greats have made. Of course, he would have moved less units, so where’s the fun in that?

      (solid column, by the way)

      • Iron Fist, what other pop music have you been listening to in 2013?

        I feel the same way. I almost feel like 20/20 changed my life. 2013 has been outrageously high quality in terms of pop and r & b music. And ive spent the majority of the year listening to those genres nearly exclusively.

        • Lots and lots and lots and lots of Haim, for starters. And the Janelle Monae album. (Also saw her live, and it was one of the better shows I’ve seen in probably 4 or 5 years.)

          And a lot of pop stuff from different eras as well — everything from the Carpenters to Dangerous-era Michael Jackson. The most recent Frank Ocean and Miguel albums have been part of the rotation since they came out last year as well.

          Some of this might also have to do with the fact that my daughter is 2 1/2 — the whole fatherhood thing seems to have mellowed me out a bit.

  7. Wait… people didn’t like him at VMAs???

  8. Strawberry Bubblegum is still one of the best songs of the year.

  9. What is “white soul” please?

  10. This article is among the most ridiculous Stereogum has ever published. It feels like a obit for someone still very much alive. The guy will have the best selling album of 2013. Will be nominated for multiple Grammies next year and has a legitimate shot at winning Album of the Year. Has one of the most successful tours of 2013 with the Jay coheadline tour, and the tour he’s on now that stretches well into next summer will undoubtedly be one of the most financially successful of this and next year. Did Timberweek on Fallon and created multiple video short classics-Hashtag being one of them. Is GQ’s man of the year. Got the VMA video vanguard award and did a 15 minute performance on the VMA’s.

    I fail to see how overexposure hurt him, or takes away from his massive accomplishments this year. Part 2 got mediocre reviews. Big whoop. Its not overexposure. Nor is it a massive dent in JT’s armor. Its one album thats not received as well by critics. Beyond The Social Network has any of his films been big hits with critics?

    The guy has a part in a Coen Bros film that will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globes.

    Anyone who thinks JT is crying in his milk over this is mentally ill. All artists want their work to be received well, but in the long run, this doesnt even register.

    Part 1 is album of 2013. and JT is the biggest pop star in the world. No senseless doomsaying article has any credibility to claim otherwise.

    All artists have projects that fail. The Beatles had failures. You make the best art you can, and you move on. Sometimes critics love it. Sometimes they dont.

    The article is silly and seems to assume a completely asinine and poppycock idea that a guy who well into September was the biggest story of 2013, that somehow an album that didnt hit well is somehow his downfail,

    Shame on you Stereogum. Shame on you Chris.

    Its like if Adele released 21 and then during that year released a song that didn’t do as well. You really think Adele gives a damn!

    Come on man!

    • So, in your world, artistic credibility doesn’t matter just as long as you make millions and are like totally super famous?

      I think what Chris is saying here is that by 20/20 Part 2, people were kinda sick of JT after a half a year of him getting shoved down our throats. Overexposure CAN hurt. It’s supply and demand. If there’s little demand for JT, then it cheapens his supply.

      I think JT had a great year and could’ve went out with a bang at the VMAs (I liked that performance a lot!). Instead, he chose to milk 2013 for everything it’s worth, though I can’t say I blame him. Only time will tell if we’ll need a break from JT for a little bit or fans will want more.

  11. “bifurcated by a 10-minute intermission because, per Timberlake, ā€œIā€™m 32.ā€

    “Pussy” – Bruce Springsteen

  12. I just think the articles argument is weak. The main critiques are that Part 2 wasnt as good as Part 1. That he was embroiled in controversy with Take Back the Night the feminist organization. No mention that several weeks later the organization dropped the lawsuit charges, he wasnt sued. So thats a win in my book. Another critique is that Blurred Lines was censored by YouTube while Tunnel Vision wasnt. Not sure how thats a loss for JT. And that JT is viewed as “conservative” as a result. Not sure if Chris is aware of any pop culture in 2013, but from where I sit, the whole fancy dress, suit and tie, look is the popular thing right now. From Barney Stinson, to Don Draper, to Suit and Tie the song, to AF’s tour dress policy. Not to mention Tom Ford being mentioned in more songs this year than I can ever remember. Being fancy and conservative in your dress and style is in right now. Not sure I’d look to NY TImes to be the arbiter of whats hot in terms of style and fashion!

    The critique of Holy Grail also shows Chris’ complete ignorance on the subject. How was Holy Grail the album received? How was it received critically? From my standpoint it wasnt his strongest and critics agreed. What I did here often was how great the production was, and then how great JT was on the album, specifically on Holy Grail the song. Theres a reason that song is a hit on the radio. And the song essentially plays as a JT song featuring Jay.

    And I guess we do know something you dont know Chris. You aware of who the Coen Bros are? This isnt just another film. Any film they do is a big deal and big event. Its guaranteed to be nominated for multiple awards. How a Coen Bros film is somehow turned into a negative for JT is a thing of wonder in this article.

    So what do we have? We have Part 2 which didnt do well. And…. And….?

    The article reads like a person wanting to come up with reasons to tear JT down a notch.

    Anyone who had a pulse in 2013 can surmise pretty easily that JT had an incredible year.

  13. I find it annoying that despite getting more media coverage and higher album sales than any other artist this year, JT still hawked his (pretty good!) new songs to Budweiser and Target commercials.

    The 20/20 Experience yielded some quality music, but I can’t help but feel it was all secondary to the 20/20 Multiplatform Marketing Opportunity.

  14. Perhaps JT’s overexposure campaign in 2013 is to blame for what appears to be a loss of interest in his fans or his hometown.

    At this past Monday night’s concert in Memphis, TN,(again his hometown), Justin failed to do ANYTHING special to honor his community. He did no press. He did no meet and greets. He didn’t even show up for the proclamation of “JT Day” in Memphis by the Mayor earlier in the afternoon.

    And as the concert finally began, and the opening roar of the crowd shook the entire arena (it was truly one of the most visceral crowd reactions I have ever experienced), he did not bring a single unique element to the show for his hometown. No special cover song. No special guest. Not even a between-song story about his connection with Memphis.

    If this show had been in any other city, I would have said 100%, Bravo. But it didn’t. It happened in Memphis. Where people are proud to say “Justin Timberlake is from here.” I just don’t understand why his pride in his city seems to have faded in just a few short months.

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