The Number Ones

September 9, 2006

The Number Ones: Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack”

Stayed at #1:

7 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

What happened to sexy? Why did sexy need to be brought back? Was there a sudden national shortage of sexy? These were the questions that everyone asked in the summer of 2006, when Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” became both a monster hit and an annoying catchphrase. At the time, conventional wisdom had it that sexy was one of our most abundant natural resources. Sexy had never left, and thus sexy did not need to be brought back. This Timberlake kid had a lot of nerve.

When “SexyBack” came out, I thought the song’s central conceit was funny. I was 26 years old and living in New York City, pre-market crash. Sexy was everywhere. If anything, there was too much sexy. It was distracting. But times change. According to a study that came out about a year ago, partnered sexual activity in America suffered a drastic decline between 2009 and 2018. In all age groups, people are having a lot less sex. Adolescents aren’t even jerking off as much. Just a couple of days ago, the not-particularly-sexy New York Times urged the world to have more sex. Sexy is not necessarily the same thing as sex, and it’s definitely not the same thing as jerking off. But maybe Justin Timberlake showed up too early. Maybe we need someone to bring sexy back now. It just won’t be Justin Timberlake.

In recent years, few celebrities have suffered public-image declines as steep as the one that’s affected Justin Timberlake. JT was once widely regarded as one of the coolest people on the planet. From what I can tell, he is generally now seen as being somewhere between Jesus-related Super Bowl commercials and Kevin McCarthy on the coolness scale. Justin Timberlake hasn’t been cancelled. He hasn’t been accused of any crimes. He’s released some wack music and committed some light public infidelity, and those things haven’t helped his case, but those things haven’t been the issue. Instead, the great Timberlake backlash has had a lot more to do with public reevaluations of whiteness and maleness and with revisitations of the ways in which we’ve treated certain female celebrities.

There’s the Britney Spears thing, and there’s the Janet Jackson thing. Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears dated from 1999 to 2002. Justin then implicitly accused Britney of cheating; that’s the message of one of his biggest hits. In the years that followed, Britney went through a strange and puritanical paparazzi-driven crucible, and she suffered horribly as a result. Justin did not suffer. During the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Justin Timberlake ripped away Janet Jackson’s bra, exposing her nipple to the world for a few seconds. Everyone involved claimed said that the nipple exposure was an accident, and they all apologized, but the incident still kicked up a wild widespread moral panic. Janet Jackson’s career effectively ended. Justin Timberlake’s career, once again, did not suffer at all. A week later, he performed on the Grammys, on the same network that carried the Super Bowl.

These reevaluations are necessary recalibrations of our own prejudices and attitudes. When we go back and look at the hard times that Britney Spears and Janet Jackson went through in the ’00s — we’ve done that a lot lately, in streaming documentaries and retrospective articles and whatnot — it’s impossible not to notice Justin Timberlake skating away without a mark on him. A little resentment makes sense. But I hope people don’t forget just how exciting the Justin Timberlake pop-star moment was. Timberlake took advantage of a lot of societal currents that ran in his favor, but he also took risks, showed sharp instincts, and made some really, really great pop music.

Nobody has ever handled the transition from boy-band babyhood to grown-up pop stardom more cannily than Justin Timberlake. Right now, as I write this, the world is still reeling from the obnoxious shitassery of future Number Ones artist Harry Styles defeating Beyoncé to win the Grammy for Album Of The Year. If the post-boy band Justin Timberlake had won that same award for his own sophomore album, he would’ve gotten none of the same backlash. Indeed, 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds — which was nominated, mind you — would’ve been a much cooler choice than the Chicks’ Taking The Long Way, the album that actually did win that year. With FutureSex, Timberlake made a dizzy, experimental record that predicted the direction in which cultural winds were blowing and which still resonated as blockbuster pop music. It was a great pop-star era, and it started with “SexyBack.”

Justin Timberlake was already an overwhelmingly famous young man before he made “SexyBack,” but “SexyBack” was Timberlake’s first #1 hit as a solo artist, which seems hard to believe now. We already got into Timberlake’s history in the column on *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me,” so I’m just going to discuss the basics here. Justin Timberlake grew up in Memphis, where his father ran the choir in a Baptist church. (When Timberlake was born, Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” was the #1 song in America.)

Young Justin Timberlake loved music and performing, and when he was 11, he put on a big cowboy hat to sing Alan Jackson’s “Love’s Got A Hold On You” on Star Search. He didn’t win. (“Love’s Got A Hold On You” was a #1 country hit that didn’t make the Hot 100. Alan Jackson’s biggest Hot 100 hit, the 2003 Jimmy Buffett duet “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” peaked way down yonder at #17.)

In 1993, the 12-year-old Justin Timberlake joined a real star search: The absurdly stacked cast of the rebooted Mickey Mouse Club. For two years, Timberlake sang, danced, and did brain-breakingly terrible comedy bits on television alongside Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Keri Russell, and JC Chasez. After the show’s cancellation, both Timberlake and Chasez were recruited to join *NSYNC. You probably already knew this, but *NSYNC got really, really popular.

We don’t need to talk about *NSYNC again, do we? I’m trying to keep this thing under 5000 fucking words, so I’ll just point out that Justin Timberlake was always the most famous member of the group. He’s the one who sang most of the leads, who got the most airtime in the videos, who dated Britney Spears. When *NSYNC released their final album Celebrity in 2001, Timberlake used it to soft-launch his solo career. Timberlake co-wrote and even co-produced many of that album’s songs. One of them was “Gone,” a straight-up R&B ballad that barely even featured the other guys. “Gone” peaked at #11 on the Hot 100, and it got serious airplay on R&B radio, which had never had much time for white boy bands in general. When I saw Timberlake live on the FutureSex/LoveSounds tour, “Gone” was the only *NSYNC song that he performed.

Justin Timberlake had loved R&B even when he was putting on the cowboy hat to sing Alan Jackson on Star Search, and *NSYNC spent their short career moving away from dizzy sunburst Max Martin pop to something resembling R&B. For “Girlfriend,” the song that would turn out to be their final single, *NSYNC worked with Nelly and with the Neptunes. (“Girlfriend” peaked at #5. It’s a 7.)

*NSYNC never officially broke up, but they went on hiatus in 2002 so that the group members could work on solo projects. Even as Justin Timberlake became a solo superstar, the other guys waited around for him to come back to the group; it took them a while to figure out that he never would. Timberlake intentionally set out to make himself known as an adult pop artist on his solo debut Justified. Part of that was singing a little more frankly about sex, and part of it was embracing Black music. The Neptunes, who’d already worked on “Girlfriend” and who were some of the sharpest and most inventive producers on the planet at the time, became Timberlake’s chief collaborators.

For “Like I Love You,” his first solo single, Justin Timberlake submitted himself to the Neptunes’ style and helped blow that sound out into something more widescreen — something reminiscent of Timberlake’s idol Michael Jackson. With its choppy acoustic guitars, its live drums, its Clipse guest verses, and its “Planet Rock” synth-beeps, “Like I Love You” sounded cool as fuck. Timberlake debuted the track at the VMAs in 2002, and it peaked at #11.

The Justin Timberlake of Justified definitely seemed to believe that he’d become an R&B singer. He appeared on the cover of Vibe, he worked with rappers, and he got into a brief and low-key rivalry with Usher over which of them deserved to be considered the heir to Michael Jackson’s throne. Some of the Neptunes tracks on Justified had actually been concocted with Michael Jackson in mind. The Neptunes were hoping to work with Michael on 2001’s Invincible, which would turn out to be his final album. One of those rejected MJ tracks became Timberlake’s #5 hit “Rock Your Body.” (It’s an 8.) So there’s some grim irony in Timberlake inadvertently ruining Michael’s little sister Janet’s career while singing “Rock Your Body” to her.

Today, we would look askance at a white boy-band member who suddenly decided to rebrand himself as an R&B superstar. In 2002, though, it just meant that Justin Timberlake was paying attention. All the most exciting advances in pop were coming from rap and R&B producers like the Neptunes, and most of Timberlake’s peers weren’t smart or canny enough to take part in what was happening on that end of the dial. Someone else will have to decide whether Timberlake’s R&B reinvention counts as appropriation or appreciation of Black music. All I know is that I was a white guy who loved Black music, just like Timberlake, and I thought it was cool. At the time, I didn’t really think of myself as someone who would buy a Justin Timberlake record; that instinctive anti-boy-band reaction ran deep. But I was one of the three million Americans who paid money for a copy of Justified.

The Neptunes didn’t have a hand in the biggest hit from Justified. Instead, their Virginia Beach peer Timbaland, the greatest producer of the era, worked with Timberlake on “Cry Me A River,” a song that’s both a petty, ugly post-breakup fuck-you and a visionary masterpiece of pop music. Over Timbaland’s symphonically layered keyboards and mouth-clicks, Timberlake painted an image of himself as an angry, jilted ex. In the video — which, again, was masterfully made — Timberlake broke into a Britney Spears lookalike’s house to show her a sex tape of him and some random girl in the Britney lookalike’s own bed. Pop stars have been using their tabloid personas in their songs since time immemorial, but this was something uglier. It was shitty, and it was also great. (“Cry Me A River” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.)

Justified isn’t exactly a classic album. The record was written and recorded in just a few weeks, and it’s basically hits plus filler. But the hits were top-shelf, and they turned Timberlake into something other than a boy-band refugee. In 2003, Timberlake toured with Christina Aguilera, who was attempting to redefine herself in similar ways, and he hosted Saturday Night Live for the first of many times, proving himself way funnier and way more game than anyone expected. At the time, the budding Timberlake/Jimmy Fallon friendship seemed charming, which is hard to imagine today. If I found myself in a room with both of those guys today, I would break vases and knock over innocent bystanders in my sprint out of there.

That first SNL hosting gig led to a bunch of acting offers, and Timberlake did the smart career-building thing, taking parts in the grimy indie dramas Alpha Dog, Black Snake Moan, and Southland Tales. Those movies were weird as fuck. Southland Tales, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko follow-up, is among the most pretentious and baffling things I’ve ever paid money to see. (I know that movie has its cult, but whoof.) Timberlake played a scarred-up Iraq War vet, and he had exactly one amazing scene, lip-syncing the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in an arcade full of showgirls while profoundly high. (“All These Things That I’ve Done” peaked at #74. The Killers’ highest-charting single, 2003’s “Mr. Brightside,” peaked at #10. It’s a 10.)

Justin Timberlake didn’t rush his Justified follow-up, but he did keep making music. He earned himself millions by singing the McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle, and he guested on songs with rappers. The Snoop Dogg and Nelly tracks with Justin Timberlake hooks weren’t big hits, but they helped Timberlake seem cool, which was probably the intent. The Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is The Love” was a big hit, peaking at #8. I don’t know if that really made Timberlake seem cooler, though. (It’s a 6. The Black Eyed Peas will eventually appear in this column.)

For Justin Timberlake’s second album, he lost his main collaborators. Record label issues reportedly kept him from working with the Neptunes again. Instead, Timberlake turned to his “Cry Me A River” producer Timbaland. At the time, Timberlake didn’t fully understand what his next direction should be. He wanted to recapture the scope of “Cry Me A River,” but he didn’t want to go the same white-R&B route as he’d gone on Justified. Timberlake had been listening to a lot of David Bowie, while Timbaland and his young protege Nate “Danja” Hill had been getting deep into the dance music of the era. Timberlake and Timbaland had both been listening to Prince. The team didn’t have a deadline, so they took their time figuring out what the next LP should be.

In its final form, FutureSex/LoveSounds is a pop-star auteur move. Timberlake and Timbaland pushed each other, coming up with a hard, brittle, indulgent new cocaine-disco sound. Songs would last for seven or eight minutes, with extended impressionistic outros that gave the LP a cohesive sense of grandeur. There’s no real genre to most of FutureSex. The album draws on Prince, on Bowie, on Daft Punk, on ’80s synthpop like Depeche Mode and Tears For Fears, and on the sweaty dance-punk and electro that was big in hipster circles at the time. When I saw Timberlake at Madison Square Garden on the FutureSex tour, the Rapture’s “House Of Jealous Lovers” played in the arena before he took the stage. Shortly afterward, I had the pleasure of telling LCD Soundsystem frontman and “House Of Jealous Lovers” co-producer James Murphy about that, and he was pumped to hear it.

In 2020, Justin Timberlake told Apple Music that “SexyBack,” the first single from FutureSex/LoveSounds, came out of a sort of freestyle cipher between himself and Timbaland:

[Timbaland’s] like, “All right man, I think we got to bring dance music back.” So he’s [beatboxing]… He’s like, “Whatchu you gonna say?” I just go like this, [singing] “I’m bringing sexy back!” And he goes, “Yeah!” He just said “Yeah!” But Timbaland doesn’t do anything off-beat. You should know that.

So then we just started trading lines back and forth and it was just… Honestly, it was like a pop-dance cipher. Everything was off the top of the head, and we were just going. And then we finished it. We knew it was different. We would invite people to the studio. And every time that record came on, the reaction you got from any female was — I was like, “This is it!”

Timberlake also says he’d been listening to David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” before recording “SexyBack,” and he’s compared the song to Bowie covering James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine.” (“Rebel Rebel” peaked at #64 in 1974. “Sex Machine” peaked at #61 in 1970.) The opening line from “SexyBack” is just something that Timberlake came up with in the moment, trying to think of the most audacious thing to say that he could imagine. And that is an audacious thing to say. You have to give him that.

In the finished “SexyBack” product, you can hear echoes of that initial back-and-forth cipher — Timberlake singing ridiculous lines while Timbaland cheers him on and beatboxes. (I will happily believe that Timbaland’s “take it to the briiiiidge” bits were there from the very beginning.) Timbaland also quotes the intro — “You ready?” “Yeeeah!” — from Eddie Bo’s “Hook And Sling – Part 1,” a funk obscurity that’s been sampled dozens of times. Engineer Jimmy Douglass says that “SexyBack” originally used a sample but that they tried to recreate that sound themselves so they wouldn’t have to clear it.

“SexyBack” doesn’t have the sweat of actual funk, or even of the rap songs built from funk samples. Instead, the track is clipped and brittle, harsh and antiseptic. The synths hit with a discordant force that reminds me of stuff like Justice, the intense coke-sweat blog-house that was underground-popular at the time. There are actual instruments on “SexyBack”; session bassist Darryl Pearson and guitarist Bill Pettaway, both longtime Timbaland collaborators, played on the track. But those instruments have all been distorted, heavily treated, and chopped to bits in ProTools. You can’t hear anything organic on the track, and that’s intentional. It sounds like a computer having a panic attack.

Justin Timberlake’s vocals sound almost as electronically warped as the instruments. Timberlake tried to sing “SexyBack” like it was a rock song, and I’m not sure he pulled it off, but there’s an interesting freaked-out quality to his voice. Timberlake never hits his trademark falsetto on the track. Instead, he half-gasps everything. He talks about light S&M. He tells us that them other fuckers don’t know how to act. He offers advice that doesn’t sound very friendly: “If that’s your girl, better watch your back.”

On paper, Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” lyrics look like flexes. But Timberlake doesn’t sound too horny or self-assured on “SexyBack.” Instead, he’s got the panicky skeeziness that I associate with a big night out. He’s trapped in the moment, obeying his whims, and slightly nervous about where that might take him. I’m not sure what he’s on, and I’m not sure he knows, either. But he’s sweating, he’s grinding his teeth, and he’s going with it. All the while, Timbaland offers affirmations and tells him to get his sexy on. (You could read “SexyBack” as a flirtation between Timbaland and Timberlake, and plenty did.)

For me, “SexyBack” is nowhere near the best song on FutureSex/LoveSounds. It’s really more of a groove than a song. There’s not much structure; it’s all momentum. The track doesn’t take advantage of Timberlake’s gifts as a singer, like those butter-soft high notes or that lost-little-kid vibe that he sometimes gives off. The lyrics are dumber than hell, which is an issue on all of FutureSex. But “SexyBack” is a statement piece. It’s a sign that things are different now, that a singer who you thought you knew was entering a whole new era. “SexyBack” existed to set the stage for FutureSex, and it did that better than anyone could’ve hoped.

I doubt whether anyone involved knew they were doing it, but “SexyBack” anticipated a big shift in pop music. Timbaland made his name in rap and R&B, and Timberlake always made sure that we knew he loved both of those things. But “SexyBack” pointed to a future where rap and R&B would lose their iron grip over the charts, where Euro-style club music would become the dominant sound. Timberlake leaned into that imagery in the lead-up to FutureSex. He got the now-disgraced Terry Richardson to do all the photography for the album, giving everything that partied-out sheen. And for the “SexyBack” video, Timberlake turned to Michael Haussman, director of Madonna’s “Take A Bow” clip, for a sleek and incomprehensible dive into European aesthetics.

I can’t really tell you what happens in the “SexyBack” video. It’s a sort of James Bond fantasia, with Timberlake and the Spanish actress Elena Anaya playing rival spies who are horny for each other, or something. Timberlake gets to make out with Anaya, escape explosions, and strut around looking foxy. (Nobody, with the possible exception of Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, has ever made a buzzcut look better. I tried it a few times, and I can attest that most of us just can’t look like that.) The video is fashionable and meaningless, much like the song.

The “SexyBack” single came out in July 2006, and it raced up the Hot 100. In August, Timberlake kicked off the VMAs by singing “SexyBack” and another song that’ll appear in this column. In September, the same week that FutureSex/LoveSongs came out, “SexyBack” was the #1 song in the country. I never loved “SexyBack” as a song, but I was very into this Timberlake mutation. For a hot minute, this goofball seemed like the most exciting pop star in the world. Justin Timberlake was having a moment. In this column, we’ll see him again soon.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Timbaland sampling his “SexyBack” “yeah” ad-lib on his own 2007 Keri Hilson collab “The Way I Are”:

(“The Way I Are” peaked at #3. It’s a 7. Keri Hilson’s highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2009 Kanye West/Ne-Yo collab “Knock You Down,” peaked at #3. It’s another 7. As lead artist, Timbaland will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the utterly preposterous “SexyBack” cover that former Number Ones artists Poison released in 2007:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the 2009 Saturday Night Live sketch where Justin Timberlake, playing his own great great grandfather Cornelius Timberlake, arrives on a boat from Ireland and predicts that his great great grandson will one day bring sexy back:

(The highest-charting single from Andy Samberg’s group the Lonely Island, the 2010 Akon collab “I Just Had Sex,” peaked at #30.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a bunch of squeaky CGI penguins singing “SexyBack” — sometimes changing it to “FluffyBack,” sometimes not — in the trailer for the 2011 George Miller film Happy Feet 2:

(Regarding the other songs that get the penguin-cover treatment in that trailer: LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” peaked at #17 in 1991, while Mystikal’s “Shake Ya Ass” peaked at #13 in 2000.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s fan-made footage of Miguel, backed by Kamasi Washington and his band, covering the hell out of “SexyBack” at Bonnaroo in 2016:

(Miguel’s highest-charting lead-artist single, the 2012 classic “Adorn,” peaked at #17. As a guest on Mariah Carey’s “#Beautiful,” Miguel also got to #15 in 2013.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Take it to the bookstore, or else buy it here.

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