The Number Ones

March 3, 2007

The Number Ones: Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around… Comes Around”

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

Justin Timberlake came to my town about a month before he landed his third consecutive #1 hit. At the time, New York City was my town, and Madison Square Garden was Timberlake’s landing spot. I loved going to shows at the Garden. New York is a very difficult place to live for lots of boring, practical, workaday reasons, but it makes up for all those pain-in-the-ass issues with the occasional transcendent moments where you feel like you’re at the center of the universe.

Every show I saw at Madison Square Garden was a center-of-the-universe moment. Kenny Chesney? AC/DC? Björk? Nine Inch Nails? I didn’t even have to like the artist in question to get swept up in the moment. At the Garden, a damn Fall Out Boy show could suddenly feel like a true cultural event. But when Justin Timberlake came to the Garden, he didn’t need to rely on the building’s built-in glamor. At that moment, Justin Timberlake could make anyplace feel wildly important just by showing up.

This was after “SexyBack,” after “My Love,” after “Dick In A Box.” It was a few days before Justin Timberlake performed twice on the same Grammy night. It was the absolute apex of the Justin Timberlake moment. That night, Timberlake delivered. On that tour, Timberlake performed on an intricately designed in-the-round stage — more of a circus setup than a traditional pop show. He brought a whole army of supporting players — band members, dancers, lighting techs, Andy Samberg, Timbaland — and he stretched his performance out to two and a half hours despite only having two solo albums to his name.

I’ve been to a lot of arena shows in my life, but I’ve seen very few that were as thrilling as that one. Every minute of that show was planned and choreographed for maximum breathless impact. The level of spectacle was overwhelming. Those flashing lights came from everywhere. The way they hit, I had to stop and stare. That night, the Justin Timberlake run felt like it would keep going forever. Timberlake was in full imperial-phase stride, and he couldn’t do anything wrong. Of course Justin Timberlake would reach #1 again. At that point, he could take any song to #1. A month later, Timberlake proved it, reaching the summit of the Hot 100 with a psychedelic seven-minute breakup-tantrum ballad. In the moment, it made perfect sense.

Justin Timberlake had more seven-minute songs than any label exec could’ve thought advisable. When Timberlake bunkered up with producers Timbaland and Danja to write and record the FutureSex/LoveSounds album, they had a lot of big ideas. Timberlake was already a dominant pop star, and he was ready to take full advantage of the freedom that his status granted him. FutureSex is a full statement-piece album, jammed with ambitious structures and elaborate transitions and layered production. Near the end of the album, when Timberlake switches to a doofy collab and a pedestrian Rick Rubin string-ballad, you start to get some idea of how underwhelming the album could’ve been. By that point, though, FutureSex has already made its point.

Unlike a lot of the pop albums of that era, FutureSex/LoveSounds isn’t really divided into club tracks and ballads. The album goes through peaks and valleys, but it maintains a sleek, slippery sci-fi mood throughout. In theory, a track like “What Goes Around… Comes Around” — in the album version, it has the even dumber and more pretentious title “What Goes Around…/… Comes Around (Interlude)” — should be a retread. Timberlake had already sang the vulnerable but angry post-breakup blues over Timbaland’s sweeping production on “Cry Me A River” years earlier. (“Cry Me A River” peaked at #3. It’s a 10.) But “What Goes Around” doesn’t really sound like “Cry Me A River.” It doesn’t really sound like anything else.

At the time, I assumed that “What Goes Around,” like “Cry Me A River” before it, was inspired by Timberlake’s breakup with Britney Spears, an artist who’s been in this column once and who will be back a bunch of times. Timberlake insisted that this was not the case, that “What Goes Around” had really been inspired by “a friend of mine and the experience he went through.” Timberlake didn’t want to identify the friend who’d been through all of this, but the whole story made for B-list tabloid fodder, and nobody else seemed too interested in keeping the details private.

Nick Cassavetes, best-known to most of the world as the auteur behind The Notebook and to me as Castor Troy’s bald friend from Face/Off, reportedly told the whole “What Goes Around… Comes Around” story in an IMDB post. Cassavetes had directed Justin Timberlake in the 2006 movie Alpha Dog, and he also wrote dialog for the “What Goes Around” video. Per that Cassavetes post, the song was a story about Trace Ayala, Timberlake’s close friend and business partner, and his breakup with Elisha Cuthbert, the star of 24 and Happy Endings.

Sean Avery, the notorious hockey goon who got a lot of press for interning at Vogue in the offseason, was friends with Trace Ayala, and he was crashing at Ayala’s house for a little while. Nick Cassavetes claimed that Elisha Cuthbert had cheated on Ayala with Avery and that she’d then dumped Ayala for Avery. Ayala supposedly found out about the whole thing from tabloids, and he was understandably distraught. Some of the lines from “What Goes Around… Comes Around” were apparently taken straight from conversations that Timberlake had with Ayala when he was trying to console his friend.

On “What Goes Around,” Justin Timberlake sings from his friend’s perspective. He’s been cheated on and dumped, and he’s both heartbroken and pissed off. Timberlake’s narrator was thinking about marriage, and now he’s left with his head spinning. All he can do is bleakly intone the song’s title. The woman has done something bad, and she’ll get her karmic returns. On the outro, Timberlake sings that his ex’s new boyfriend will cheat on her, that she’ll suffer the same fate as the narrator. There’s an ugly vengeful streak in there, especially when you factor in the song’s video.

“What Goes Around” is a breakup song, and breakup songs don’t really have to be thoughtful or nuanced. But Justin Timberlake’s lyrics are mostly nonspecific and cliché-riddled, and some of them are just really stupid: “You cheated, girl/ My heart bleeded, girl/ So it goes without saying that you left me feeling hurt.” (Please note: “Bleeded” is not a word.) “What Goes Around” also builds on the cultural memory of “Cry Me A River,” so plenty of people assumed that Timberlake was still singing about Britney Spears. Timberlake always claimed otherwise, and he’d moved on to dating Cameron Diaz, so he was doing just fine. But a song like “Cry Me A River” has a way of lingering in the public’s perceptions of the people involved.

As it happens, Britney Spears was really going through it around the time that her ex took “What Goes Around” to #1. Justin Timberlake’s song reached the apex of the Hot 100 a few weeks after Britney, in the middle of a divorce and a nasty custody battle, shaved her head and attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. Justin Timberlake was not Britney Spears’ main problem at that point, but it probably didn’t help her mental state when a whole lot of people believed that another seething and self-righteous hit breakup song was really about her. Later that year, “What Goes Around” co-producer Danja served as the main producer on Britney’s intense, sleaze-forward comeback album Blackout. Among many other tracks, Danja co-produced and co-wrote that album’s lead single “Gimme More,” which peaked at #3. (It’s an 8, bitch.) Britney Spears will eventually return to this column, so we’ll get more into her story then, but I do think that Britney’s dark period and Timberlake’s apex had something to do with each other.

All of which is to say: “What Goes Around… Comes Around” is not a terribly sophisticated song lyrically, and its popularity may have played a small role in the whole ongoing Britney Spears psychodrama. These are not good things, but “What Goes Around” is still a glorious piece of pop music. The song came from early in Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds sessions with Timbaland and Danja. Timberlake wanted a song with the same grand sweep as “Cry Me A River,” but he didn’t have a clear direction in mind. While the three of them were tossing around ideas in the studio, Danja played a guitar riff, and Timberlake perked up.

After “What Goes Around” took off, Danja told MTV that Justin Timberlake came up with much of the song on the spot in the studio: “He started singing, ‘What goes around comes around’ — like, the melody first, no words, and then the words came. Tim was at his keyboard, we were side by side, and he started coming with the drums to the melody. Everything was coming together at the same time.” Danja says that Timberlake never wrote down any words and that he basically freestyled the entire track: “There’s three choruses in that record; that’s just the way Justin writes.”

Timbaland, like Justin Timberlake, likes to work in the moment. The opening riff from “What Goes Around” — the sliding Eastern thing — is one of Tim’s synths replicating the sound of an oud, a sort of ancient Middle Eastern lute. Danja: “He has so many sounds on his keyboard, and somehow he just knows. He can match it in the key as if it were meant to be there, and not just thrown in.” Timbaland and Danja fleshed the song out. They wrote and discarded a bridge, and then also came up with the transition into the drawn-out coda. “What Goes Around” is one of several FutureSex/LoveSounds tracks that turns into a whole other thing when it seems like it should end. As the oud riff starts to fade out, a whole new synth-melody bubbles up. The beat shifts, and so does Timberlake’s cadence. These majestic outros are some of the album’s best moments; they turn already-strong songs into dizzy pop epics.

In that MTV interview, Danja says that he intended “What Goes Around” to sound like a horror movie:

There’s the footsteps down the hall, then the heartbeat. More strings come in. You start walking down the hallway and peek your head around the corner; it gets more dramatic. And then everything’s blaring at you, but you might not see anything, and you think you’re OK. That’s how this record is happening. You don’t see, and so it dies out, and you turn around, and whatever you thought you heard is now right behind you. The interlude is what you missed and totally didn’t see.

I love it when producers go conceptually buckwild like that, but I never heard “What Goes Around” as a horror movie. Instead, it always struck me as the Timbaland/Timberlake take on Coldplay’s grandly swoony sensitive-falsetto action. For me, that’s a compliment. This was my favorite Coldplay era, and their smooth-crescendo drama fit Timberlake nicely. “What Goes Around” has a heavier low-end and more rhythmic play than most Coldplay tracks, but it’s also got the ringing guitars and swelling strings and keening high voices — all the outsized ways of conveying fragile passion that Coldplay had figured out so well. (Coldplay will be in this column a couple of times.)

“What Goes Around” has a larger canvas than most Timbaland tracks. The producers brought in a real string section to play on the track, and it’s cool to hear an orchestral arrangement darting into and out of one of Timbo’s jittery riffs. The track’s musical has some of the same heady magic of Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right,” the song that “What Goes Around” knocked out of the #1 spot. Timberlake floats over all that sound, delivering much of it in his most wracked-with-pain falsetto. That falsetto isn’t as smooth as Timberlake always seems to think it is, but it absolutely works in the context of this track.

“What Goes Around… Comes Around” would’ve been a great pop single even without its whole second part, but the second part elevates the song. That second part is stormier, and it’s got those crazy Timbaland drum machines really going to work. Justin Timberlake’s delivery turns into a kind of quasi-rap complaint litany. The Timbaland chants anchor the song to Southern rap, but that doesn’t mean that it gets simple. Little melodies keep bubbling up and then fading back into all that sound. “What Goes Around” is seven and a half minutes long — insanely indulgent for a pop song — but it earns all that time. It never, ever gets boring.

I wish I could say the same about the video. Justin Timberlake gave “What Goes Around” the full pretentious short-film treatment. The director is Samuel Bayer, a prolific music-video auteur who will always be best-known for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” even though a lot of his other stuff is crap. Nick Cassavetes scripted the video, though some of his lines probably could’ve used another pass: “If she plays her cards right, she might even get the keys to the castle.”

In the “What Goes Around” video, Justin Timberlake basically plays the Trace Ayala character, while Scarlett Johansson, right in between The Prestige and The Nanny Diaries, plays a kind of rich man’s Elisha Cuthbert. (No shots at Elisha Cuthbert. Kim Bauer was an important character.) This was the same year that Scarlett Johansson sang “Just Like Honey” with the reunited Jesus And Mary Chain at Coachella, and a year before she recorded an album of Tom Waits covers with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek. ScarJo was at peak cool-kid credibility, and the mere fact that she was in this Justin Timberlake video says something about his cultural position at the time.

In the video, Timberlake and ScarJo are a couple, and then she cheats with Timberlake’s friend, played by his Alpha Dog castmate Shawn Hatosy. Timberlake finds them, freaks out, goes on a bleep-laden cuss rampage, and fights Hatosy. ScarJo ties to kiss Timberlake, but he kind of pushes her face away and looks like he’s about to choke her. Then she runs away, and he runs after her, and they end up in a high-speed chase in vintage sports cars. ScarJo crashes her car and dies, and that’s the end of the video. Pretty fucked up!

Justin Timberlake’s character basically commits manslaughter, and I can’t tell whether we’re supposed to sympathize with his anguish or think he’s a piece of shit. Is this a revenge fantasy, or is it just a tragedy? But the video is boring and unpleasant enough that I don’t really want to think about it too much. The clip also stretches out an already-long song to nearly 10 minutes, so I’m going to ignore my own protocol and just post the song’s audio here. The audio is all you really need.

A few weeks before “What Goes Around” reached #1, Justin Timberlake performed the song at the Grammys, playing piano while his band did a little two-step behind him. Timberlake was up for a bunch of Grammys that year, and he didn’t win any of the big ones, but he still got to perform twice on the telecast. Maybe that’s what ultimately helped lift “What Goes Around” all the way up the charts.

With “What Goes Around,” Justin Timberlake notched his third consecutive #1 hit. All of those chart-toppers had come from the same album. FutureSex/LoveSounds went quadruple platinum, and it kept spinning off more singles. Follow-up single “Summer Love” didn’t get a video, but it still peaked at #6. (It’s an 8.) After that, Timberlake released another seven-minute single in the form of the dizzy and psychedelic “LoveStoned,” my favorite track from the album. “LoveStoned” peaked at #17, and a version of the staid ballad “Until The End Of Time” with an added-on Beyoncé vocal reached the same chart position.

In the wake of FutureSex/LoveSounds, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland became in-demand freelancers, and they worked on a lot of tracks from a lot of other pop stars. Those Timberlake/Timbaland tracks often sounded like FutureSex castoffs, but some of them were still hits. In 2007, for instance, 50 Cent teamed up with the Tims on “Ayo Technology.” A year after that, Madonna did the same on “4 Minutes.” Both songs went top-10. (“Ayo Technology” peaked at #5, while “4 Minutes” made it to #3. They’re both 5s.) Timberlake and Timbaland worked on tracks from Duran Duran, Ciara, Rihanna, Chris Cornell. Eventually, their whole thing started to sound tired. Only one of those post-FutureSex Timbaland/Timberlake crossovers made it to #1, and we’ll see that one in this column soon.

While he was showing up on all these other people’s songs, Justin Timberlake wasn’t all that interested in making another album of his own. Instead, Timberlake was mostly focused on acting. Timberlake’s film career is full of garbage: Shrek The Third, The Love Guru, Yogi Bear, Friends With Benefits, In Time. In the midst of all that, though, Timberlake also popped up in crucial supporting roles in The Social Network and Inside Llewyn Davis, two actual masterpieces from great American directors who knew how to use Timberlake’s gawky charisma to the films’ benefit.

As lead artist, Justin Timberlake didn’t return to #1 for many years after “What Goes Around,” and when he got back to the top, he did it through his film career. Nearly seven years after FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake finally released two more albums, the two parts of The 20/20 Experience, which he recorded almost entirely with Timbaland. The first 20/20 Experience was a big hit, while the second seemed to come and go without drawing much attention — though there was a minor controversy over Timberlake releasing a single called “Take Back The Night,” apparently utterly clueless that this was already the name of an anti-rape organization. For “Suit And Tie,” the first single from that whole era, Timberlake teamed up with Jay-Z, and the song made it to #3. (It’s a 4.)

I was sure that “Mirrors,” the big ballad from the first 20/20 Experience had been a #1 hit, but I guess I remembered that one wrong. In reality, “Mirrors” stalled out at #2. (It’s an 8.) Justin Timberlake pushed those 20/20 Experience albums hard; he even got his Social Network director David Fincher to come out of music-video retirement for the “Suit And Tie” clip. I remember really liking the first of those albums, but those records didn’t hit the zeitgeist like FutureSex had done.

When Justin Timberlake finally scored his last #1 hit, Timbaland wasn’t involved. This column will eventually get to that last Timberlake hit, but we’ve got one last Timberlake/Timbaland collab coming up first.

GRADE: 9/10

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BONUS BEATS: In the 2007 pilot episode of Gossip Girl, Blake Lively’s character Serena Van Der Woodsen makes her big entrance in a montage that’s soundtracked by “What Goes Around… Comes Around.” Here’s that scene:

(None of those Gossip Girl kids were ever on the Hot 100 as lead artists. Leighton Meester did, however, guest on Cobra Starship’s “Good Girls Go Bad,” which peaked at #7 in 2009. It’s a 3.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Taylor Swift covering “What Goes Around… Comes Around” and combining it with her own similarly themed song “You’re Not Sorry” at a 2010 live show:

(“You’re Not Sorry” peaked at #11 in 2008. Taylor Swift will appear in this column many times.)

And now you wish you had a book to cure the lonely nights. You wish you had a book that could come and make it right. Lucky for you, The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music, is out now via Hachette Books, and you can buy it here.

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