Question Celebrity

With Hank Stuever
Sunday, October 22, 2006

As I write this, it's hot outside and Justin Timberlake is bringing sexy back, courtesy of his hit song "SexyBack." As you read this, the leaves are changing, and he's probably still bringing sexy back, or it's already buh-rung. The song once again refutes a growing idea that our multi-niche society can no longer communally share a pop hit. I'm for JT: I could spend five columns examining the journey from Mouseketeer to 'N Sync to reigning savior of all popdom, and still not get around to talking about his butt.

But this is not a space set aside for praise, now, is it? For us to believe in Justin as a huge, huge star, we have to buy into his deeply collaborative requirements: Unlike Prince, to whom his sound is routinely compared, Justin doesn't score well on the creativity scale -- as in master songcraft, as in creating something lasting, as in music that is pure and original in form. He is excellent at crisscrossing genres, and hiring the right producers and hit-makers to boost him up, which is itself a considerable skill.

And like any other superfamous person, he has incredibly odd ideas about what he has made. In a Rolling Stone interview last month (yes, the same interview in which he and the writer smoked some weed together, which may explain the following). Justin, who prefers the new-new wave rock of the Strokes and Arcade Fire, compares "SexyBack" to something -- wait for it -- David Bowie would make: "I said, 'Let's take a stab at Bowie or David Byrne and see what we come up with,' " Justin said. "There's no doubt it's a club record, but there's a rock sensibility about it. It reminds me of 'Rebel Rebel.' "

Whoa, pretty. You had me at the lyric: "I'll let you whip me if I misbehave." But there's no need to go comparing oneself to actual craftsmen with whom one has precious little in common. We've all heard "SexyBack" a hundred times or more, and who among us hears "a rock sensibility" or Bowie's "Rebel Rebel" on any level? (And where's the David Byrne part?) This is an affliction of the 21st-century pop singer: wildly aspiring comparisons of his or her own work to 20th-century legends, brought on by the serious music-magazine interview. The stars feel obligated to acknowledge the gods, in this, the Age of the Derivative. Justin and his producers are perhaps up to something brilliant, but when will they dismiss the need to compare themselves to the past?

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