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Anil on Justin

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My Justin/Britney piece was half showbiz and half an attempt at a serious look at their relative talents and status in the industry:

    Ultimately, though, the diverging perceptions of Justin and Britney come down to the legitimate matter of music. With similar young lifetimes of performance experience, vocal training and the pick of crack arrangers, producers and songwriters, natural talent and taste are the only real variables left, and for now at least, Justin appears to possess the stronger musical hand.

    There might even be something approaching a “Justin Timberlake” sound emerging from the haze. His best songs are built upon organic funky grooves, from which Timberlake and collaborators like the Neptunes, Timbaland, and Brian McKnight then construct songs – a firm musical foundation not dissimilar to that of one of Timberlake’s idols, Michael Jackson, whose falsetto Timberlake’s resembles. [MSNBC.com]

Anil Dash – whom I didn’t realize is such a fine, serious music critic – had the good fortune of catching Timberlake at a club gig in Manhattan this summer, where some of the skills he (Timberlake) displayed on SNL were writ large:

    The basic details: Justin took to the stage at 1:30am after the end of the VMAs, where he won 2 moonmen. Performance lasted one and a half hours, and onstage guest performers included Timbaland, Pharrell, Black Eyed Peas, and John Mayer sat in on guitar all evening. Except for guest songs and a brief interlude of “On Broadway”, all songs were from the current album, Justified.

    ….Kicking off the set was a frenetic, honest-to-god rock and roll version of “Cry Me A River”. The best song on the album, the best single of the year, and this was perhaps the best version I’ve heard. Real guitars, spot-on backup singers, and jamming on the song, including the first appearance of JT’s surprisingly credible beatboxing skills. The audience seemed a bit hesitant, perhaps even taken aback, and I suspect that part of the problem was that this was an arena show audience, unfamiliar with the standard R&B show convention of breaking a song down, showcasing the band, and relying on a bandleader to guide the proceedings. They were, as on several later songs, slow to recognize the track if it was played in even slight deviation from the album cut, and they were either confused or reluctant to fall into the groove established by the band if the song were extended or modified from the familiar confines of the radio edit.

    ….And that’s the key thing that stuck with me after the show. Justin Timberlake has a fantastic amount of talent, a credible understanding of his abilities and place in the music industry, the resources to get the best producers and band for helping create his music, and the only thing he lacks is an audience that can appreciate it. Over the last few years, I’ve seen credible neo-soul efforts from white guys like Remy Shand or Thicke, and they made good, even great albums. But Timberlake is light years ahead of them, and has the sense and the industry weight to go to the best people working in contemporary pop today, the Neptunes and Timbaland.

    ….Justin Timberlake is a fantastic soul/R&B singer already, a great dancer, a strong band leader, a competent keyboard player, and a serviceable guitar player. And he’s an extremely canny music industry player, especially given his age. That he’s playing in the realm of black music shouldn’t be a particular hindrance for his success, given how well he’s managed the question of his street credibility and his industry connections. But he’s saddled with the burden of being perceived as a pre-fab boy band prop, fundamentally inauthentic. Worse, he’s weighted down by an audience that is unfamiliar with the tradition he’s trying to evoke, and most likely unwilling to embrace the new direction at anything but the most superficial levels.

Excellent and insightful – read the whole thing. Dash has accomplished what the best music writers do: explain and elucidate what most of us feel as vague notions and inarticulated generalities and make them specific, real and concrete. I am not quite as convinced as Anil that Timberlake is THE neo-soul avatar, but I sure enjoyed reading his convincing case.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    what i’d like to know about some of these pop stars is how the music is put together. you know: how writes what? how much input does the star have? etc. this goes for timberlake and others like britney, christina a., madonna, etc.

    (i still like that one timberlake song i heard.)

  • Eric Olsen

    M, there are various ways to track this down: writing credits of course, liner notes, label PR. Usually with heavily produced pop, the labels tell you if the artist has had ANY input because it’s fairly unusual. Timberlake has been writing and co-writing all along, including some ‘N Sync songs, Britney is given co-writing credit on several songs on her new one. Madonna has been co-writing with her various collaborators all along.

  • JR

    But do the credits tell the truth? I’ve heard that Ozzy Osbourne’s lyrics were ghostwritten by Geezer Butler and later Bab Daisley, or that Ozzy comes up with a concept and somebody else always fleshes it out. And there are bands like Deep Purple and Van Halen that give equal credit, when you know a couple of those guys didn’t really do much. Given how unfunny Madonna is in interviews, I have a hard time believing she had much to do with songs like “Material Girl” for example.

  • Eric Olsen

    JR, you are right to be skeptical, the biggest infringers were managers, producers, and label owners in the bad old days who routinely put their names on songs regardless of their input. But eventually the truth comes out on these things – that’s why interviews with band members, studio musicians, and “aggrieved” parties who feel they didn’t get correct credit are good sources of the real scoop. It usually all comes out in the wash.

  • JR

    “…the biggest infringers were managers, producers, and label owners…”

    Not to mention outright gangsters.

  • SA

    This was a great article, and I appreciate you referencing Anil. That’s a lot of what I’ve been trying to articulate about Timberlake–the musical culture in general tends to underestimate pop stars because, generally speaking, they are often prefabricated. (I’m specifically referencing the last eight years or so; I don’t think relevant comparisons can be made to the pop groups of the fifties and sixties.) Britney Spears is a good example–she’s a weak vocalist, but a cracking dancer and a decent actress, with a hand for comedy that is suprising, to say the least. But her image, her act, is entirely prefabricated. Or, as you say in your article, she is a symbol rather than a person. I don’t want to argue the good or the bad of that; I simply want to point out that situations like that provide critics and laymen with ample material to lambast nearly every pop artists out there.

    Justin Timberlake, and the other members of NSync, were each strong vocalists with show business credit to their names, in a number of different mediums but most notably singing. They picked up the dancing thing post-band-creation; the route they chose to go on, from Germany’s pop-culture scene to America’s, demanded that they become iconic, in a way, but it never mitigated their talent. The work they’ve done outside of NSync shows the credibility they’ve gained as artists, not simply pop stars. Justin Timberlake’s album is a smashing example of this–anyone who’s seen him in concert knows what I’m talking about, particularly club shows. JC Chasez is releasing an album in January that’s already gaining a minor buzz (you can already hear the hushed whispers: can another boyband refugee cut it solo?); Chris Kirkpatrick and Lance Bass each have participated in non-musical projects, and in the managerial side of the music industry; and Joey Fatone was highly respectable in RENT, and currently his role in Grease which premieres next month.

    Anyway. Just wanted to say thank you for posting your insightful article.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks very much SA, very kind of you!