That is some ugly wallpaper
One of the many, many great things about the world-conquering success of Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds is its capacity to continue generating pop events more than six months after its release. So Timberlake’s in-the-round arena tour feels like a staged spectacle on the level of that one David Bowie tour where he first swung over the audience’s head in a big crane contraption. Along the same lines, the release of every new single demands attention and reveals new facets of both the artist and the persona, saying as much about how Timberlake hopes to be perceived as it does about the song itself. So the posthuman techno-jitter android-dork of “SexyBack” gives way to the swaggering disco softie of “My Love” and then, finally, the tortured emo-child of “What Goes Around…” That last one is maybe my favorite song on the album, an operatic inner-Coldplay hissy-fit with layers upon layers of soft-focus guitars and pillowy strings and clanking, ominous drums. FutureSex is a lengthy, ambitious album-statement, and “What Goes Around…” is the moment where things get serious, where they flirt with maudlin melodrama without quite falling in, where Timberlake takes an audible delight in revealing his shallow depths. It’s also an impossibly pretty little sprawl, and I’m not mad at hearing it on the radio constantly. But there’s something about this particular product relaunch that troubles me a little bit; if there’s going to be a moment where Justin Timberlake stops having fun with his stardom and plunges into dreary self-importance, this is going to be it, and the signs aren’t good.
The track’s inevitable remix-with-rappers is a bit confused and wrong-headed, but that’s not really the problem. It’s fun to hear Rick Ross and Pitbull on a kajillion-dollar Timbaland masterpiece even if neither of them really has much of a place there. Ross sounds better buried under all those strings than he does when he forces his multitracked voice up to the front of the track, and Pitbull’s double-time bounce-rap attack is a wondrous thing, even if neither of them seems to quite grasp the extremely simple theme of the girl-cheated-on-me song. Ross raps about just meeting a girl; Pitbull, for his part, unconvincingly protests to a girl that the rumors are all wrong and he isn’t cheating on her. Both of those quick little verses adds nothing at all; their existence is nothing more than a bald attempt to get the song onto urban-radio playlists. But at least Timberlake recruited a couple of proudly vacuous rappers to fill those spots; if he’d hired Andre 3000, who apparently will appear on anyone’s remix these days, the song would’ve been pushed that much further into operatic pretension, which is exactly what it doesn’t need.
Timberlake’s Grammy-night performance of the song did ring a few alarm-bells, even if his dancing-with-the-camera routine was exactly the sort of transcendently goofy move he should be pulling. It’s just a little troubling when a great pop artist starts out a performance by plinking away at a piano in artiste fashion, especially when the song in question doesn’t have any damn piano on it. More alarm bells came with the premiere of the way-overblown nine-minute music video, which is almost impossibly embarrassing in all the worst ways. For the video, Timberlake enlisted Samuel Bayer, whose soft-focus earth-tone videos always scream “serious statement.” Bayer’s first video was “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a home run he never should be expected to equal. His videos use slow-mo more often than not, and they usually come with a dusty, golden glow, art-house fripperies that have come to infect music-video culture with disastrous effects. Bayer hardly ever tries to dazzle, and when he does, he seems somehow ashamed, like he needs his images to be richly metaphoric before he’ll let them be any fun at all. When he’s working with a song as huge and portentous as “Teen Spirit,” that’s not a problem, but he spent most of the 90s renting himself out to self-important jokers like Candlebox and the Cranberries, and he’s responsible for a lot more pieces of shit (the fake-Burroughs/Giger beasties of Metallica’s “Until It Sleeps”) than moments of monolithic beauty (the tribal-war moshpits of the Offspring’s “Gotta Get Away”). “What Goes Around…” includes Bayer’s name in its opening credits, and it also comes with a screenwriter credit for Nick Cassavetes. I can’t believe Cassavetes slaved long over the video’s script, but his writing makes me happy I skipped Alpha Dog. Most of the video takes place in some ridiculous neoclassical rotunda nightclub where dancers spin flaming hula-hoops and everyone dresses like Panic! at the Disco. At the club, Timberlake meets Scarlett Johansson, and the two of them engage in some dollar-bin noir dialogue before making out in soft-focus for like ten hours. If the entire video was just an elaborate ruse so Timberlake could hook up with Scarlett, then fair play, but that doesn’t make it any less boring; costume designers always have a way of forgetting that Scarlett always looks way hotter in, like, sweatpants and T-shirts than she does in frilly velvet Moulin Rouge things. Later, Timberlake introduces Scarlett to his skeezy friend and tells her, seriously, “If she plays her cards right, she might even get the keys to the castle,” so it’s not exactly a shock when Scarlett hooks up with the skeezy friend. Things spiral off quickly into “November Rain” ridiculousness when Timberlake catches them, yells “fuck” a bunch of times, administers a thoroughly unconvincing beatdown, and chases Scarlett off to a fiery car-crash death that doesn’t make any sense at all.
Given that the song is a big, elaborate Britney-gloat, all this seems to be a bit much. Part of what’s so great about the song in the first place is the sweeping grandeur it lends to its petty bitchiness, Justin throwing a tantrum at an ex-girlfriend while an orchestra cries beneath him. But the video tries to turn all that into some sort of big, expensive allegory. If it’s just a plea for attention, it’s working; the song is on the top of the iTunes download chart now, and the video’s racked up more than a million YouTube views in just over a week. But remember: Madonna had been a pop star for about a decade when she started making lifeless mush. “Dick in a Box” was recent enough that maybe I shouldn’t be worrying, but Timberlake has been a pop star for almost a decade now. If he goes the same route, it’ll be a serious loss.
Voice review: Rob Harvilla on Justin Timberlake at Madison Square Garden
Voice review: Christopher O’Connor on Justin Timberlake’s Justified
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 19, 2007