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COLUMN: Is Justin Timberlake Wearing Out His Pop Cultural Welcome?

Heights Staff

Published: Sunday, October 6, 2013

Updated: Sunday, October 6, 2013 22:10

For a minute, he had it all. He was the embodiment of pop music to an entire generation, a movie star, the premier host of SNL, and had married Jessica Biel, for heaven’s sake. Such was the life of Justin Timberlake. He was the center of pop culture, but now he’s somewhere on the outside looking in.

Last Tuesday Timberlake released The 20/20 Experience —2 of 2. The second part of Timberlake’s pop epic received mostly middling reviews. It’s a fine album. It may not redefine the genre like FutureSex/LoveSounds, but Experience remains a tasteful, albeit sometimes indulgent, pop album. Timberlake could make this sort of album every two years, rake in some serious cash, and still be considered the greatest pop artist of his generation.

This past weekend, Timberlake’s most recent staring vehicle Runner Runner premiered. While I have not seen the movie (I’m unfortunately allergic to movies that score less than 10 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), Runner Runner was promptly swatted like the feeble thriller it is by Alfonso Cuaron’s space drama Gravity, which rocketed to a $55.6 million opening. With Experience and Runner Runner, Timberlake could have dominated these past few weeks. I’m sure that was the strategy. But he hasn’t. One could even say Timberlake has fizzled these past few weeks. While Experience affirmed that Timberlake is indeed still a music star, it also begged the question if Timberlake is still at the vanguard of pop music. Runner Runner took the fizzling to another level. Was Justin Timberlake ever a movie star to begin with?

After the smash success of FutureSex/LoveSounds, Timberlake took a break from music to pursue his burgeoning film career. It got off to a less than stellar start with a role in Mike Myers’s The Love Guru. If you don’t know or remember The Love Guru, make sure it stays that way. Thankfully, for Justin’s and our sake, things got better. Timberlake won a supporting role in David Fincher’s The Social Network, the best movie of 2010. Timberlake played the founder of Napster, Sean Parker, and delivered the pivotal line, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” The Social Network is Timberlake at his best as an actor. It was a light role that allowed him to channel his innate charisma with one-liners from the pen of Aaron Sorkin.

After the success of The Social Network, Timberlake earned starring roles in the romantic comedy Friends with Benefits and the sci-fi thriller In Time. And thankfully (for the validation of this column) I have seen both movies. Friends with Benefits was mildly successful. Timberlake and Mila Kunis have a fun chemistry that carries the film along the predictable points of the romantic narrative. In Time, though, could never get off its feet, and Timberlake snarls his way through much of the film. Both In Time and Runner Runner suffer from the same plight of misuse. It’s just not that fun to watch Timberlake on a serious note. That’s just not how his charisma plays. Timberlake, as an actor, thrives in lightness. Timberlake is perhaps the most charismatic performer on the face of the planet, but he doesn’t have “movie star” charisma. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the stars of Gravity, have “movie star” charisma. Gravity is a film carried solely by the faces and voices of its stars, and it made nearly $50 million. It’s not that Timberlake is not a capable actor, just a limited one. I’m sure Timberlake could make an admirable country or alternative record, but it’s not the best use of his musical talents. Similarly, self-serious roles are not the best use of Timberlake’s acting talents.

So Timberlake is not the movie star we thought he might be. He’s still the center of pop music, right? Well, while he was building his acting career, a couple things happened in the music industry. Dubstep happened. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy happened. Lana Del Rey happened. Daft Punk happened. The world of pop music that Timberlake and producer Timbaland reentered in 2012 was different than the one they had defined back in 2006. The 20/20 Experience is a good album, but it has not defined pop music the way Timberlake’s earlier work did. We can see it in up-and-comer Lorde. Lorde’s Pure Heroine doesn’t sound like The 20/20 Experience. It sounds like Lana Del Rey. Avicii doesn’t sound like The 20/20 Experience. Nothing sounds like The 20/20 Experience. So either Timberlake is so ahead of his contemporaries his sound can’t be duplicated, or Timberlake is simply not a fabric of pop music anymore. I’ll go with the latter.

As long as Timberlake is breathing and friends with Jimmy Fallon, he’ll be a part of pop culture. He’s just no longer the nucleus.

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