He’s all over the news and social media this past week with a new album (conveniently reviewed here), a Super Bowl performance and a continuing discussion around him about sexism, racism, culture and masculinity.
Wind Back Wednesday takes the opportunity to check out Justin Timberlake on his first and third Australian tours, in 2004 and 2014. Both times he surprised in some ways, entertained in many ways, disappointed in some.
Hordern Pavilion, July 16, 2004
There are some things you can be assured of even before you enter a pop show (and I don’t mean the audience’s appalling make-up and clothes and the multiplicity of misspelled home-printed t-shirts with invitations such as “Rok my body” – though that’s always part of the deal).
You know there’s going to be the collective cries of ecstasy as He arrives on stage; the collective sighs as He slides into a ballad; and the collective shiver of excitement as He busts another crotch-grabbing, turn-on-a-dime move.
This is group therapy or group pleasure and everyone knows their place and their role: He excites; you respond and if you’re lucky the music holds up.
What you don’t expect is the collective “what the …” from a perplexed audience caught between the thrill of seeing Him and the confusion over exactly what kind of show they’re getting.
What you don’t expect is to see the putative new king of pop offer himself as a soulful, funky genuine musician whose music memory goes back further than Thriller. And you certainly don’t expect him to pull it off so impressively.
Sure, the show was supposed to be “intimate” and glitter free and instead of a small group adding flavours to taped/sequenced sounds while dancers distracted your attention from being ripped off (hello Missy Elliott!) the stage was crowded with a 13-piece band.
But the real shocks started early when not only was the Britney break-up ballad Cry Me A River beefed up into something approaching ‘80s funk/rock outfit Living Colour but it worked. And then Senorita, a light modern R&B workout on his album, was delivered with an emphasis on its feel not its hook and an accent on performance not titillation.
From then on, things became stranger and stranger. Timberlake at the piano, Timberlake on the guitar – and not just playing along but contributing significantly. Timberlake singing live (and well) with little in the way of dancing. Songs segueing into long, funky and usually inventive passages where groove was king.
But wait there’s more. The Rolling Stones’ Miss You assayed impressively and sensuously. The bump and grind of his excellent pop/R&B tune Like I Love You subtly but smartly replaced with a slightly Latin swing.
And overall a feeling that the album’s Michael Jackson fetish has been replaced by not just nu-soul boy Maxwell (and Prince) but early Earth Wind & Fire and the Delfonics.
Apart from a terribly indulgent and wasteful 20 minute band introduction jam, where it seemed everyone on stage had an unnecessary solo, I was liking it. A lot. But I’m not meant to be his audience. Not yet anyway.
His real audience, dominated by teens and early 20s, was grasping for reference points here: they had the songs but not the flash; they had him but not Him.
There was cheering but the fervour only occasionally surfaced, notably in the night’s closer, Rock Your Body. They were happy but not entirely sure.
Normally it takes a couple of albums, a few years and gradual steps along the way, before a former teen pop act attempts the move up into adult music, hoping to pull in a new audience who had dismissed him as mere child’s play at first.
Justin Timberlake’s debut album was the first couple of steps as expected. But this show suggests not only that he may be in more of a hurry than we realised but that he’s got the wherewithal to do it easily. And no one could have expected that.
Allphones Arena, October 1, 2014
You don’t have to be Joe Orton to recognise that sometimes even the best behaved of us want a bit of rough.
It’s true: you know it, I know it. Not brutal, not relentless, certainly not all the time but at the very least a hint of danger, of risk, of ... well, to be honest, someone else’s bad behaviour.
Watching Justin Timberlake, who would like to be edgy but isn’t sure whether that edge cuts both ways, is sometimes an intriguing exercise in neediness. His and ours.
Does he ask himself is the beard enough, even if it sits politely somewhere between teen boy fluff and hipster forest? Can a casual, one could say almost perfunctory, crotch grab late in the show do it? Does a few “we’re going to fucking party” raise the bar enough?
On his first tour here in 2004, an impressive Timberlake played extended jams of 70s soul and funk in and around his fine R&B/pop hits, flummoxing a healthy portion of his audience who came for squeals and got a little too much “for reals”.
Three years later, Timberlake offered a massive pop enterprise that never paused, threw everything (musical and technological) at us and, given it was set in the round, had no hidden corners or secrets – musical or personal.
Now? Now it’s something of both. There were a few (limited) jams, a few throwbacks (Kool and The Gang’s Jungle Boogie; Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison; Michael Jackson’s Human Nature) and few fripperies on a relatively bare stage, bar the hydraulics taking all the band and singers up and down in one go.
This was balanced by extended dance sequences, a heavy reliance on keyboards and augmented sounds (vocal and instrumental) and a fairly gobsmacking moment when a wide section of stage lifted up and transported Timberlake and others across/above the audience out to the b-stage/”pay extra money for a bar ambience” seats.
Likewise, there was a patchy first half, where the hits – Rock Your Body, LoveStoned, Like I Love You - seemed a bit sluggish in a set whose songs were stronger on moves than tunes, and things always felt caught between wanting to be kinda cerebral or full on celebratory.
But this was balanced by a second half which flowed better and generated more energy whether in the suggestion of Latin-meets-Jackson in Let The Groove Get In (aka his Wanna Be Startin’ Something) or the extended disco sequence which began with Turn Back The Night, tried on Jungle Boogie and ended with Murder and Poison.
It was pop show done well but it, and he, was pretty spotless and skated a little too close to anodyne at times because of that.
Like (the lesser talented) Jason Derulo and (his real all-round entertainer competition) Bruno Mars, Timberlake is so clean you could eat off him. But scratch that pristine surface and you sense he tries on roles more than inhabits them, that his songs’ lovers and fighters are parading rather than engaging and that on stage he is still telling, not showing us.
It’s why I at least wouldn’t mind a bit of dirt, a little roughing up, a genuine touch of risk in the entertaining Mr Timberlake.