September 10th, 2003

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08:23 am - on Justin Timberlake's great contribution to the recording industry...
Tomorrow I am leaving for a week in Europe where I will likely have sporadic net access at best. As such this will probably break what with this post is now a streak of 151 consecutive days of posting to LJ for me. If I am going to do that, I want to leave one nice substantive post for people to chew on while I am gone. Something that has been weighing on my mind and that I figure I might as well share with other people. Something that I find interesting but that in reality has little to no bearing on anything at all. Something that I've come to call 1000 Words of Free-Flowing Hostility.

So last week, beststephi and I went to dinner and I noticed that on the way to pick her up, on the way from her office to dinner and on the way home from dinner the first song on the radio each time was a different song by Justin Timberlake. Now this was a standard Top 40 station. And say what you will about the merits or lack thereof of such popular music, I figured you had to commend a guy who was allegedly sitting on 7.5% of the Pop Charts. That’s got to be something of an accomplishment, right?

So, as a card carrying cultural scientist (its true, I have a card in my wallet that says I have a degree in cultural studies) I decided that it was my duty to observe the phenom that is Timberlake. When listening to him I noticed something special about the young lad. Something that set him apart from the rest of the pop world. A certain je ne sais quoi. What the fuck? I was digging it. And that disturbed me.

See, I’ve never made any secret of my completely irrational love for the music of Britney Spears. I fell head-over-heels in love with her the first time I heard her sing when she was still a completely unknown commodity who’s first single hadn’t even been released yet save for as a “hey we’re discovering new music” commercial in Best Buy opposite Billie Piper who I immediately guessed was inferior. Sure its meaningless bubblegum pop drivel, but I dig it. But it’s never been a big deal, because I could always hold my head high by pretending I’m just like the other lecherous 85% of American male adults who just want to fuck her underaged brains out. (Oooh! Boobies!!! Nice Ass! Young…firm…body…Must…have…sex…now…Arrrggh!) But N’Sync always seemed kinda blah to me, and more or less indistinguishable from the multitude of other boy bands of the day.

So I contemplated it for a moment and thought back to other times that I had seen him in the recent past. Trying to pull his image out of my memory from the occasions that I had seen him on television or in a magazine and more or less ignored him. Trying to parse both the goofy, lovable yay-Chris-Rock-is-Making-fun-of-me doofus and the bitter, angry why-the-fuck-is-my-supposedly-virginal-ex-girlfriend-making-out-with-Madonna-on-stage madman that had appeared on this year's VMAs. And then I saw it. I understand what it is about Timberlake. Justin Timberlake is the complete and total essence of style without substance. And that’s a good thing.

See, music, art in general, has two purposes in the universe. One of course is to make a statement about something of importance to the artist, conveying some semblance of meaning to the audience and the other is to entertain the audience of that particular work. A work need succeed in one aspect (and in fact may fail entirely) to overwhelmingly satisfy another. In the movie world, there are impressively difficult films of exceptional merit like Apocalypse Now, as well as utterly substanceless and yet completely entertaining romps like Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death. There are a multitude of films that touch both areas but it is quite difficult to excel in each aspect at the same time.

Music, at least the current contemporary forms (rock, metal, alternative, hip hop, r&b, pop, etc.), seems to be a little more difficult. For the most part, it seems to me that most people need to be able to identify with the style (and to an extent, the performer) in order to really get it. Maybe it’s the lack of the visual medium. Maybe it’s more challenging to lend attention to an auditory form, so it has to give you a reason to invest in it. No matter what the cause, music just seems more limiting than film Audience crossover seems harder. If someone is trying to communicate a message with verse, then if you can’t get the message, you can’t really enjoy the song on every level. As a result, you don’t have a lot of upper middle class suburban white kids listening to Pharrell, Jay-Z, or Mary J. Blige and Staind, Nickelback and Linkin Park simply don’t get all that much play in da’ hood. Along similar lines, generational gaps occur, although there is some room for slippage between generations, chances are better of finding people who like Godsmack or Lil’ Kim among people born between 1970-1985 and finding fans of Luther Vandross and Santana among their parents.

And then there’s Justin. See, the thing about Justin is that he’s ultimately more accessible than any other recording artist working today because he has something that no one else does. He excels at producing catching sounding music without the slightest hint of a message or deeper meaning in the slightest. I currently have three Justin mp3s on this computer. I’ve listened to them a couple of times over the past couple of days. One of them is playing right now, in fact. And I couldn’t give you a lyric to save my life. I know this one has music that sort of sounds like “da-da-da-da-dadum-dum-dum-da-da-da-da-dum” but that’s about as far as I can go. Sometimes it gets stuck in my head after I’ve listened to it, but I can’t even sing it or hum it because I honestly don’t have the first clue how it goes.

Justin Timberlake is a fucking Cadillac emblem. You can stick a Cadillac emblem on any random GM sedan or SUV and suddenly its just better. Substantively it’s exactly the same Chevy Avalanche it always was, but now it has that little extra bit of flash. Justin is the same. Toss him in singing hooks with 50 Cent, the Black Eyed Peas, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey or Mick Jagger and suddenly you’re just a little hipper than you already were and whatever you were saying before is still the same. Of course all anyone will remember is Da-da-da-da-dadum-dum-dum-da-da-da-da-dum.

Current Mood: [mood icon] awake
Current Music: Senorita by Justin Timberlake

(9 comments | Leave a comment)

on Justin Timberlake's great contribution to the recording industry... - graffiti.maverick — LiveJournal

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[User Picture]From: sundaygray Date: September 10th, 2003 - 05:58 am (Link)
Mav, you know you're fabuluous right? Just checking. Great column. Have fun in Europe. Is this a work thing?
[User Picture]From: chrismaverick Date: September 10th, 2003 - 06:24 am (Link)

Mav, you know you're fabuluous right?

I'm not really a gay man, but I play one on TV.

Great column.


Have fun in Europe. Is this a work thing?

Nope, its a Jer's wedding thing...
[User Picture]From: sundaygray Date: September 10th, 2003 - 10:13 am (Link)
[[Nope, its a Jer's wedding thing...]]

I realized that when I had to check today's date for something this morning...I stopped right in the middle of the sidewalk, thinking DUH.

I should really look at my calendar more. I had no idea we were that far into September.
[User Picture]From: mamarayne Date: September 10th, 2003 - 06:18 am (Link)
Personally, I can find absolutely NO use for Britney, I mean I just don't get it. I haven't "gotten" her from the beginning. I don't even think she looks that good. I just don't get it. Justin, is ok. I'm not head over heels into him either, but he sure beats out Miss Spears.
Oh well, the real reason I wanted to comment is: I'm gonna miss you. You and Steph be careful, have a great time & don't forget my post card!
[User Picture]From: chrismaverick Date: September 10th, 2003 - 07:08 am (Link)
Yeah, Britney is different. I look at her and I see a prototypical pop star. Just randomly looking at a few women who have Top 50 albums right now, I think Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguliera and Kelly Clarkson all have naturally stronger voices than Britney, and I find Beyonce, Shania Twain and Ashanti naturally more attractive. But Britney has a certain IT quality that makes you a pop sensation. Its something that makes her appealing to a very large mainstream of the populace while alienating the rest of them.

I think there are 3 main groups of innovative performers. The classic examples I can of the first are Michael Jackson and Madonna. Britney is here, though obviously not on their level (yet?). She is an entertainer first, and a musician second, if that makes any sense. Innovations are made through recreation of her image over and over again (or at least the attempts to do so) while finding some nebulous means of connecting with the audience. And yet they are talented enough along the wide array of spectrum that is performance to really shine. These are people who put on concerts that are about spectacle and they sell out all over the globe. If the fanbase is a pie chart, these people can score half of it. The problem is that the fans are very very fickle, so you can be platinum one day, and a year later everyone hates you.

Christina Aguliera on the other hand, I liken to something closer to Prince or P-Funk. This group is musically more talented than Britney (much like Prince to Michael or Madonna) and willing to perform, but clearly concentrating on changing the music more. Thus creating more sophisticate works, but they are less ubiquitously accessible. So although they willing to perform, and may do a remarkable job at it, they are less able to strike up that total fervor than the first group. They can grab any amount of the fanbase. Its touch and go, some albums may bomb, others may sell bigger than those in group one. And many fans won't follow from album to album. But who cares? Here is where musical innovation and experimentation is happening.

Then there are your Barry Manilows (sorry Steph) or your Tori Amoses or your Tracy Chapmans. They are probably more talented along a very narrow part of the spectrum than anyone else. So narrow that they alienate a vast majority of the public, but so excellent within that 2 degrees of the pie chart that they can be legendary. Barry Manilow can make the same basic album over and over again, and every one of his fans will buy it. The same is true of Luther Vandross, or Rush, just with different fanbases.

Justin on the other hand I think is just outside of the entire chart. He's like Elvis. He's not exceptionally talented, he's not exceptionally innovative. He doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say. He's just an otherwise unassuming guy who has enough of the talent and the IT quality to be amusing without really pissing anyone off. And not having a real message means that he can be more or accessible to anyone. "ooh, he's singing about a girl he broke up with... that happened to me once. " Just like "oh, yeah I would be upset too if someone stepped on my blue suede shoes." Light-hearted, refreshing, and fun. A delightful snack. Dumb but harmless.


thanx for the trip well wishes
[User Picture]From: beststephi Date: September 10th, 2003 - 09:01 am (Link)
I wonder how much of the Justin/Britney "phenomenon" is a result of the media forcing them down our throats. Almost any moderately decent song can be catchy if you hear it enough times, and almost any moderately attractive person can become popular if they're given enough exposure.
[User Picture]From: chrismaverick Date: September 10th, 2003 - 09:23 am (Link)
not true... well, not totally true anyway. That's just my point. Take for instance Mariah Carey's Glitter album. Or Ben & J.Lo's new movie, Gigli. All the media machine in the world can't help crap. People who like alternatives to popular norms like to complain saying that "If my favorite band X had the kind of marketing that popular band Y has, they'd be huge" but that simply isn't true. You get that backing by someone looking at you and thinking you have mass appeal. That's why Britney Spears is Britney Spears and Bilie Piper is who?

On the other hand, I do agree that say Justin Timberlake isn't just a one-man show. There are a lot of people who put a lot of hard work into creating what has become Justin Timberlake (or Elvis). And they needed to attach that work to the person with the goods to deliver. All the marketing in the world is never going to Make Tori Amos a pop star. She tried it. She just doesn't have the right attitude, look, or talents. On the other hand she is brilliant at what she does. And luckily, she's happier that way.

Given its quicker turnover, its easier to see this kinda thing at work in pro-wrestling. WWE has given Billy Gunn and Albert/A-train every gimmick in the world, and the fans just never really get into them. They are both talented. They are both strong looking, They just don't have IT. Whatever IT is. And no matter how much Vince McMahon shoves them down people's throats, the people don't seem to care. Then you have say Jeff Hardy who blew spots, had a drug problem that was affecting his work, and was booked in many losing matches, and the fans loved him no matter what he did. Same thing with the Rock who can only show up to work 2 shows a year and people will rave about him.

To look at it another way. Compare Justin to George W. Bush. An unassuming guy, not necessarilly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but put the right machine behind him, and you have yourself an electable president. But no amount of money, media-hype, or campaigning is ever going to put Michael Dukakis in office.
[User Picture]From: mamarayne Date: September 10th, 2003 - 09:36 am (Link)
Maybe Michael just didn't know he could have won if he had used all of those resources and cheated too.
[User Picture]From: chrismaverick Date: September 10th, 2003 - 11:09 am (Link)
Nah... I doubt it. Dukakis was pretty much totally unelectable. If Gore vs. Bush was the political equivalent of Lennox Lewis vs. Evander Holyfeld, then Dukakis vs. Regan was Mike Tyson vs. Peter McNeely. Even Don King couldn't fix that fight.

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