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…Arrrgg
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-e
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-d
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-du