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Justin Timberlake's rise required 20/20 artistic vision

12:08 PM, Mar 19, 2013   |    comments
Justin Timberlake performs during one of several appearances on 'Late Night With Jimmy Fallon' at Rockefeller Center in New York City. (Photo: Theo Wargo, Getty Images)
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When Justin Timberlake joined The Mickey Mouse Club cast 20 years ago, only his mom would have bet on the superstardom he now enjoys.

The pop singer's highly anticipated and warmly received third solo album, The 20/20 Experience, hits stores Tuesday, seven years after his last album and a generation since Disney's kiddie variety show launched his steady climb in show business.

Had tradition prevailed, Timberlake would have faded after the big bang of boy bands in the 1990s, dominated by 'N Sync.

Instead, he flourished as "one of the few artists to seamlessly make the always-tricky transition from boy-band lead singer to solo superstar," says Melinda Newman, HitFix.com music blogger.

What was clear with the release of his first solo album, 2002's Justified, has grown more apparent in the decade since, "not only with 2006's FutureSex/LoveSounds and now with 20/20, but in the totality of his career," she says. "Timberlake is one of those rare artists who seldom makes a misstep and seems to handle each new challenge, whether it be musically, comedically or dramatically, with an admirable deftness and confidence."

In the past decade, Timberlake strengthened his brand with movies (The Social Network, Friends With Benefits), a clothing line and endorsements for golf gear, men's cologne and cars.

He's exercised strict control over 20/20's rollout, doing few interviews but maximizing exposure: singing single Suit & Tie with Jay-Z at the Grammy Awards, hosting Saturday Night Live for the fifth time, wrapping up a week-long run on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, appearing at SXSW and releasing two videos.

"In terms of marketing, he's savvy in that he aligns himself with trusted brands," says Keith Caulfield, Billboard associate director of charts/retail. "He's at home on SNL. He goes on Fallon for a week because he's had great experiences there in the past, and he knows he's going to be warmly embraced. He's doing things that make sense and limiting exposure to what he's comfortable with."

His goofball antics and self-deprecating humor also may enhance his appeal.

"He seems to not take himself too seriously, and that kind of moxie can take you a long way," Caulfield says. "It's one thing to passively watch someone on YouTube. It's another to spend $10 on an album. Personality points can help get that wallet opened."

Sales of Suit & Tie have surpassed 1 million downloads, and second single Mirrors "is off to a good start," says Caulfield, who predicts that 20/20 will sell upward of 500,000 copies in its first week. "It's going to do incredibly well initially, because there's so much anticipation and so much goodwill built up around him."

Timberlake's rise owes much to his ability "to reach out to a broad audience and build a career that's multi-generational, multinational and multiethnic," says music consultant Tom Vickers. "From his entertaining stint on SNL to his ongoing 'History of Rap' segments on Fallon, he's shown himself to be culturally aware, musically astute and able to spread his artistic vision across multiple platforms. As an actor, TV personality and musician, he's become the touchstone performer of this generation."

The smart path is to continue stretching and perhaps add a Broadway show to his résumé, Vickers says.

The wrong move?

"Any step backward into his boy-band past, like an 'N Sync reunion, would be career death."

Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY

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