Justin Timberlake announced his return to music after a six-year hiatus in an “open letter” to his fans that mostly emphasized his craft and artistry. “The inspiration for this really came out of the blue, and to be honest, I didn’t expect anything out of it,” Timberlake wrote, sounding more like a guy who owns a small business selling artisanal snacks or craft beers than someone hyping up his audience for a multi-platform pop product that is tied in with a Bud Light Platinum sponsorship, a partnership with designer Tom Ford, a full week of appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and a co-headlining stadium tour with Jay-Z.
But to lead with any of that would be crass and tasteless, and that’s not what Timberlake is trying to sell you.
He is positioning himself as an upscale pop star; the sort of singer who is so talented and refined that he can make his fans wait half a decade for a new album because he only makes music when he feels truly inspired. The artiste angle is key to his marketing — he is, after all, following up on FutureSex/LoveSounds, one of the few genuinely arty pop albums to go multi-platinum in the past decade – but the core of Timberlake’s appeal is, as it’s been since he was a teen pop icon in NSYNC, his look and style. His comeback single, the slick R&B number “Suit & Tie,” is explicitly about his image — it is a song entirely about dressing up and being classy — and pushes the listener to associate his handsome face and seemingly effortless grace with men’s formal wear. It’s basically an issue of GQ adapted as a pop song, and it is the undiluted essence of Timberlake’s brand of aspirational yet attainable masculine sexuality. In other words, he’s bringing fancy back.
This is a brilliant marketing spin, in large part because it distracts the audience from realizing that Timberlake is actually in a very risky situation. Six years is a long hiatus for a pop star, and the pop landscape has changed dramatically since he released the last single from FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2007. Virtually every big name on the charts today wasn’t around back then, and there’s an entire generation of teenagers and young twentysomethings who associate him with their older siblings or even their parents’ taste, or mainly think of him as a comedic actor and entertainer after all his appearances on Saturday Night Live. There is no guarantee that there is space for Timberlake on the charts right now — his music has diverged from the current zeitgeist, and going on the first two singles from The 20/20 Experience, he has very little interest in chasing trends that might earn him an easy hit. Timberlake can’t seamlessly re-enter the pop world, so he has to set himself apart from it. In positioning himself as a luxury brand, he implies that he’s a cut above his competition, and turns his experience, craft, and artistic integrity into an asset. This reinforces his long-term fans’ positive ideas about him, and gives some incentive for younger listeners to get on board.
The catch is, this might be a terrible time to sell refined elegance and expensive menswear to a pop audience. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” the biggest pop hit of the past few months, is the polar opposite of “Suit & Tie” on a lyrical level, with the scrappy indie rapper essentially flipping off Timberlake’s high-end style and celebrating the joy of creating a distinct look from dirt cheap items at the Salvation Army. Both songs are about fashion, but “Thrift Shop” has broader appeal, with lyrics that apply to both men and women, and an extremely inclusive message. Whereas Timberlake is nudging the listener to aspire to his A-lister lifestyle, Macklemore is encouraging them to feel good about themselves despite their economic circumstances, and to define their style in their own idiosyncratic ways rather than adhere to a stuffy, rigid notion of style designed to keep out the riffraff. There’s always room for fantasy and aspirational values in pop music — Jay-Z and Kanye West’s high-end, brand-obsessed Watch the Throne was a big hit in the same year the economy totally tanked — but there’s a good chance that, at this moment, people relate more to a sort of swag that doesn’t require a total suspension of disbelief.
In a lot of ways, Timberlake is following Beyoncé’s lead. On her last album, 4, she sold herself as a mature and classy artist, with the subtle implication that she was above the concern of competing with younger rivals like Rihanna and Katy Perry on the charts. Beyoncé and Timberlake’s efforts to cement their reputations as true artists coincides with them both essentially transcending the charts — they don’t necessarily need hits because they’ve ascended to a realm of quasi-royal celebrity. JT and Bey have remarkably similar careers: They’ve been groomed for stardom since childhood; they both became stars as the central figure of pop groups during the boom period of the late ’90s; they launched successful solo careers that eclipsed their earlier fame in the ’00s. They’ve pitched themselves since day one as perfect human beings — gorgeous, charming, supremely confident, and hyper-competent. They’ve attained this level of prestige in part by never enduring any kind of slump or public meltdown, which is pretty amazing given that virtually all of their peers have gone through difficult phases.
But like Beyoncé, Timberlake’s commitment to a distinct aesthetic and apparent elitism may earn him status in celeb culture but eat into his success on the charts. Though Beyoncé has kept up the appearance of a major pop star over the past two years, her singles have performed modestly compared with smash hits by Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift. “Suit & Tie” is a solid hit — it’s been lingering in the Top 10 for eight weeks and peaked at No. 4 — but the song has polarized audiences, and its success is driven in large part by enthusiasm for Timberlake in general. “Mirrors,” the second single, is hovering just outside the Top 20, which is pretty impressive given that there’s no video for it yet and it’s eight minutes in length. The real test for Timberlake is whether he can keep up this momentum once the album is out and the hype dies down. It won’t be easy: Eight of the ten tracks on The 20/20 Experience run in the seven- to eight-minute range, which suggests that there might not be a lot that will make sense on radio without some serious edits. But that really might be beside the point; Timberlake knows that his recordings are loss leaders, and his big money comes from endorsement deals, tours, and movie roles that trade on his image as the coolest, classiest guy around.