Justin revisits mall roots
09:07 AM PDT on Thursday, July 20, 2006
By JONATHAN DREW
The Associated Press
According to showbiz lore, Justin Timberlake got his start at a "Star Search" audition in a mall. The music he made with 'N Sync became the soundtrack for a generation of mall rats, and it was hard to pass a Sam Goody, Waldenbooks or Spencer Gifts without seeing his mug plastered on posters and magazine covers.
Ostensibly, Timberlake is no longer courting the teenybopper set. But it would be impossible for him to strip the mall gene from his creative DNA, as evidenced by the sleek, S&M-referencing "SexyBack." The collaboration with Timbaland, which was shipped to radio about a week ago, goes for an edgier sound but is still aimed squarely at middlebrow American taste.
It's been almost a decade since Daft Punk released their futuristic single "Around the World," but their influence on more mainstream acts is as strong as ever. First, this summer's Busta Rhymes hit "Touch It" directly sampled Daft Punk's "Technologic," and Timbaland might as well have -- the squawking, computerish beat in "SexyBack" borrows heavily from the French duo's sound.
Like the cook at a casual-dining chain restaurant, Timbaland takes a recipe developed by a groundbreaking, obscure chef and prepares it for the masses. The average listener will find the catchy Timberlake track exotic but palatable -- the auditory version of Cheesecake Factory's spicy ahi tempura rolls.
The song is less a chance to show off Timberlake's singing talents than a vehicle for his playful, club-friendly persona. While we know Timberlake can sing, the track uses a vocoder-like effect to make his voice husky, tinny and a little staticky -- almost as if he recorded his vocals by leaving a voicemail on Timbaland's cell phone. The artist doesn't even bother singing the chorus, leaving that to the deadpan spoken-word of the producer.
By digitally distressing the quality of his singing, Timberlake has created a sound that should go over well with people who shop at Abercrombie for brand-new jeans that are purposely ripped, frayed and splotched with paint.
So how does the former Mouseketeer, as he puts it, bring "sexy" back? With a reference to sadomasochism that somehow comes off as about as provocative as a Victoria's Secret window display: "See these shackles, baby, I'm your slave/ I'll let you whip me if I misbehave." Given Timberlake's boy-band resume, I'm just as likely to believe he's getting shackled and whipped as I am that Ashlee Simpson didn't have work done on her nose.
These days, Timberlake is clearly going for a more grown-up sound. But "SexyBack" shows that while you can take the boy out of the mall, you can't take the mall out of the boy.