The Artist Formerly Known as "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" meets "Artist Unknown"
Back in the days when most people my age were making their first trillion at Lint.com, I was spending my grad school career (only partially publicly-funded) with M, G, and D thinking up the ultimate new music magazine. We would meet at D's space-age bachelor pad, the only building in the Tenderloin with a doorman, and waste away the hours, complaining about the lameness of all current and past music publications, assigning ourselves creative titles (Chief Delegator, Executive Title Assigner, etc.), and basically ignoring the distant drum of reality as we gazed out on a silicon-crazed San Francisco from D's 17th floor window.
During one of those caffeine-fueled "meetings," D beckoned us over to his laptop and pointed to the music library therein.
"You guys should check this out," he said, pointing to a song listed as "Song 1" by Artist Unknown.
"Who is it?" we asked.
"It's..." D wavered, "just listen to it. It's like the reincarnation of Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson." We gave each other that half-frown, half-smile, shrugging, eyebrows-raised in a gesture of semi-open-mindedness gesture, and pressed play.
It was stark, a bit tinny, thumping, and seriously funky. And fun. It was a song about sex, but with a sense of humor ("Gonna have you nekkid by the end of this song," he sang, and we laughed. Appreciatively.) We were way in.
"But who is it?" M asked. "Artist Unknown?"
D laughed. "I'm embarrassed to admit it, but... it's Justin Timberlake."
"No!" we shrieked. The ex-N'Syncer, that curly-headed, Britney-dating, former Mouseketeer? The Nineties version of Christopher "Blue Lagoon" Atkins? Could it be? Was it possible for someone so steeped in cheesy lameness to be genuinely funky and -- wait for it -- even cool?
Reader, it was. (And it was "Rock Your Body," from the album, Justified, to be specific). D -- and the rest of America -- eventually got over the embarrassment of actually admitting we had Justin Timberlake on our iPods, and he went on to sell a zillion records, dump Britney for Cameron, and become recognized as, like, a legitimately talented guy. As Christopher Atkins's mid-80s contemporary, Yakov Smirnoff, used to say, "What a country!"
Which is why it was so sad to see him f**k up so royally at the Golden Globes last week. Let's face it, while the Globes are no Oscars, it was still a career coup for J-Timbo to get a gig as a presenter there. (He's now swinging for "serious actor" status with his new movie, Alpha Dog, see.) Presenting the Globe for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture was the perfect music-to-movie segue for him. So how psyched was Justin to present the award to his very own godhead, the man who made his musical career (post-Disney) possible, He Who Funked Before: Prince?
Reader, he was psyched. He must have been. It's like giving John Cougar Mellencamp the chance to acknowledge Bruce Springsteen, or My Chemical Romance the opportunity to thank Freddie Mercury, The Cure, and Love and Rockets. In this post-everything age, indebtedness to the people you ripped off is nothing to be ashamed of, it's to be celebrated: "Thanks for the pastiche opportunity!" Anyway.
JT announced Prince's name and a nation (OK, Neilsen said 20 million viewers, but what the hell do they know -- have you ever met anyone with a Neilsen set? Exactly.) held its breath for the big moment: Justin meets his Maker! And then... silence. Awkward feet-shuffling. Panicked neck-swiveling as Timberlake looked from one producer to the next, wondering: where the hell is Prince? At some point it became clear that His Purpleness was not present, so it was up to JT to improvise. Or not. I think we all know what the appropriate action is in a situation like this: thank the Hollywood Foreign Press for the honor and accept it on Prince's behalf. I mean, we've all seen awards shows before, right? And yet.
And yet. In a moment of insanity that might be best described as a "Globular Freakout," Justin folded at the knees and lowered himself to a below-microphone height, raised his voice an octave, and squeaked, "I'd like to accept this award on his behalf."
Most of the audience had no idea what was happening, though a few giggled. And that was it. Timberlake loped offstage with his avatar's award clutched in his clammy fist. He had just mocked his idol, his role model, the original post-James Brown sexy motherfucker. And a nation -- OK, 20 million people -- had watched him do it.
Personally, I felt a mixture of annoyance and compassion for Timberlake. This was his Big Moment in Movie Star World, one that for a few moments held the promise of his sharing a stage with the Man himself -- sharing a stage! Quel thrill! Together forever! BFFs and all that! -- but the fact of Prince's mysterious non-appearance and Timberlake's own nervous energy had transformed it into a shameless, junior high-quality, I'm-better-than-you-cause-you're... short" kissoff. I imagine Justin kicking himself, at least emotionally, as he wove through the backstage thicket of jabbering "reporters," stage hands, and handlers, handing Prince's statue over to a designated keeper and slouching off to drown his sorrows in some free small-batch bourbon at the Knob Creek celebrity kiosk.
As for Prince, only a guy with his bulletproof musical integrity can put out dippy tunes like "The Song of the Heart," the Globe-winning song from Happy Feet, and come out artistically intact. He did eventually show up -- Hugh Grant (Hugh Grant?) explained he was held up in traffic (OK... is this some new Hollywood metaphor for rehab or something?) -- and he made a perfunctory, Buddha-like bow to the crowd in his apricot-hued Nehru suit. As I said, only a guy with his bulletproof musical integrity can wear an apricot-hued Nehru suit and come out artistically intact.
I don't think we'll be seeing Justin Timberlake in an apricot-hued Nehru suit anytime soon. But who knows? Maybe his Prince-dissing was a moment of triumph for the curly little dude: I made a joke about Prince, and Ellen Pompeo laughed! Let's hope not. My own experience in learning to love Justin Timberlake makes me want to believe he's better than that. I don't want to have to refer to him, once more, as "Artist Unknown."