A week ago I was driving home with friends from a hike to Alamere Falls in Point Reyes and had been listening to some Joni Mitchell, some Phosphorescent, a little Bob Marley, perfect tunes for the sunny weather. The hike itself was about eight miles in total, moderately rocky terrain and glimpses of the ocean, much needed time to rejuvenate. Almost as soon as the radio was voted on in the car, I heard a chorus full of singable hooks, the voice indisputably that of Justin Timberlake. It was “Mirrors” from his latest half-LP The 20/20 Experience. I’ve never been a Timberhead and can go so far as to say I didn’t even know he was making music anymore. It’s been seven years since his last album, and now after taking that time to explore, he is back to what he does best. A celebrity or an artist, just like everyone else, deserves the right to a hiatus, a gap year, or in Justin’s case, years.
When Justin was 11, he made his first appearance on Star Search and spent two years on The Mickey Mouse Club alongside megahits Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. At a very young age, it was clear to Justin (or to his parents) what his dreams were, what his talents were, and how to capitalize. When watching old footage of Justin he doesn’t seem too awkward like many child actors forced into the business by their parents, pupils dilated on the verge of tears, Justin seems to be a natural, genuinely enjoying himself, someone—and I hate to say it—born to entertain (e.g. River Phoenix, Shirley Temple, Drew Barrymore). From that Star Search performance, it’s clear this little guy can sing but when starting so young and burning so bright, is it inevitable the—ahem—little star will burn out? Someone like Justin did not have the run-of-the-mill childhood but he is still a human and humans like to check out their options.
For as ubiquitous as he is, Justin only has three full-length albums. I was surprised myself when doing the research. After the huge success of FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006, Justin split off the music scene for a good amount of time. It’s crazy to imagine someone at the height of their popularity in one artistic medium, raking in millions, pulling the proverbial plug. It would be like Michael Jordan playing baseball or Joaquin Phoenix becoming a rapper... oh wait. We definitely saw Justin in those seven years but not necessarily with a microphone in his hand. As Napster-found Sean Parker in The Social Network, he proved he could definitely cut it as a dramatic actor. As Beyonce’s backup dancer in an SNL skit for “Single Ladies,” he proved he could cut it as a comedian. He was doing his thing and doing it well, just not in a recording studio.
What we come to expect from artists is once they give us something spectacular we want them to give us more and even more than that. And when we don’t get it, the artist either becomes iconic or simply an iconic joke. To keep in the music realm, take for example a band like My Bloody Valentine. Some would argue the band’s 1991 album Loveless as one of the best records of all time, defining not only a decade but a generation of kids, and over the likes of Radiohead and Nirvana. I’m talking big deals here. How does a band follow genius with bigger genius and do we denounce them if we get nothing? My Bloody Valentine became iconic and 22 years in 2013 they released the follow up to Loveless, picking up right where they left off. On the other side of the coin is—and I may get some slack from my gay community for this one—Britney. Her hiatus didn’t quite work as well. In the mid-2000s, we followed Britney from meltdown to meltdown and had to bear witness to one of the most superbly terrible “comebacks” in pop culture history: her 2007 MTV Music Awards performance of “Gimme More,” where she appeared sedated like a sleepy puppy. Britney has become an iconic joke. I understand it might not be fair to compare little shoegaze pioneers with the enormous fame of a pop act but both took breaks and one just worked out better than the other.
With Justin, he not only traveled different career pathways, he also fell in love, which is something we both tend to forget about celebrities, that they have families just like you and me. Recently I was in a pizzeria and the man behind the counter was ringing me up and checking his phone at the same time. When he saw no one called, he put his phone on the counter and we finished our transaction. As I turned out the door, I saw the wallpaper on his homescreen was a picture of what I assume to be his wife and children. And my heart melted. Of course he has a wife and of course he has children! Our meaningless interaction just became human, super human. We engage with celebrities and artists because they entertain us, we want something from them, but like US Weekly says: They’re Just Like Us!
Justin is just like us. We return to what we know, what we’re good at, and what can help us keep moving forward with our lives. But not without exploring other options. In his latest single “Mirrors,” he sings: and I’ll tell you, baby / it was easy coming back into you once I figured it out / you were right here all along. Sometimes you have to just take a break from tackling the city and go out and conquer the forest and the sea.