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Justin Timberlake in a box

When did haters scratch Justin Timberlake off the list of celebrities to loath? And even more importantly, how did this former Mouseketeer and ’N Sync veteran gain the respect of even the most dedicated naysayers?
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

When did it happen? When did haters — as a whole — scratch Justin Timberlake off the list of celebrities to loath? When did the alternatively minded, anti-commercialism types who dismiss anything even remotely smelling of corporately manufactured pop music, stop rolling their collective eyes at young JT? And even more importantly, how? How did this former Mouseketeer and ’N Sync veteran gain the respect of even the most dedicated naysayers?

Admit it, you kids who discovered the Velvet Underground at a very early age; you mopey emo brats with your hair in your eyes; you social outcasts who are not now or never were popular in high school; you hardcore hip hop enthusiasts lamenting the fate of poor ol’ Flavor Flav, OutKast and/or the Black Eyed Peas. Even you snobs who feign ignorance at all things pop culture, flitting around parties telling new acquaintances, “I don’t have a TV.” You may want to be Kurt Cobain when you grow up, but you know you watched the uncensored version of the Saturday Night Live Digital Short, like, a 100 times on YouTube. And you laughed every time — with Justin Timberlake, not at him.

You want to hate JT, but it’s impossible. 

Here’s why: Despite being a plastic product of a plastic boy band, he’s got concrete talent. It’s like finding out that the guy you thought got the job because he kissed ass actually knows his stuff, buys rounds of drinks, and tells hilarious self-deprecating jokes. There’s still something to hate, but only if you’re a professional (or serious amateur) hater. And then you just hate the fact that you’re not him. Move on.

Step one: Cut a hole in the boxThe Justin Timberlake tipping point came in December 2006, the moment “Box” turned viral video on the Internet. How could anybody not like a dude so deft at mocking the dance-pop/urban contemporary/hip hop mélange from which he emerged? And JT has it down — from his vocal histrionics to his pimp dance moves. Timberlake worked every cliché of his music genre to comic perfection, revealing the video’s undeniable truth: The kid has chops.

Of course, the cynical began to waver long before “Box” overtook another SNL Digital Short virus, “Lazy Sunday.” It started before his standout performance as a dumb young thug in “Alpha Dog” or his critically hailed part in the upcoming “Black Snake Moan.” It happened somewhere between Britney and Cameron Diaz, around the time of his first hilarious SNL hosting gig when he killed with his “Awesome!” Ashton Kutcher impression and cracked up in Jessica Simpson drag.

When JT’s first solo LP, “Justified” dropped in 2002, the onslaught of positive reviews was astonishing. Big-time respected music rags, from Rolling Stone on down, couldn’t say enough about this surprisingly decent joint. For those too stubborn to give “Justified” a listen, the raves seemed like “Invasion of the Critic Snatchers.” Like, what’s wrong with these dudes? Did a record-company goon get to them; maybe throw money their way? Where they hypnotized? It was eerily reminiscent of 1979, when early adapters fruitlessly attempted to tell their punk rock friends that Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” was really, really good. No, really!

Step two: Put JT in the boxNo small coincidence there. “Justified” actually features songs Jacko rejected for his unremarkable “Invincible.” While the LP didn’t sell as many records as his ’N Sync efforts, “Justified” turned out two top 10 singles, “Cry Me a River” and “Rock Your Body.” He toured with Christina Aguilera, the only other ex- Mouseketeer pop star to gain a modicum of musical respect. And he upped his street cred via collaboration with The Black Eyed Peas and Snoop Dogg, and a cameo in Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” video.

JT’s obvious effort to man up his sexually unthreatening ’N Sync image is sometimes amusing. The “Cry Me a River” video, with its Britney Spears doppelganger, screamed “She may have cheated on me, but I’m no pansy cuckold! I’m over it! I’m a man!” Then there’s the 2004 Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction. Was JT trying to out-do Britney and Madonna’s onstage make-out session when he “accidentally” exposed Janet Jackson’s breast? If so, he sure was ready to issue the required broadcast apology/denial for the “incident,” lest he be barred from that year’s Grammys.

While this “outrage” is burned in our collective pop culture consciousness, it’s Janet Jackson we discuss whenever “wardrobe malfunction” is bandied about in cocktail chat. Meanwhile, JT’s active participation fades from our memory. (It was Timberlake’s lyric, “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song”). Perhaps we’re distracted by his fetching razor stubble and close-cropped hair (a vast improvement from the Ronald McDonald curls of ’N Sync days). Maybe it’s the way suits hang on his tall, wiry frame or how he heterosexualizes designer sweater vests that by all laws of nature should only work on Carson Kressley.

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Maybe it’s JT’s honest appreciation, understanding, and obvious love for R&B that has our attention. His well-honed vocal style and even his dance moves are happily reminiscent of a young Michael Jackson — before it got weird. JT may crib his moves from Jackson, and as his new LP reveals, Prince. But hey, he’s listening to the masters. And he’s young. Since he’s apparently destined to work well beyond the pop star 3- to 5- year shelf life, let’s see how this goes.

Step three: Make us open the box
OK, maybe all the haters aren’t there yet. Maybe loving Justin Timberlake is worse than, say loving Montel Jordan’s “This is How We Do It” or Li’l Kim’s “Magic Box.” With those bubblegum-hip hoppers, you only have to love one of their songs. When your friends discover one of those singles in your MP3s, you can just tell them that hey, it’s cool to have some feel-good bubble-gum rap in your collection — you know — ironically. The thing with JT is, well, you can see yourself buying his entire LP in all seriousness, without the leanest cover of a wink or smirk.

Praised be for iTunes and Amazon, erasing the only residual downside to liking Justin. In a world where the music you like is still part of your identity, who wants to wait in line with JT fans who like him “for all the wrong reasons?” Online anonymity relieves the urge to explain to the world that, unlike the other mallrats waiting in Target with “FutureSex/LoveSounds” clutched in their doltish paws, you … um … respect his music.

I hate myself. Thanks Justin!

New York-based writer Helen A.S. Popkin is not nearly as cool as she wants you to think.