Has Justin Timberlake squandered his pop-star prime? 

Has Justin Timberlake squandered his pop-star prime? 

On Friday, Justin Timberlake will appear at a theater near you in the new science-fiction would-be blockbuster, In Time. The film is set in a future dystopia where people stop aging at 25, then trade their remaining living moments like currency. Timberlake plays the protagonist, Will Salas, a fugitive from justice determined to bring down a corrupt system where the rich can afford to live forever at the expense of the time-strapped poor. The commercials look decent—hey, there’s Pete Campbell from Mad Men!—but my gut tells me I’ll be disappointed when I inevitably go see it. As much as I’d like to believe that there’s a subplot involving Timbaland and the Neptunes, it doesn’t seem likely. (Danceable R&B hits couldn’t plausibly exist in a dystopia.)

This is the burden of the Justin Timberlake fan who is now forced to pay $10 a pop to see one of the world’s most beloved pop stars pretend to be somebody else for two hours. While the price for appreciating Timberlake has gone up, his stature has been scaled down. As a singer, Timberlake is the biggest thing to come out of Memphis since Elvis; as an actor, he’s a smaller, more puckish Ryan Reynolds. Still, he seems well-suited for In Time, because in terms of his own pop stardom, Timberlake also stopped at age 25. 

It’s now been five long years since the 30-year-old Timberlake released an album. That’s an eternity in pop music, and it will almost certainly be at least another year before he puts out new music. Recent interviews suggest that he isn’t interested in making an album right now. (Well, except for that so-so rap-rock record he just produced.) Just last month, when he talked with British magazine ShortList, Timberlake said he “probably” would have put out a new record by now if not for all the film roles he’s been offered. (In Time is his third movie of 2011, following Bad Teacher and Friends With Benefits.) One of those roles is in the upcoming movie Spinning Gold, a biopic about ’70s record-industry executive Neil Bogart, who made his name making bubblegum and disco records. (As our own Sean O’Neal observed, records “are those things Justin Timberlake used to make before The Social Network.”)

Actually, Timberlake turned his focus to movies well before he played Sean Parker in 2010’s The Social Network. Not long after the release of 2006’s mega-selling, critically acclaimed FutureSex/LoveSounds, he starred as drug-dealing gang-banger Frankie Ballenbacher in Alpha Dog. After that, he was Ronnie in Black Snake Moan, Private Pilot Abilene in Southland Tales, and Jacques “Le Coq” Grandé in The Love Guruall films that, to put it charitably, garnered mixed-to-bordering-on-hostile responses. 

Timberlake has also made multiple celebrated appearances on Saturday Night Live, serving as host and musical guest in 2003 and 2006. But when he hosted in 2009, 2010, and 2011, he left the band at home. It’s now understood that when Timberlake shows up on TV, you shouldn’t expect him to sing or dance, even though those are the things that originally made him famous.

And yet the pop singer in Timberlake has a way of suddenly appearing and stealing the show. Surveying the highlights of his non-musical career from the past several years, what stands out are the times when Timberlake, however briefly, gets the chance to rock the mic again. His most memorable bit from SNL is the iconic “Dick In A Box,” where he plays a Color Me Badd-like cheeseball who still manages to kill the catchy chorus. The best part of the insane Southland Tales is when the movie stops in its tracks for a stylized music video featuring Timberlake lip-syncing to The Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done.” And as a talk-show guest promoting The Social Network, Timberlake brought down the house performing a “history of rap” medley with Jimmy Fallon

The mega-watt charisma, the flair for showmanship, the electrifying command of all available eyeballs in the premises—it’s all there in that clip, and mostly absent in his films. As a singer, Timberlake has an element of “How am I getting away with this?” incredulousness that I find totally endearing. He isn’t the naturally hunky, sex-symbol type; he made himself into that by sheer force of his personality. There are better singers, dancers, and songwriters, but Timberlake has that special ingredient in more abundant supply than anybody else currently in pop: It simply feels good to watch him.

That is why I paid good money to see Friends With Benefits, the dire romantic comedy he starred in this summer with Mila Kunis. For the most part, Friends With Benefits is an utterly fraudulent attempt to poke fun at slick mainstream romantic comedies while indulging in every trick in the rom-com handbook. (At least a dozen sensitive folk troubadours gave their songs so this film could have a suitably soul-searching soundtrack.) I saw Friends With Benefits with my wife at the budget theater last week, and while my heart quickly sank as the movie unfolded in predictably soulless fashion, I held out hope that the other Justin, the feel-good Justin, might make a cameo. 

Thankfully, he did: For a quick 30 or so seconds at the movie’s midpoint, he performs a goofy rendition of Kris Kross’ “Jump”—complete with wiggedy-wiggedy-wacks—for an obviously delighted Kunis. It was an unexpected, probably unnecessary throwaway scene, but it’s the only thing I enjoyed about Friends With Benefits. 

There’s growing discontent in pop culture among those who wish Timberlake would do this sort of thing full-time again. A popular YouTube video by comedians Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer begging Justin Timberlake to release new music makes the point comically—“Justin Bieber is too young for me to jerk off to,” says one jilted fan—but it still rings true: Timberlake is squandering his prime as a pop star, and at some point, he isn’t going to be able to come all the way back.

Timberlake turns 31 in January. I have no doubt that once he puts out a new album, it will debut at the top of the charts and spin off numerous hit singles. It’s just that some of those songs might do better on the adult-contemporary chart than the Hot 100. Consider this: Among the artists who released the Top 10 best-selling albums of 2010, only three—Eminem, Sade, and Usher—were active recording artists at the time of FutureSex/LoveSounds. A whole new generation of stars has emerged since then. Nouveau pop royalty like Bieber, Lady Gaga, Drake, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and B.o.B. have stepped up to take over an audience that consists in large part of listeners who were born around the time Timberlake first emerged as a member of ’N Sync. For today’s middle-schoolers, Justin Timberlake is what their parents listened to. And in music, unlike in Justin Timberlake’s latest movie, there’s no getting that lost time back.

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