Glance at the iconography around his new album The 20/20 Experience, out this week, and you might think Justin Timberlake is intimating Frank Sinatra.
Not musically, of course. Sinatra was a jazz singer, while Timberlake is a pop star. His career is built on blue-eyed funk and soul with a 21st-century sheen. Stylistically, though, with his retro tuxedos and big-band sets, it would be easy to think that Justin is trying to be Frank.
He's not. The more accurate comparison is to another Rat Packer: Sammy Davis Jr. That's what's so unusual and refreshing about Timberlake's career. His rise represents the return of a long-lost showbiz archetype: the song-and-dance man.
A tradition that was born in vaudeville and spread to nightclubs and Broadway before being drowned by self-parody in the lounges of Las Vegas, song-and-dance men were the great, all-around entertainers of the 20th century. From Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and George M. Cohan, to Fred Astaire and Anthony Newley, they could sing, dance, act, tell jokes, do impressions, write songs, and deftly work a crowd as a bandleader and MC. For the first time since Sammy Davis—or maybe Bobby Darin—we have in Timberlake a superstar who can truly do it all.
Saturday night I saw him perform in what should not have been the pop star's element. At the supposedly indie-oriented South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, Timberlake's Myspace Secret Show was the hottest ticket in town. The show was even hotter. Wearing a novelty tux t-shirt version of "black tie for no reason," Timberlake was the consummate showman: jumping with the beat, high-fiving, fist-pumping, calling for the audience to sing with him, then casually cursing, joking, and toasting the crowd with Guinness after midnight when St. Patrick's Day had begun. The performance, for just a few hundred people in a steamy club, was marked by old showbiz tropes. Like when he called "Step with me, Austin!" during "Pusher Love Girl," a Prince-like ode to addictive passion, one of the sprawling, ambitious, shimmering, but decidedly quirky new songs on The 20/20 Experience. The same vibe shows up on "That Girl" with its slightly cheesy, fake-nightclub intro of JT "all the way from Memphis, Tennessee." That's not new for the singer, either. "Senorita," from his first solo record Justified, opens with a similar intro schtick, and includes a middle break with an old school, alternating male/female call-and-response straight off the chitlin circuit.
One hallmark of the song-and-dance man is versatility. Timberlake may not be the best singer and dancer on earth, but he's very, very good at both of them. He also drips with charisma. More crucially, like Sammy and like all the great song-and-dance men before him, Justin moves freely between one form of entertainment and the another, with no part of his appeal seeming like that of a dilettante or novelty act.
Show business, after all, is filled with performers who can sing and dance. But they aren't in the same category as Timberlake. Someone like Hugh Jackman comes to mind. He's a Broadway actor, an accomplished singer, and a huge Hollywood star. Yet Jackman will never mount a solo concert tour, and the dancing/joking side of him remains something he busts out only at occasional awards-show hosting gigs—it's not the centerpiece of what he does. He's more actor than all-around entertainer.
For that matter, Sinatra could sing and dance, and certainly had charisma to burn. Yet Frank wasn't truly a song-and-dance man. That's because he took himself too seriously as an artist. Therein lies the biggest difference between a Sinatra-type and a Sammy type: comedy. The song-and-dance man dates to the prewar era, before entertainment was considered art. Being plain-old funny was a huge part of the gig.