Dear Justin Timberlake, Please Return to Music. Now.
Dear Justin Timberlake,
Please sing for us.
We get it. You are a good actor. Watching you discuss your latest role, playing Boo-Boo in the new Yogi Bear movie, here, here, and here, it was obvious how good you are. You've mastered the one role every film star must play—that of an Actor Excited to be Interviewed. You also just finished shooting Friends With Benefits, a romantic comedy with Mila Kunis, your first time playing a leading man. This summer you'll appear in the comedy Bad Teacher with Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel. You got raves for your performance as early Facebook advisor Sean Parker in The Social Network, which was just nominated for a slew of Golden Globes. Currently you are shooting a futuristic thriller Now, in which you—a former Mouseketeer and member of the much-reviled boy band 'N Sync—play a full-on, fast-driving, gun-toting action hero.
Congratulations, Justin. You are officially a movie star. We knew you could do it. But before you vanish forever into the world of soundstages and green screens, could you please do one favor for your fans? Could you please sing for us? Could you please make just one more album? The process really doesn't have to be the year-long struggle you always seem to make it. You no longer need, pun very much intended, to justify yourself as a musician. Just write down a few melodies, call Timbaland, and head into the recording studio for one last hurrah.
Nobody blames you for wanting to be in movies. You certainly aren't the first singer to try acting. In fact, it's hard to think of a pop star in the last 50 years who hasn't ventured into film at least once. Usually, the results are horrendous. For every Bette Midler and Frank Sinatra who successfully makes the leap from music to movies, there are a dozen like Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Sting, and Madonna who flop horribly.
You are succeeding where so many haven't because you are building your film career the right way. You did not, thank goodness, fall prey to The Glitter Effect—named for Mariah Carey's all-time turkey—and start your career with a high profile, big budget, song-and-dance vehicle in which you play a thinly-disguised version of yourself. Instead, you went for Hollywood's version of authenticity. Kissing up to the Sundance crowd, you took small, supporting roles in well-made indie films—if we forget Edison—including Alpha Dog and Black Snake Moan. You also showed a surprising and impressive gift for comedy—if we forget The Love Guru—and the partnerships with Jimmy Fallon and Andy Samberg produced some of the flat-out funniest viral videos of all-time. Comedy made the movies possible, really, by selling you to a whole new audience—namely, straight men. That is, dudes. Guys. The Broheim Nation. The country's great masses of beer-drinking, football-loving, backwards-baseball-cap-wearing guys—who had either never heard of you, or hated you already for being in a boy band—immediately fell in love with you for doing "Dick in a Box."
Of course, you probably don't think you are leaving the music industry forever, just taking a short sabbatical—like that quick, little five-year hiatus you took between the recording of Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds, right? But it has already been five years since you made FutureSex, and you have enough film work lined up to keep you busy for a couple more.
Have you checked a calendar lately, dude? On January 31, you turn 30. For an actor, that's still young. You could work for a few more decades—in supporting roles at least. In pop music, 30 years old isn't young. Thirty in pop music is somewhere between elder statesman and dead. That's when people on the street walk up and ask: "Didn't you used to be Justin Timberlake?"
Ultimately, you are an entertainer—an artist, even. Whether it be singing, dancing, or wearing spandex briefs for laughs (sorry, we just can't forget The Love Guru), you naturally want to push yourself as a performer. If you really want to push yourself, though, make more music.
Recording good songs is quantifiably harder than acting. Both can be intellectually demanding, sure, but singing is a physical challenge, too—with athletic demands like the sports you love. An actor who feels burnt-out, for instance, can take a few weeks off and come back renewed. Singing, as you know, doesn't work that way. Singers who go weeks without practice don't come back to anything except a diminished range and cloudy tone.
But there is a better reason for you to keep making records. Much better. Music simply matters to people more than film.
Movies are escapism—they transport us to another world for a few hours. Music, though, is with us in the real world. For most of us, music is an intimate part of daily life—an intimacy that gives musicians a direct entrée into our consciousness and a power to change that consciousness that other artists simply don't have. No Sidney Poitier film, for instance, did half as much to advance civil rights as Berry Gordy did with Motown. None of Hollywood's so-called important films about homosexuality, like Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, or Angels in America, did half as much to advance gay rights as Freddie Mercury and Elton John did just by being themselves in the public eye.
At the moment, Justin, you dwell in lofty realms.
Impressive collaborations with the likes of Nelly, Game, and Rihanna have made you respected in the rap and hip hop worlds. Yet you're not the least bit threatening to White America—suburban moms would let you date their daughters, while any suburban dad can respect a man who owns his own golf course. Like they used to say about Elvis and Sinatra—the women want to date you and the guys want to be you. (For that matter, lots of guys want to date you, too.)
That kind of mass crossover appeal is extraordinarily rare—and it means more than just a fat bank account for the Timberlake clan. Like super-powers for a comic book hero, your great fame comes with great responsibility. Since its inception with ragtime and jazz, American popular music has always been a force for positive change—implicitly and often explicitly asserting the common humanity that binds us and transcends the barriers of race, class, and gender. Right now—no matter what Kayne says—you're still the man. You are, arguably, the Coolest Guy on Earth. At this moment in pop culture, you have the chance to do something extraordinary—something only a very few people are ever privileged enough to experience. You can be heard.
You have the world's ear—a few precious seconds where the whole planet cares what you have to say. Do you really want to spend those precious seconds doing cartoon voices?
Cool is fragile and time flies. Go, make your movies. Get that Oscar. Stick it on a shelf with your Grammys and Emmy. Before you blink, though, you'll be 40, and bored on movie sets. The lead roles will be drying up—although you will be contractually obligated to appear in Shrek 47: The Abomination. You will find yourself rationalizing a Gary Sinise/David Caruso-style step down to network television. You will remember the thrill you once got from singing for a live audience, instead of just talking in front of a camera. You will remember how music moves people—including yourself—in a way that nothing else can.
By then, though, it will be too late. Sure, you can record new songs and even tour. But anything you do—no matter how good it is—will reek with the musty, sickening-sweet stench of a comeback. Your moment will be gone.
Justified was very good. FutureSex/LoveSounds excellent. Finish the trilogy. Give us our Return of the Jedi. Our Last Crusade. Give us one more great record. Do it for the fans—the people who gave you every bit of the worldly success you now enjoy—including the chance to act. You have the voice. You have the intelligence. You have the kind of record company support that other artists can only dream of. The only question is whether you have the heart and soul.