When Critics Meet Pop

Why are some writers so afraid of Justin Timberlake?

Popped by critics

The first single from Justin Timberlake’s triple-platinum solo album, Justified, came out nine months ago and was a dance-club standard by Christmas. Built on acoustic guitar and drums with blood ties to George Michael’s “Faith,” “Like I Love You” is a tensile come-on sung in Michael Jackson’s old falsetto. Timberlake wants his girl to smile and to “be limber.” At first, it sounds like their first stop will not be Dairy Queen. But is he thinking what we’re thinking? When the chorus claims “Ain’t nobody love you like I love you,” it’s unclear if we’re talking about Justin’s date, the drummer, or Michael Jackson. If you’ve seen Timberlake dancing in the video, you’ll guess one of the latter two. At the end of the song, Justin is telling us to dance and the girl is gone. The Neptunes, who produced the track, pace the elements perfectly, creating an erotic daisy chain that pulls us toward each new sound. When the next thing arrives, you want it, bad. “Like I Love You” doesn’t recall a Michael Jackson song so much as the feeling of dancing to a Michael Jackson song in front of the mirror.

The second single—produced by Timbaland, the only man challenging the Neptunes for critical and commercial consensus—was “Cry Me a River,” a complete 180 from “Like I Love You” ‘s jackrabbit lust. “Cry” is puppy love directed by Douglas Sirk, a CinemaScope ballad full of generous detail and disjunctive leaps and Timberlake’s second consecutive hit. The song got an obvious boost from gossip columnists reading it as Justin’s kiss-off to his ex, Britney Spears, but less obvious was the response from New Yorker music critic Alex Ross: “In the past year, rock critics found themselves in the faintly embarrassing position of having to hail Justin Timberlake’s Justified as one of the better records of the year.” The embarrassment must be Ross’, as the critics didn’t exhibit much. Rolling Stone gave the album four stars, and Village Voice critic Robert Christgau gave it an A-. The daily newspaper reviews were uniformly positive. But The New Yorker has a track record of approaching pop music with one hand holding its nose, so calling Timberlake an embarrassment is simply par for the course. Eustace Tilley has never been down with the kids. In fact, there is a historical trend for critics to discount hugely popular artists who sell to kids, especially girls. Sometimes, critics, borrowing a little fantasy back from the kids, like to pretend that these artists don’t really exist.

Ross likes “Cry Me a River,” praising its multiple layers and name-checking Duke Ellington, but the whole thing makes him uncomfortable: “In any case,” he writes, “the songs on Justified aren’t really Timberlake’s. A dozen names appear in the credits, and it’s anyone’s guess how much of a song like ‘Cry Me a River,’ the album’s best track, actually came from Timberlake’s pen, if he owns one.” There’s probably more evidence George Bush doesn’t own a pen, but Ross is making a funny. We salute that. But still, the crack is pure ideology. The Beatles, whom he praises, were a big collaborative pileup, so why would Ross object to Timberlake collaborating with Timbaland? There are just three writing credits on “Cry Me a River,” one more than most Beatle songs: Timberlake, Timbaland, and keyboardist Scott Storch. Storch isn’t a singer, and Timbaland usually relies on partners for pop songwriting. The most likely source, then, for “River“‘s gorgeous harmonies is Timberlake himself. Throw on his previous work and you can hear it. The nimble rhythms and long vocal phrases Timberlake wrote for three of ‘N Sync’s best songs—“Pop,” “Girlfriend,” and “Gone”—are very different from the fierce, clipped vocals Timbaland favors on Missy Elliott’s Under Construction. What “Cry” sounds exactly like is half Timberlake, half Timbaland. Timberlake tells us as much in the press kit: “As soon as Timbaland made that beat, I started humming this crazy melody. I really wanted one section of the song to follow that staccato rhythm, but wanted the other parts to feel like something new.”

Ross’ attack on Timberlake’s legitimacy is simply another appearance of the long-standing critical bias toward a certain kind of musician and a received take on how they make records. Take Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sleater-Kinney, or Jack White, artists who use tools deemed “basic”—guitar, bass, drums. You can hear what each person is doing, physically, with their hands and voices. So the critic assumes a link straight from the artists to the putative listener, and praises the work using that metric. If a producer is listed, his role is brushed off as merely engineering and arranging, since producers usually don’t get songwriting credit.

But other genres—dance pop, hip-hop, R & B—depend on different modes of production that don’t hinge on single auteurs and often lean, happily, on technological innovations. Hip-hop threw a big wrench into the singer-songwriter paradigm by using bits of other people’s records and introducing a layer of digital technology—samplers, keyboards—between the listener and artist. These strategies complicate the status of the individual author for everyone, but the biggest garlic for all vampire critics is the audience these genres depend on: kids, often girls. Few critics complain about the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” but for every Motown encomium, there are a hundred complaints about the virus of “synthetic teen pop” and “bubblegum.” Pop critics call it “rockism,” and the (very) short version of the attack goes like this: Pop music isn’t made by people, but by bands of hired guns on assembly lines, working to rationalized standards established by technocratic committees maximizing shareholder investment. The emphasis of pop songs is on transitory physical pleasures, instead of the eternal truths that rock protects. Pop is also consumed by lots of women and kids, and what do they know?

Listen to Ross slag the kids and implicate the girls in this efficient dig: “Timberlake, for those who have let their subscription to Teen People lapse, is the blond, curly-haired twenty-two-year-old lead singer of ‘N Sync.” Sure, Teen People uses cheesecake shots of Justin to keep subscriptions up, but most New Yorker readers probably know Timberlake from his one Vibe and two Rolling Stone covers in the past year. They may even like his music. You can’t sell 3 million records to kids alone, especially when they’re downloading what they like anyway.

This strike against Timberlake recalls a trope from the ‘80s: There’s this singer, Madonna, who has her name on these great pop records. Many teenagers enjoy these records. She gets songwriting credit and sometimes production credit for these records. Since we’ve read so much about how demanding she is, we should logically attribute the greatness of these records to … someone else. Think the idea is dead? Nope—check Jennifer Egan’s Madonna piece in the December 2002 issue of GQ. As part of a 20-year retrospective of the singer’s career, Egan examines received truths about Madonna: “Madonna is narcissistic,” “Madonna is inauthentic.” Most of these analyses allow Egan to have her cake and eat it, too, confirming tired objections to Madonna’s sea-changing work while saying she’s OK, maybe. Unpacking idea No. 1, “Madonna has no talent,” Egan allows that “it seems unlikely that a woman with fifteen American top-five hits to her credit—more than Elvis Presley or the Beatles—has no talent other than self-promotion,” but goes on to suggest just that. If anyone was thinking rockism was just something rock critics like to hit each over the head with, Egan (not a rock critic) follows with the genuine article. Rock groups like the Who and Pink Floyd “produced raw, spontaneous music that sounded completely different live than on your turntable.” Madonna, standing in for the Cowardly New World, does “hyper-choreographed” dance moves and makes music “filtered though a sieve of vocal coaches and songwriting teams.” Here’s the kicker: “While the exact nature of Madonna’s songwriting contributions have never been clear, no one disputes that she’s in complete control of every aspect of her career.”

There’s a real argument to be had about whether or not it matters who made a song, but let’s accept for now that the number of people involved in making a pop record matters because this idea about the Individual Artist won’t go away. Fine. Thing is, if you read the credits on records, the number of people involved in making big, shiny pop records is about the same as the number of people involved in making the records of high-cred bands like Radiohead or Wilco. The much-maligned Matrix, producers of Liz Phair and Avril Lavigne, are a three-person team. Add the artist and a stray lyricist or keyboard player, and that makes five credits. That’s as many people as you’ve got on an Oasis or Radiohead album, not counting the producer.

Do we know exactly what Thom Yorke contributes to Radiohead songs, other than singing? Do we know what Jeff Tweedy does, exactly, in Wilco? When Pink Floyd takes a year to make a record, is that “spontaneous”? Wasn’t Bob Fosse hyperchoreographed? It feels a bit tortured to avoid the most obvious explanation for Madonna and Justin’s records: that Madonna’s and Justin have a lot to do with their music, and how they make it up and get it done is no more important than it is for any other artists with their names on the marquee. (Quick—think of a single solo disc by a famous rock producer … that’s any good. We’ll wait. *) Why punish Madonna for not being Pete Townshend? Why punish Justin Timberlake for not being Scriabin?

The answer isn’t immediately apparent. Justified certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s a good example of pop’s wingspan and is defensible as such. Pop can admit formally thick work like “Cry” and funny, simple songs like “Right for Me,” Timberlake beat-boxing himself awake under the boardwalk. Pop recognizes whatever method gets the job done. Classical may sneer at pop, but pop doesn’t generally feel the same way.“Nice strings—can I borrow them?” Thanks to technology, pop can act out an aesthetic egalitarianism that is terrifying to people who want to maintain all kinds of moats around the blue ribbons.

The answer to the question “why punish these artists?” is the who: kids. In the very favorable reviews of Timberlake’s summer tour, the phrase “teen pop grows up” still shows up. Ross isn’t alone in wanting to chop the “teen” off of teen pop and go back to the golden age of chin-strokers eating up studio time and struggling with their muses. Pop may ultimately disarm so many critics because so many damn young people like it, it doesn’t sound like the Beatles, and that’s all OK. Or, to quote a very grouchy old German theorist acceptable to everyone (me, Ross, rockists and anti-rockists): “Particularly youngsters who invest popular music with their own feelings are not yet completely blunted to all its effects.” That’s Theodor W. Adorno, in a footnote to his 1941 essay “On Popular Music,” which is a linchpin in many arguments against mass culture. Even Adorno knew somebody was missing from his own theory, and that’s what the footnote is about. Were he alive, he would see that young pop fans have gone and had their own golden age without asking permission. And all of usTimberlake, Timbaland, everyone else involved in Justified, Ross, and Iare dwarfed by the sea of meaning that these fans create when they dance with Justin in front of their own mirrors.

Correction, Aug. 28, 2003: This article originally implied that no famous producer had released a good solo disc. It should have specified that no famous rock producer had done so. (Return to the corrected sentence.)