Last week pop and R&B superstar Justin Timberlake helped stir the music pot by proposing that he might make a country record. Timberlake told Sirius XM’s “The Highway” show: “I just did an interview earlier today and I said, ‘I’m America, that’s what I am.’ In all sense of the word. [I] grew up outside of Memphis, Tennessee. Listened to country music, R&B music, classic rock, you know, everything…I still got my eyes set on a Best Country Album. There is time for that.”
Timberlake also says about his new single “Drink You Away” that “It’s a country song to me,” referencing the lyrics that refer heavily to the drinking theme common in country music. Timberlake has also mentioned wanting to dabble in country music in the past.
As much as Justin Timberlake on the surface may have the prototypical career track to make him ripe for ridicule by even inferring that he might “go country”—including his past as a mouseketeer turned boy band sensation with N’Sync before striking out on a solo pop career—there would be some fundamental differences between a Justin Timberlake country record or move, and similar moves from other pop or non-country artists like Sheryl Crow, Darius Rucker, and others.
The typical modern “gone country” move occurs when an artist loses support from their traditional genre or entertainment realm in the twilight of their career. But Timberlake is on top right now, and has no reason to shift gears. In fact, it could be risky for Timberlake, especially if he wanted to shift his entire career in a country direction. But likely he wouldn’t. It would simply be a one-off project to fulfill the inner desire of a man who was raised in Memphis and was exposed to country growing up. Would it be good? Would it be true country? We have no idea, but for the same reasons many artists that “go country” get ridiculed, Timberlake deserves a little more latitude because of the levity with which he’s approached his later career.
Most pop performers become polarizing figures of one form or another in the court of public opinion, regardless of the quality of their music, or the likeability of their personality. Being put on a pedestal always lends to spite and ridicule. But Timberlake has weathered this storm better than most, and curiously so. He’s seen as an artist with class and taste, who is above his fellow mouseketeer Brittney Spears, or the Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus’s of the pop world, even though Timberlake’s music is certainly pop, and he’s done such raunchy things as the Saturday Night Live skit “Dick in a Box.”
But there seems to be a much more elevated, unspoken respect for the authenticity of music from Timberlake, and less of a focus on the spectacle compared to his contemporaries. Timberlake is sort of the Sinatra of our time for the lack of a better analogy, though like many modern popular stars, you struggle to find the classic, legacy songs in his lexicon that will outlive his career. “Sexyback”?
You never know when this type of “I want to make a country album” talk is just talk; just a lark from an artist thinking out loud in an interview. Folks were ready to jump on Gwyneth Paltrow a while back when see was rumored to be making a country album in the aftermath of the movie Country Strong, and it never happened. The infamous Chris Brown has been talking about making a country record for years, and Tim McGraw even used Chris as a vehicle to cross over into the R&B world a few years back. But nothing solid from Chris Brown in the country realm has ever surfaced.
Does the idea of a Justin Timberlake country album excite me? None whatsoever, except for the fact that it is bound to make a good discussion point or curiosity piece. The problem has never been artists from outside the genre dabbling in the country format. If an authentic desire to make country music rests inside of an artist, they should express it. The Ray Charles album Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music remains one of the greatest country albums of all time, and there’s other examples where such endeavors have been critically successful.
It’s not that a Justin Timberlake country project is something that doesn’t warrant curiosity or outright concern. But giving a quick listen to country radio, there are much bigger issues with country music that are not hypothetical, but actually infecting the country airwaves. If Justin Timberlake is one of the last bastions of class in mainstream pop, he might even be an improvement to the mainstream country format. It’s hard to see how he could be any worse.
So we’ll take a wait and see on Justin Timberlake, and in the meantime do battle with what we already know is bad. Besides, he already knows how to mock Taylor Swift at award shows.