A fantastic article by Shirley Halperin in the Hollywood Reporter this week makes the case that the wildly successful new album by Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience, was essentially made to fulfill a contractual obligation. This would be nothing new, of course, if Timberlake had owed it to his record label, RCA. Instead, though, the album was made to fulfill a multi-million dollar deal he made with concert megapromoter Live Nation in 2009. Timberlake’s manager has said the album was made in 20 days, and released with far less promotional lead time than most albums of its magnitude, suggesting that something suddenly changed to get Timberlake to rush an album out. With lots of backup, Halperin lays out the following scenario:
- In 2008, Live Nation agreed to feature Timblerlake’s premium tequila brand, 901, as its venues’ official tequila brand.
- In 2009, Live Nation gave Timberlake $20 million dollars for the rights to his next tour. $5 million was a bonus, but the remaining $15 million was essentially an advance that Timberlake would have to pay back from money he made from the tour. Timberlake has not toured since.
- In 2011, Timberlake said in an interview that he wasn’t planning to make a new album anytime soon, and was going to concentrate on acting rather than music for the foreseeable future.
- Live Nation, seeing the $15 million loan they’d given Timberlake four years ago wasn’t likely to be repaid anytime soon, insisted he fulfill his part of the bargain, prompting Timberlake to throw an album together in 20 days.
- Moreover, once the first single, “Suit and Tie,” didn’t perform well on radio (threatening ticket sales for the tour), a promotional blitz was called in: Timberlake appeared in ads for Target, hosted Saturday Night Live, and did a week’s worth of appearances on Jimmy Fallon. Moreover, Jay-Z, who has his own deal with Live Nation, agreed to tour with Timberlake and essentially co-promote the album. As a result of this new album and the Live Nation-assisted promotion, ticket sales have been robust.How much should this affect how we think about The 20/20 Experience? Certainly it explains a lot about an album that, sales aside, hasn’t received much praise. True, Timberlake’s two previous solo efforts were both masterpieces, but even outside of that comparison, much of it sounds like extended remixes of demos Timbaland, the album’s producer, has had lying around for several years. (Except for “Blue Ocean Floor,” which sounds like an extremely pleasant hallucination.) With the level of technical ability both Timberlake and Timbaland bring to the project, it was never really going to sound bad, but it doesn’t really sound like their hearts are in it, either.
For some people this might seem like a too-fine distinction. Former N*Sync member Justin Timberlake is of course a creature of crass commercialism, a manufactured product lacking any of the heart and soul that can be found in real music. What else would you expect from the boybander? But pop music critics (these days, anyway) tend to reject this view unilaterally: how someone made a piece of music (whether they wrote the songs themselves, whether they played any of the instruments, whether it’s put out by a major label) doesn’t matter in how we judge the final product. Timberlake’s previous efforts have been embraced precisely for the heart, soul, and artistry on display.
But things like Timberlake’s Live Nation deal affecting his album production, or other current promotion/creation hybrids like marketing companies masterminding memes, do matter — not just for pop artists but for ostensibly indie ones, too. For instance, a lot of what you hear about an artist in terms of the story behind them comes from, usually, a single press release put out by a PR company hired for no small amount of money. Lana Del Rey, for instance (who recently released an excellent cover of “Chelsea Hotel #2”), was widely derided both for having a PR company and for her constructed image and persona, but the two were more connected than much of the criticism would allow. In almost everything written about Del Rey, for instance, mention was made of her as a “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” with many articles claiming she referred to herself this way. Of course, more specifically, a July 2011 press release referred to her this way. The press release seems to have vanished from the internet, and was never linked to as a source by critics anyway.
Understanding music like Del Rey’s hinges greatly on intentionality, and whether or not she’s being playfully self-aware or thoughtlessly retro matters a lot to how we’re supposed to hear what she’s singing. Taking a single line from a single press release that no one seems to be able to find as an indicator of her artistic agenda seems to be an inefficient way of getting at the thought processes of a deliberately obtuse pop singer. The image of an artist and the public conversation around her are important and interesting things to talk about. But they can, and should, be separated in order to get a view of whether there’s anything interesting in the music that we might be missing because of the story (see, for instance, Nitsuh Abebe on Vampire Weekend) or, for that matter, if our interest in the music is driven more by the story than what’s going to remain once the story dies out.
In the case of Timberlake, this news is less damning than it is relieving, at least if (like me) you were left underwhelmed by The 20/20 Experience. If Timberlake thinks of this as an important artistic effort, then we should be worried about his capabilities; if he just needed to go through the motions to keep $20 million, well, who wouldn’t? It’s an example of how being aware of the marketing effort behind an album can make you more sympathetic to the album: if I know that The 20/20 Experience wasn’t trying too hard, then I can appreciate it for the occasionally compelling background music it is. In talking about pop culture, it’s important to grant the legitimacy of pop culture, otherwise we miss out on an important and vital area of art. But it’s also important to balance that with an awareness of the commercial interests behind any creative endeavor.