Maybe it was an accident that Justin Timberlake's first single in six years hit the Internet less than an hour after the conclusion of the Golden Globes — the annual schmoozefest that features celebrities notoriously oiled up by an open bar, sharing what viewers are meant to think is a more than usually honest version of themselves. But the coincidence felt totally right, connecting one of pop's most skilled negotiators of the public-private divide to an event built around the schizophrenic existence of stars as both communal dream fodder and coherent individuals. Timberlake wasn't at the Globes, but his new song, "Suit & Tie," is the perfect dressing up music for such an event. It's all about having the confidence to be natural while buttoned up and slicked down. (You can listen to the song at his website.)
Few pop artists have been as successful as Timberlake at playing the personality game while maintaining his artistic bona fides. Bred in the Disney system, he's by far the most artistically and, from all indications, personally successful of its many graduates. Though he's been involved in at least one major scandal — the Superbowl "wardrobe malfunction" debacle that derailed the career of his co-star, Janet Jackson — that event barely dented his reputation. His one major musical confession, 2002's "Cry Me a River" (supposedly about his former flame Britney Spears) heralded his arrival as a mature artist rather than making him seem neurotically Swiftian. The song parodies he's created with comedian Andy Samberg proved he's expert at deflating his own heartthrob image. Even the People magazine cover picturing him with bride Jessica Biel, a parody of Tom Cruise's famous vault on on Oprah Winfrey's couch, suggested that this is a guy who finds being a celebrity hilarious.
"Suit & Tie" plays on Timberlake's image as one of the few stars (this year's Globe hosts, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, are others) utterly comfortable playing today's highly interactive, increasingly risky fame game. It's a light romp in which Timberlake courts his lady (presumably Biel) with compliments about her appearance and assurances that he can match her for style and elegance. "Hey baby, we don't mind all the watching, cos' if they study close, real close, they might learn something," Timberlake assures his date, welcoming scrutiny as a kind of job requirement.
Many pop songs celebrate the pleasures of dressing up and stepping out — sartorial self-transformation belongs to anyone who shops, not just couture models like Timberlake. But his suit and tie and his lady's "doozy" dress don't just make this couple feel special; they put the pair in professional mode. The absolute ease of Timbaland's groove, the casualness of the whole production, suggests that Timberlake and Biel can separate from this performance if they want to — dress down, leave the club — but that he enjoys showing off. The swagger in "Suit & Tie" is Don Draper swagger, a testimony to the value of the pose.
Jay-Z's rap at the song's end endorses this embrace of the well-executed public life by adding to the rapper's own current project, reflected in songs like "That's My B - - - -" and "Glory": writing a memoir in rhyme about his marriage to Beyonce. In the standout lines, he assures Beyonce's parents that this union is beneficial, both personally and professionally. "Tell your mother that I love her 'cos I love you," Hova says — standard son-in-law fare — but then he adds, "Tell your father we go farther as a couple." One mogul to another, Jay-Z is talking family business with Beyonce's father and former manager, Matthew Knowles. He's not just acknowledging that for them, public and private can't be separated, he's advocating love as a business strategy.
What about "Suit & Tie" as a song? Many critics judged it quickly as a disappointment, a throwback to older R&B formulas (and to work by Timberlake's rivals R. Kelly and Robin Thicke) that won't set the club or the charts on fire. Similar responses have greeted other long-awaited singles: David Bowie's Berlin ballad "Where Are We Now?" and the Pharrell Williams-produced "Nuclear" by Destiny's Child, the girl group that launched Beyonce's career. Certainly these mid- to down-tempo offerings don't bang out of the box. But I wonder if that's not a musical and commercial strategy not that different from "Suit & Tie"'s scenario of taking some time to get it together before setting the night on fire.
Recently, I've been reflecting on the unstoppable success of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know." What made this insidiously unassuming Police tribute such a massive hit, one still in heavy rotation on many commercial radio stations? Perhaps it's that the song contains space. It doesn't pummel the listener with an EDM beat, and its hook, while certainly sticky, grows organically out of the rest of the song's frame. It's also a song that requires a few listens to really grasp. This is true of all these new superstar singles, too. Their pleasures sneak up, in a wash of harmonies, a masterful sense of how a song can be a soliloquy, or in Timberlake's case, almost entirely in the vocal, which dances around Timbaland's horn thrusts and rhythm parries with panache that makes me long for an isolated vocal track. These songs are not plays for power; they're signs of privilege. Some listeners may feel they're lazy, but heard another way, they're relaxed — a state no one embraces very easily these days.
Will Timberlake and his fellow returning stars step it up in whatever they do next? I hope there's some variety in the new albums by each, and musical surprise. At the same time, I'm not rejecting these decent songs because they don't blow the roof off. The suit's on; the tie is knotted. Nobody knows what's going to happen on the dance floor.