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10 Years, 100 Songs: #17. “Gonna Have You Naked By the End of This Song…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 24, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

The funny thing about Justin Timberlake–well, not funny, but mildly notable–is that I don’t even remember him being a real standout member of N Sync back in the day. You’d see the monstrous success that followed in his solo career and think that he probably always seemed like he was biding his time in his boy band life, just humoring the other members and management until all the pieces were in place for him to make a clean break for a solo career, like Beyonce with Destiny’s Child. And maybe that was true if you were paying close attention, but to me, he was just one of the guys (well, one of the guys who happened to be dating Britney Spears, but still). To find out that he was going solo seemed like a matter of little consequence–boy bandery in general seemed on its way out, and Nick Carter’s solo album (released just a couple weeks before JT’s solo debut Justified) came out to predictably little fanfare. I don’t see how anyone could have known that Justin Timberlake was about to become Justin Timberlake.

The thing that really strikes me looking back on it all now is just how easily disastrous JT’s solo career could have turned out right off the bat. It’s true that N Sync had started to move in a more hip-hop direction on third album Celebrity–most notably, Nelly was given a guest appearance on the “Girlfriend” Remix–but they were still thought of as a fundamentally pop, fundamentally white act. For Timberlake to come out with a debut single like “Like I Love You”–produced by the Neptunes, and featuring The Clipse, in one of the all-time great cred-for-crossover bargains in pop music–and instantly slot into a far more adult, more sexual persona…I mean, there’s a reason why Brian Austin Green’s rap career never really took off, you know?* If the songs weren’t good, and if Justin couldn’t sell them in his new style beyond a shadow of a doubt, the chances for him to become the laughing stock of the pop world were pretty high–hell, just look at what happened to JC Chasez about a year later.

Good thing, then, that the songs were good, and that Justin Timberlake pulled them off so easily and naturally that images of the “Tearin’ Up My Heart” video immediately became the most distant of memories. Whether he was delivering soulful kiss-offs in “Cry Me a River,” creeping up with the sly funk of “Like I Love You,” or leading latin-tinged gender-roll-call and responses in “Senorita,” JT was always his own man, and he always sounded good. He got some BIG help from some A-List producers bringing their A-Games to the table, sure, but if Timberlake had sounded like he was trying too hard to prove something, if he looked uncomfortable in his own skin, or if he just wasn’t nearly as good at falsetto as he thought he was, than it wouldn’t have worked even if he had 1982-era Quincy Jones on his payroll. Mostly, Timberlake seemed like a true, legit star–someone who maybe took a less-than-traditional path to artistic respectability, but who had arrived there nonetheless, and demanded to be recognized.

And the best (and most improbable) of all his hits was “Rock Your Body.” It was the third single off Justified, but the first I remember really liking–this was still when I needed to be sold a little on a pop song to give it a chance, although those days were rapidly coming to a close thanks to songs like this. I caught the video once on MTV one day when I was home from school–sick, I think–and was struck by it, for several reasons. First, the song sounded like a surefire hit, in a historic sense–I could tell that it had a kind of classic structure, with the male/female interplay that harked back to cheesier pop songs of the 70s and a lithe disco-funk hybrid of a backing track that was early-80s through and through–but with enough of a modern production style to it that it never felt pointedly retro. Second, the video was a visual stunner–the most psychedelic-looking disco set-up since U2’s “Discotheque,” and believe me when I say I mean that as a compliment. And third–he beatboxed in the video. Justin Timberlake. Beatboxing. For like, a long time. Uh, what?

The Neptunes were at the very height of their powers in 2003. I’ll spare you the stats, but suffice to say, if Pharrell Williams was involved with a song in some capacity in the year of trucker hats, chances are it as something you were going to be hearing a couple of times. “Rock Your Body” bore a couple of their trademarks from that period–the reliance on lite, crisp guitars and synth (or just synth-sounding) bass especially was vaguely reminiscent of their work on their biggest hit to date, Nelly’s “Hot in Herre.” But to refer to a superproducer previously mentioned, I didn’t really make the comparison at the time, but in a year-end singles poll, one of my compatriots referred to the Neptunes aping Quincy Jones for the song, and it was a moment of semi-revelation. The song does feel like something Michael Jackson would’ve come out with maybe in between Off the Wall and Thriller, with the energy and sensuality of the former and the slightly harder edge of the latter. And like I need to spell it out, but when talking about pop debuts–especially those of ex-child stars looking to make a break from their kiddie past–peak-era MJ is a good musical reference point to shoot for.

The beat didn’t go to waste, either. Timberlake had no trouble whatsoever finding his stride over Pharrell and Chad’s slinky floor-filler, hitting ’em equally with the come-hither falsetto (“Don’t be so quick to walk away“), the slow-and-low hush (“So go ‘head girl, just do / That ass-shaking thing you do”), the urgent yelp (“HURRY UP, ‘COZ YOU’RE TAKING TOO LO-OOONG!“) and the loverman grumble (“Are you feeling me?”) He sounds equally adept at all his seductive personas, even as he has to bob and weave his way around chorus-and-bridge partner Vanessa Marquez (who fills in her parts adequately, even as she leaves little to no doubt about who the song’s true star is). And yes, JT beatboxes–more in the video than in the actual song–and while it’s not exactly revelatory , it serves as sort of a statement from Timberlake that the normal rules and boundaries of pop music (specifically, the one about white, boy-band-alum pop stars not beatboxing in their own songs) no longer apply to him, that he’s now on a plane where he gets to decide what works for him and what doesn’t. Fair enough, I guess–and after all, it is pretty fun to faux-box along to.

Justified sold three million, and remarkably, it was just the opening act. JT’s career took a minor tumble after his performance of “Rock Your Body” at Super Bowl XXXVIII, when his promise of “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song” proved all too prophetic and America got to find out precisely what Janet Jackson’s right tit looked like, but three years later, FutureSex/LoveSounds followed, and all was forgiven. FS/LS spawaned three number one hits, stayed on the charts forever and officially made Justin Timberlake the biggest name in pop music. Where he goes from there is one of the most interesting musical subplots going into the 2010s, since everything about the guy suggests that he’s smart, talented and ambitious (not to mention good-looking) enough to continue on his success for the next decade if he wants–even though history suggests that stars of his ilk rarely shine so brightly for such an extended period of time. Can he keep it up? Well, I never would’ve imagined that he could get this far, so maybe it’s best if I just avoid making pronouncements about Justin Timberlake’s future altogether.

*I do have to maintain that from the brief clips I’ve heard, it would appear that Brian Austin Green’s solo career wasn’t nearly as dreadful as we were all led to believe. Respect is due.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli
25. Shaggy f/ Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me
24. The Strokes  – “Last Night
23. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone
22. Radiohead – “Idioteque
21. Fall Out Boy – “Sugar, We’re Going Down
20. The All-American Rejects – “Move Along
19. OutKast – “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)
18. Interpol – “PDA
17. Justin Timberlake – “Rock Your Body”

2 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #17. “Gonna Have You Naked By the End of This Song…””

  1. MBI said

    Man, we’re almost all out of the obvious ones, aren’t we? I can only think of five guaranteed gonna-be-guaranteed artists on there, and one of them only because you’re an insane man.

  2. dan s said

    Since I seem to be a tad older than you I remember everyone putting their money on Gary Barlow’s solo career after Take That split up. With him being the main song writer and all. Little did we know who was supposed to become the star out of that bunch.

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