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Justin Timberlake: From Big Man on Disneyland to Big Man in Pop

“It’s as if Justin Timberlake had been born 26 years ago to deliver music to the world.” No, those aren’t the words of a crazed teenage fan. Those are the words of Timbaland, music producer to the stars, in Time 100. In other words, Justin Timberlake has successfully made the transition from pop prince to musical legend.

Sure, there was a time when Justin Timberlake seemed like he’d be ready to fade into the land of music oblivion, a land inhabited by pop stars and characterized by appearances on reality TV shows, gigs as cartoon voices and unnoticed attempts to sing country music. But that time was so long ago that most of us don’t remember it. Nowadays, Justin Timberlake is synonymous with success.

We’re so used to seeing Justin Timberlake as a symbol of sex and success that it’s hard to imagine that he, like all of us, came from a place of obscurity. He was born on January 31, 1981, in Memphis, Tennessee. Justin was raised in the Baptist religion and, contrary to popular belief, hasn’t always lived a perfect life. His parents divorced when Justin Timberlake was just a child, and Justin Timberlake later lost a half-sister just after her birth.

But unlike the rest of us, Justin Timberlake’s life in obscurity was short-lived. As a child, Justin Timberlake was already getting noticed on StarSearch, performing under the name Justin Randall. In 1993, Justin joined The Mickey Mouse Club, a TV show famous for breeding future pop sensations. His castmates included Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and his former NSync bandmate (now resident of the land of music oblivion), JC Chasez.

The Mickey Mouse Club ended in 1995, but Justin Timberlake’s career was just beginning. He got word that Lou Pearlman was starting another all-male singing group. Nowadays, the name Lou Pearlman is synonymous with fraud lawsuits from musical acts. Back then, however, Lou Pearlman was known and widely respected as the man who had launched mega-successful boy bands like The Backstreet Boys and, later, O-Town and LFO. He was the Orlando entrepreneur who accurately predicted that the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Tupac would lead to the deaths of mainstream interest in grunge music and gangsta rap as well, and filled this void with up-tempo, bubblegum pop music that would stir the souls of teenagers worldwide as they waited for their dial-up internet connections to load their favorite chat rooms.

When Justin Timberlake joined this budding new pop act, the group consisted of one other member, Chris Kirkpatrick. Justin Timberlake brought his Mickey Mouse Club buddy JC Chasez into the mix. Lance Bass and Joey Fatone later joined, forming the singing sensation to be known to millions of fans worldwide as NSync.

Two schools of thought exist as to just how NSync got their clever name. One school swears that the name came from Justin Timberlake’s mother, Lynn, who heard the then-unnamed boy band sing and remarked something along the lines of “My gosh, aren’t they ever in sync.” The other school, which boasts several Sudoku and crossword-puzzle enthusiasts as members, favors a more intellectual explanation: before Lance Bass came along, the fifth member of NSync was named Jason. So, the final letters of each of the member’s names-- Justin, Chis, Joey, Jason, JC—form the word NSync.

The origin of the name NSync may still be under investigation, but the fact that NSync soon became a household name has long been an established fact. Anyone who came of age in the late 1990s has fond memories of pop group NSync. Their music livened up many a high school prom as teenagers bopped to tunes like I Want You Back and Tearin’ Up My Heart, hit singles from their 1998 self-titled debut album.

Fans might be surprised to know that the seemingly sweet taste of success left a bitter taste in Justin Timberlake’s mouth. He and fellow NSync band members soon realized that Lou Pearlman was ripping them off. 1999 was not the year that the members of NSync jetted between posh Carribbean resorts on private jets. That stuff would come much later. 1999 was the year NSync fought a court battle against Lou Pearlman. From the success of their first CD, NSync had generated over three hundred million dollars in CD and merchandise sales. Almost all of this money went directly into Lou Pearlman’s pockets, leaving a mere seven million dollars to be divided up among the members of NSync. You do the math. Later, Justin Timberlake would look back under his time under Lou Pearlman’s leadership and muse, “I was being monetarily raped by a Svengali.”

2000 brought new management and new success to NSync. The group released No Strings Attached, the album that brought the world NSync’s most legendary songs—It’s Gonna Be Me, This I Promise You and the catchy Bye Bye Bye. The Bye Bye Bye lyrics may sound like a heartfelt goodbye to a manic-depressive girlfriend, but critics suspected it was NSync’s cleverly disguised, pop-music equivalent of giving Lou Pearlman the finger.

NSync released one more mega-successful album, appropriately titled Celebrity. This album spawned the hit singles Gone, Pop and Girlfriend, and is credited for turning NSync into a respected R & B act, probably because Girlfriend featured a rap by Nelly.

Then came the shocking news: NSync was going on hiatus. Teen hotlines worldwide listened to the woes of teenaged girls who feared this “break” was really a “breakup.” By 2002, these same fans realized they had nothing to worry about. NSync may have been nowhere within earshot, but its lead vocalist sure was: Justin Timberlake was tearing up the airwaves with Like I Love You, the first single off his debut solo album, Justified.

Some critics scoffed. Justin Timberlake’s falsetto refrains sounded suspiciously like a more established solo artist, Michael Jackson. But there was a good reason for this similarity. Several tracks on Justified had actually been written for Michael Jackson’s album, Invincible, but hadn’t made the final cut. Other than the child molestation charges and the bizarre dangling of his baby over a balcony, this omission may have been one of the worst moves of Michael Jackson’s career. Justin Timberlake turned out to be the invincible one. His recycling of Michael Jackson’s hand-me-downs earned him a #2 debut on Billboard’s Hot 100 and millions of dollars in record sales.

In fairness, not everyone who bought Justified was interested solely in its intrinsic musical value. Many just wanted to look at the hot guy on the cover and figure out exactly who he was. To their knowledge, Justin Timberlake was a curly-haired, androgynous muppet who did dorky dances and posed for cute pictures with his then squeaky-clean girlfriend, Britney Spears. Who was the shaved-headed stud who narrowed his eyes at the camera in such an alluring fashion?

That stud was, indeed, Justin Timberlake. The members of NSync weren’t all that Justin Timberlake had shed like dead skin; he’d also gotten rid of his characteristic curls, now favoring a slicker, bad-boy style. He’d also dumped his girlfriend, Britney Spears, who’d reportedly cheated on him with a mutual friend. Like a true artist, Justin Timberlake had spun his pain into poetry, dismissing Britney Spears in Justified’s second hit single, Cry Me a River. He even went so far as to hire a Britney Spears lookalike to star in the video, and mocked her in front of thousands of adoring fans tuned who tuned in daily to MTV. And in spite of all the tabloid hoopla that had followed the couple during their years in love, by the time Justin Timberlake showcased his impeccable beat-boxing skills in the video for Rock Your Body, mesmerized fans could get their gaping mouths to form the words, “Britney Spears who?”

Just when things looked like they might get embarrassing for Justin Timberlake—his mother, Lynn, publicly asserted that she was “devastated” over Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears’ breakup—Justin Timberlake found ways to get attention from those who hadn’t yet bought his CD. In February 2004, he had the coveted role of singing with Janet Jackson during the Superbowl halftime show. Justin Timberlake sang the lyrics, “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song,” and seemingly confirmed his words in a blunt and dramatic fashion by ripping off a piece of Janet Jackson’s outfit, revealing her breast. This incident and Justin Timberlake’s subsequent public apology coined the term “wardrobe malfunction,” the first—but hopefully not last—of Justin Timberlake’s contributions to the English language.

Then, in 2003, Justin Timberlake received major props from jealous males worldwide when he started dating actress and sex symbol Cameron Diaz. The two issued a heartbreaking statement in 2007 saying that they’d broken up, but would stay friends.

But one has to wonder if Justin Timberlake had any time to mourn the loss of Cameron Diaz as a playmate, given that 2006 was such an otherwise successful year for him. He released FutureSex/LoveSounds, an album produced largely by Timbaland, Nate Danja Hills, and Timberlake himself. FutureSex/LoveSounds topped the success of Justified, debuting at number one and producing a slew of successful singles like Sexy Back, My Love and What Goes Around. He also won over skeptics during his appearance on Saturday Night Live, where he performed the hilarious YouTube legend, Dick in a Box.

To date, Justin Timberlake has received all kinds of honors. Examples include four Grammy Awards, and the Sexiest Man Alive title from both Cosmopolitan and Teen People. And then, of course, there’s the respect from Timbaland. As Justin Timberlake releases one hit single after another, the rest of us can barely catch our breath long enough to whisper, “NSync who?”