Friday, March 29, 2013

Defending the Experience: A Brief Response to Anthony Fantano's Recent Justin Timberlake Review

Before I get into the meat of this post, I wish first to express my admiration for Anthony Fantano and his work under The Needle Drop. I am a huge fan of his, and I respect every video he's put out, not least of which including his recent review of Justin Timberlake's The 20/20 Experience. Furthermore, this post will not be a rant. I will attempt to stay away from the dangerous cliff of "butthurt Internet troll" over which many writers of response posts often fall. I agree with, or at least understand, all of Fantano's criticisms of The 20/20 Experience, and this post is meant to deal with what I think he missed regarding the album. (Also, I apologize that this post is a bit late - I've been away until yesterday, and I didn't check my YouTube subscriptions until this morning.)

Because Fantano does indeed make some good points on his review (posted below). It's true the lyrics are nothing special throughout - I don't think "Everybody's looking for the flyest thing to say / But I just want to fly away with you," however close to clever it might be, is even near the same level as JT influence Michael Jackson, as Fantano states. It's also fair to say the bass is rather weak. Though a heavy foundation was never really the focus of The 20/20 Experience, the lack of bass is indeed a legitimate criticism. Finally, and probably most importantly, I agree with Fantano when he argues with the notion that this album clearly demonstrates Justin Timberlake's maturity. The whole album is sugary-sweet and wafer-thin, at least superficially, and I don't really believe 20/20 Timberlake is all that different than NSYNC Timberlake, at least in terms of lyrical content and style.

But what if - and here is where Fantano's opinion and my opinion diverge - none of that was the point? I feel as though Fantano is getting bogged down in the details just a bit - when he says "The LP is just light, music-industry-groomed entertainment," he unwittingly strikes incredibly close to what makes The 20/20 Experience such a good album. The "critics...that sort of tag on this higher quality level implication" be damned, Justin Timberlake has done exactly what (some would argue) pop music should do. As Sputnikmusic's Channing Freeman points out in his own review of the album, "The main job of pop music – and this is where it so often fails – is making the same old tropes sound fresh." Timberlake has done a stellar job of this here, and this is exactly why this LP is going to end up second in my Top 5 Albums of Quarter 1 of 2013, as you dear readers will see in a few days. In the end, JT's so-called "maturity" and superficial lyrical content don't matter. What matters is that over the course of a few eight-minute-long songs, Timberlake has managed to make a surprisingly complete pop album. It's fun, it's sweet, it's catchy, it's hook-laden, it's interesting in its predictability, and it accomplishes these feats in the best possible way. It's an excellent job of making pop music interesting, however revolutionary or non-revolutionary the listener eventually makes the album out to be - going back to Freeman, briefly, "Claims of revolutionism aside, it is very nice to hear Justin Timberlake sing again."

And that's precisely why this album is so good. It doesn't matter that the lyrics are rather base and uncouth, it doesn't matter that there's virtually no bass, it doesn't matter that Timberlake hasn't really matured. It does matter, however, that Justin Timberlake is present, crooning soulfully to us over the standard verse-chorus-outro format we see here. He's not so much a singer, but more an entertainer - and it's this which ensures the quality of The 20/20 Experience. So (and I mean this in the nicest possible way, Anthony, if you happen to be reading this), when Anthony makes fun of The Needle Drop's detractors by using Cal to say, "[Fantano] doesn't like good music," he unintentionally makes a fair point. The episode, however many accurate, thought-provoking, and generally well-made points it brought up, misses the point of The 20/20 Experience - it's good music. It does what pop music is meant to do (though it does pretend to do more), and it does it well. And, at the end of the day, this is what people will remember.

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