Justin Timberlake performing at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. (Jason Kempin / Getty Images )
Booking Justin Timberlake for South by Southwest is like riding a limo to a garage sale. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
Timberlake, in the middle of a multimillion-dollar media blitz to support his new record, “The 20/20 Experience,” landed in Austin on Saturday night to perform for an overflowing crowd new and old music in a sweaty little warehouse space. Replete with a full band -- horns, background singers, percussionists included -- he did so like a pro, hitting all his cues, pumping up a crowd drunk on free vodka and singing his sexy jams.
He looked sharp -- even wore a fake tuxedo T-shirt beneath his well-tailored jacket as a more subtle way to market his “Suit and Tie” single. Timberlake and band did a deep, funky version of “My Love,” his hit from the 2006 classic “LoveSexy/FutureSounds” album; the makeshift club throbbed as the members of the group he’s dubbed the Tennessee Kids delivered tight, confident disco-infused R&B.
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He followed it with his gentle “Cry Me a River” and his fans grooved and swayed. His new jam “Suit and Tie,” given new life as the soundtrack to a Chevy commercial, was offered with push-and-pull punch, moving from single- to double-time and back again.
But just because Timberlake was good doesn’t make his gig easier to swallow. Here was a man, after all, who’d just completed a week that included a stint as host and musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” and five nights of gigs on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” He’d reached millions of ears in the process; what did he need with a few hundred more?
Perhaps this question was lost on Timberlake. After all, the artist paid his early dues not in dingy clubs like the other thousands of musicians in Austin, but during auditions for mass-marketed, lowest-common-denominator pop culture products. Which is fine, and certainly doesn’t diminish his natural-born talent or his oft-thrilling pop music. He’s obviously worked hard to get where he is today, and in a world of manufactured stars Timberlake’s the rare case of one crafting consistently interesting music long after his onetime peers have faded.
His past is notable, though, because it further illustrates the gorge separating Timberlake’s trajectory and that of many hard-working artists whose chance at attention was diminished by his Austin media blitz.
The singer tried to dress down the disconnect at his gig, sponsored by Chevrolet and MySpace, by slamming a beer, hinting that he’d smoked weed and even implying that maybe he’d popped some Ecstasy. But all that drug talk couldn’t mask the truth that this was one of the world’s biggest pop stars, a man who earns more money from one throwaway film than most musicians make in a lifetime, descending on a festival whose foundation is built on the backs of artists with huge voices starving for attention and support.
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Timberlake wasn’t alone. On the other side of town, rap entrepreneur Diddy was gigging the Fader Fort with rising grunt-rapper French Montana and new rap sensation Macklemore; a few blocks away Prince was reminding fans of his continued vitality -- and stealing the spotlight from all the would-be young Princes who have spent the past six months obsessing over every nuance of their one-shot-at-stardom performances. Smashing Pumpkins came and went. Usher gigged with both the Afghan Whigs and a hot new artist, Sinkane, who’s affiliated with James Murphy’s DFA empire.
But Timberlake was the biggest of them all. Throughout his hour-long showcase, he continually tested the temperature of the crowd. Early on, he gauged their enthusiasm at exactly 82%. Midway through he declared it to be 91%. Where I was standing, though -- behind the sound board alongside people having to crane their necks to get a glimpse of the full band in action -- I’d say it was more like 77%.
When Timberlake finally declared the energy level to be at 100, I balked. A few hours earlier at a bar called Beerland a brilliant punk band called A Giant Dog had slaughtered a crowd of 50 and burst the thermometer; a hard analog techno producer called Ssleeperhold had pounded rhythms into eardrums, and his fans loved it fully. And after Timberlake’s gig had ended, a quarter mile away at Stephen A’s, a hotel bar, a charismatic Chilean singer/songwriter named Diego Peralta, who had traveled over 4,000 miles for this incredibly rare opportunity to play for American fans and tastemakers, performed for eleven people as he wound down his set.