SlateWhy Is This Song No. 1?

Why Justin Timberlake Said Bye Bye Bye to R&B and Went Back to the Top of the Charts

Maybe you can go home again. Maybe the world would actually prefer that you went home again.

That’s the conclusion one draws from the explosive debut at the top of the Hot 100 by “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”—a buoyant pure-pop single by Justin Timberlake. It’s his lightest confection since the peak of his boy-band days with ’N Sync, and his first No. 1 in more than nine years. With this out-of-nowhere chart-topper, Timberlake rains all over the “got my first No. 1 hit!” parade of Drake, King Sad Boy, halting the penthouse run of his “One Dance” at just one week. (Maybe putting “One” in the title of Drake’s song wasn’t such a hot idea. We chart nerds call this “pulling a Barenaked Ladies.”)

At the ripe old pop star age of 35, Timberlake improbably scores the biggest-opening single of his career, either solo or with ’N Sync. First-week sales of 379,000 downloads—the best weekly sales of any 2016 song—made the No. 1 debut of “Feeling” a near-foregone conclusion; its lead was also padded by instant–Top 10–level airplay and more than 15 million first-weekstreams, including millions of views of the song’s music videos: one (above) featuring Justin’s famous friends and a second featuring strenuously quirky unfamous people. “Feeling” is the 26th song in Hot 100 history to start its chart life at No. 1, a feat that’s still impressive if somewhat commonplace lately—in the last nine months, three other hits have pulled it off: one song by that other Justin, former teen star Justin Bieber (“What Do You Mean?”); one by blockbuster balladeer Adele (“Hello”); and one by another ex-boy-bander, former One Direction member Zayn Malik (“Pillowtalk”). But what’s remarkable about Timberlake debuting at No. 1 is he’s about a decade older than all of these twentysomethings, none of whom were releasing music the last time he topped the charts.

How’d this happen? Sure, “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is catchy as hell—given the May release, it’s clear Timberlake has decided to try to get a head start on this year’s Song of the Summer competition. (For those of you who enjoy that horse race, last week’s pre–Memorial Day numbers won’t count for Billboard’s annual Summer Songs tally, but assuming “Feeling” keeps piling up data into June, one has to consider it 2016’s prohibitive favorite.) As my colleague Forrest Wickman noted in Slate, “Feeling” is basically Timberlake crassly getting some of that sweet, sweet “Happy” action. Like Pharrell Williams’ 2013 single—Billboard’s No. 1 song of 2014—“Feeling” is an up-with-people feel-good ditty written expressly for an animated film (Despicable Me 2 in Pharrell’s case, the forthcoming Trolls in Justin’s case), and both hits were promoted by videos of regular joes and Hollywood stars alike toe-tapping in the streets and down the aisles of grocery stores.

Still, on paper at least, it would have been hard to predict Timberlake’s song would open quite this well. It’s a one-off track from a soundtrack to an animated kid’s movie that’s still in production and won’t even open for another six months. (Timberlake voices a lead character, hence his participation in the soundtrack.) And for all his outsized media profile, he is no longer an automatic chart-topper. His blockbuster 2013 album, the suit-and-tie sophisticated The 20/20 Experience, generated no Hot 100 No. 1s; the sterling “Mirrors” came closest, peaking at No. 2.

So how exactly is Timberlake making this big a comeback, nearly 20 years after the first ’N Sync single? Here’s where that homecoming comes in: He is recording again with the biggest hit-maker of the last two decades, reconnecting with someone who last worked with him in the ’N Sync era. You might even call Justin a prodigal son, because Timberlake’s entire post–boy-band solo career has been a mild rebuke to this hit-maker’s sound.

That hitmaker is Martin Karl Sandberg, known to hit-music fans the world over as producer–songwriter–pop scientist Max Martin. With “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” Martin—avatar of the post-1990s Swedish production model conceived by Cheiron Studios founder Denniz Pop—extends his reign as the Svengali of 21st-century hit-making. The song was co-written and co-produced by Martin, his Cheiron colleague Karl Johan Schuster aka “Shellback,” and Timberlake himself. While “Feeling” possesses certain Timberlakean elements, particularly his patented falsetto and the song’s gospel touches, it is overwhelmingly a showcase for the Max Martin sound. An array of irresistible Cheiron Studios ear-candy touches underlie the song: from its opening piano tolls, to its near-subliminal rhythm guitar licks on the verses (which dare you to resist toe-tapping, if not out-and-out booty-shaking), to a drumless, tension-building pre-chorus, to an exploding, soaring chorus with a choir of multitracked voices (most of which may be Justin himself).

I keep writing about Max Martin and his Stockholm-based studio collective, because they keep topping the charts. Just in the two-and-a-half years I’ve been doing this No. 1 hits series, songs captained by Martin and his song factory have topped the Hot 100 a half-dozen times: three smash songs by Taylor Swift, and one each by Katy Perry, the Weeknd, and now Timberlake. In total, over the last 18 years, Martin has produced or co-produced 20 U.S. No. 1 songs (just three shy of all-time hit-making producer George Martin), and he has written or co-written 22 chart-toppers (four shy of John Lennon and 10 shy of Paul McCartney). “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is the 20th of those Martin productions and the 22nd Martin-penned No. 1 composition.

But let’s dissect that long roster of Stockholm-incubated U.S. smashes. One odd and little-remarked feature of Martin’s chart success is that the overwhelming bulk of his No. 1s have materialized just in the last eight years. To be exact, 20 of the 22 Martin-authored No. 1s have come since mid-2008, the moment when dance-pop began its digital-fueled takeover of the U.S. charts. In other words, Martin has not consistently been a top hit-maker for all of the last two decades—he had a notably fallow hit-making period in America in the early-to-mid 2000s, when R&B and hip-hop were commanding the U.S. Top 40. That fallow period happens to coincide with the meteoric rise of Justin Timberlake’s solo career. But the two men crossed paths earlier.

The late ’90s—aka the TRL years, when dot-com-era über-pop commanded the charts—were formative and lucrative for both Max Martin and Justin Timberlake. From 1997 to 2000, Martin wrote more than a dozen U.S. Top 40 hits for the likes of fellow Swede Robyn, still-young diva Celine Dion, and boy-band demigods the Backstreet Boys. Two of these early Martin hits were Hot 100 No. 1s: Britney Spears’s iconic 1998–99 smash “…Baby One More Time,” and ’N Sync’s mondegreen-tastic 2000 hit “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Martin’s song factory definitely gave an early leg up to Timberlake’s group; Martin also co-wrote their hits “I Want You Back” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” But it would be wrong to call ’N Sync a Cheiron-driven act. Typically the Swedish studio provided only a couple of cuts per ’N Sync album, not all of them even involving Martin himself (e.g., their smash “Bye Bye Bye,” which was a Cheiron hit but written and produced by others in the stable). Compare this to rival boy band the Backstreet Boys, whose albums relied very heavily on Martin and Cheiron.

Keeping Martin and his team of Swedes at arm’s length was one way ’N Sync distinguished themselves from the competition. Another was adapting sooner to 2000s R&B. The punchline with ’90s boy bands was always about how they feinted at black culture without actually rapping much and never in a way that would scare their fans’ parents. But just before they broke up, ’N Sync were doing a better job than their contemporaries at hybridizing their sound. Their final album Celebrity featured a pair of songs that managed something none of the band’s teen-pop peers pulled off—crossing over to Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart: The soulful “Gone” (No. 11 pop, No. 14 R&B) and the percolating “Girlfriend” (No. 5 pop, No. 23 R&B) placed Timberlake front and center, providing a dress rehearsal for his solo career in early 2002. The latter was co-written and produced by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, aka the Neptunes; later that year Timberlake formally launched his post–’N Sync career with another Neptunes joint, “Like I Love You.” While this debut single only reached No. 53 on the R&B chart and led to press carping about Justin’s shameless Michael Jackson impressions, with hindsight this looks like one of the savviest, most forward-thinking launches of a solo career ever. From 2002 to 2004 the Hot 100 was dominated by R&B and hip-hop, and by early 2003, Timberlake was scoring serious pop-and-B crossover hits like the Timbaland-produced “Cry Me a River” (No. 3 pop, No. 11 R&B). Justin had credibly gotten ahead of a cultural shift.

Which basically meant that he was avoiding the Cheiron assembly line like the plague. And with good reason—a hard truth about Max Martin is that for all his purported U.S. R&B influence, he doesn’t write songs black radio in America wants to play. Out of Martin’s 22 Hot 100 chart-toppers, all but one has missed the top of the R&B chart; generally, they don’t even touch that chart at all. (The one exception, last year’s smash by the Weeknd “Can’t Feel My Face,” topped the R&B/Hip-Hop list thanks only to Billboard’s current methodology for that chart, which over-weights digital sales and pop crossover. On R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay, an all-radio chart that’s a better measure of core black music fans, the Martin-produced “Face” never made it past No. 46.) Martin’s genius is in crafting essentially genreless mass-appeal records that synthesize American and European popular music forms, one part Aaliyah to two parts ABBA. His songs lack clear racial signifiers—by design—and read as inherently pop. So when he does work with an artist of color like Usher, generally it’s a pop crossover move that doesn’t do all that well at the artist’s home format (e.g., 2010’s “DJ Got Us Falling in Love”—No. 4 pop, No. 51 R&B).

For the code-switching Justin Timberlake of the 2000s and early 2010s, therefore, the Martin–Cheiron sound would never have worked. On 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and 2013’s The 20/20 Experience, both produced by Timbaland, Justin emerged as a natural soul/hip-hop singer who routinely hit the upper tiers of both the Hot 100 and R&B/Hip-Hop charts: “SexyBack” (2006, No. 1 pop, No. 11 R&B), “My Love” (2006, No. 1 pop, No. 3 R&B), “Until the End of Time” (2007, No. 17 pop, No. 3 R&B), “Suit & Tie” (2013, No. 3 pop, No. 6 R&B Airplay). He was rappers’ premier male hook singer—on hits like T.I.’s “Dead and Gone” (2009, No. 2 pop and R&B) and Jay Z’s “Holy Grail” (2013, No. 3 pop, No. 2 R&B Airplay), Timberlake’s vocal segments were so substantial that the songs effectively read as duets. During this period, Max Martin was mounting his post–“Since U Been Gone” comeback on U.S. pop radio, co-piloting the launch of Katy Perry and the chart comebacks of Pink and Britney Spears. But Timberlake, as America’s most beloved pop-and-B superstar, would have no reason to darken the doors of Cheiron Studios.

The reasons the Timberlake of 2016 is finally turning back to Martin likely have a lot to do with age and the particular needs of his multihyphenate career. When “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” dropped earlier this month, Slate’s Aisha Harris argued, mournfully, that Timberlake was no longer interested in being a pop star. I’d refine that to say Timberlake knows if he has any chance of remaining a music star, he needs to go for the über-pop jugular. Hoping to carry multiple genres in his late 30s might be a tall order. Notably, “Feeling” has been tagged by the industry as a straight pop record and does not appear on any of Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop charts at all.

For their part, Timberlake’s late-’90s millennial fans are now in their 30s with kids. Justin has spent most of the last decade trying to cross over in movies the way he once crossed genres on the charts, and his filmography has been at best a mixed bag. In all that time, he has (mostly) avoided the temptation to do soundtrack work that would help his cause in Hollywood. Trolls is his first-ever attempt to write standalone soundtrack music, and by his own admission, Timberlake found it challenging to write songs that did double duty within the constraints of another medium—particularly an animated film. Max Martin’s famed precision with vocals and arrangements likely helped. More generally, for the lead single to a franchise picture, Timberlake needed a true mass-appeal hit. Martin delivered: “Feeling” is “Happy” passed through the Cheiron song machine—it retains trace elements of Pharrell’s secular-gospel spirit but pumps up the pop hooks, emphasizing R&B’s rhythm but not the blues. It is synthesis by nature and synthetic to the core.

Earlier this year, when Max Martin won Sweden’s Polar Music prize in recognition of his decades representing the Swedish music industry, Justin Timberlake joined the music stars paying obeisance—he appears in the Polar Music dedication video and closes it with the quip, “Max … take us to the promised land.” The wry smile on Justin’s face as he utters this line says it all: Martin is an undeniable music god whom Timberlake has been hesitant to worship, lest his own multifaceted persona become subservient to Martin’s song machine. The video was likely shot when “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” was already in the works and Timberlake had placed his career back in Martin’s hands, for the first time in a decade and a half. As festive as “Feeling” turned out, perhaps deep down Justin feels a certain sadness at succumbing to the pop deity. Or maybe he’s just relieved to be atop the Hot 100 again—by any means necessary.

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