May 2007, Plano East Senior High Prom Night: You’re in your prom tux, complete with the silver vest to match your girlfriend’s dress, taking pictures in your backyard with the whole group. Your hands are around your girlfriend’s waist. There’s a palpable feeling of excitement in the air; no one knows what prom is really going to be like, but they do know they won’t forget it. Someone had the idea to rent an SUV limo for the night. You’ve made a mix CD for the ride, because you recently started getting into music, and mix CDs are kind of your “thing.” You’re a senior in high school, so you still think you have a “thing.”
The limo ride isn’t crazy; there’s no alcohol, no one in the group is vulgar or anything, but you act like it’s crazy, kissing your girlfriend, something you’ll regret that you did in public so often in high school. But tonight, hey, it’s prom night. “SexyBack” comes on, and you smile. Everyone knows the words. You know it’s cheesy and you know it’s kind of a weird song, but you dance and sing along because you also know it’s your song, the song of your graduating class, from the album everyone’s been jamming to. You’ll graduate in a few weeks, and you’ve never felt as free and limitless as tonight. You know there’s no party song better than “SexyBack” in that moment, no song you’d rather be dancing with your girlfriend to, even if it is by the guy from ‘N Sync. You sing another “Get your sexy on,” then you take it to the bridge.
May 2013, a month before graduation: You’re driving your fiancée to look at apartments near campus. The apartment you’ve pre-leased is fine, but something closer to campus would be nice, and if you can swing cheaper rent, well, that would be just swell. Your window is down; your fiancée has put hers up, because the wind tangles her gorgeous, wavy, black hair. It’s almost summer in Oklahoma, so that means the weather is going nutso. But this is a cool afternoon, and the smells of cut grass and newly green leaves are wafting into the car. Your iPod is on shuffle; “Mirrors” comes on, and you smile. You fiancée reaches for the dial to turn it up, which almost never happens, since she hates your music as a rule. “This song is so good,” she says. You glance over at her and your smile grows wider, because after all the critics have written paragraphs about the 8-minute long songs on JT’s new album, the people who love his music will say a simple sentence like that and go on with their lives. There’s no deconstructing Timberlake’s machine-like hit-making abilities, no complaining about the length of the songs, no describing the R&B beats unfavorably as faux artsy; they just let the music wash over them and permeate their lives as fully and completely as his last album.
You drive away from the apartment. It’s perfect; it’s small, a fixer-upper, and, as your mom will later say so succinctly, “it looks like someone’s first apartment.” But it’s close to campus, and you and your fiancée can see yourselves turning it into a real home. “Pusher Love Girl”, another 8-minute song, comes on as you reach over to hold your fiancée’s hand. The lyrics go on about different drugs, comparing his girl’s love to a high. It’s a near inane comparison, but as your fiancée squeezes your hand, you can’t argue with its accuracy. You think of the rest of the songs on the album- “Strawberry Bubblegum”, “Spaceship Coupe”, “Don’t Hold the Wall”– and how they seem to be the music equivalent of popcorn movies. But you glance at your fiancée, admiring her profile as she looks out the window. Timberlake is onto something; there’s a deep respect for love on this album, masked with lyrics that appear to be ridiculous and music that comes off as over-the-top. “Mirrors” is the best song, and the one with the most depth, the one most likely to become a classic; but the album as a whole runs deeper than its pop sheen. This is music that will last, music that will once again soundtrack a generation’s coming-of-age. Your fiancée turns from the window and rests her head on your shoulder, gripping your arm close. “Suit & Tie” comes on, and you smile.