- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Justin Timberlake scarcely needed Christina Aguilera’s help in selling out the MCI Center Monday night. The ‘N Sync singer gone solo was a force unto himself.

The girls cooed and shrieked their lungs out, and so did the boys, during Mr. Timberlake’s show-closing set. The 22-year-old Tennessean heartthrob with a slinky falsetto is straddling the poles of hetero- and homosexual glamour: He’s at once Liza Minnelli and David Cassidy.

Miss Aguilera, no slouch in the vocal department herself (her cover of the Etta James classic “At Last” was particularly strong), got lost in the shadow of the national boy toy’s sex appeal Monday despite an hour-plus opening set that was as energetic and splashy as Mr. Timberlake’s.

Now a raven-haired minx, Miss Aguilera, constantly changing costumes on an ascending scale of trashiness, left the capacity crowd feeling cold.

“Lady Marmalade,” the smash from the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack, seemed even more like the disco-era retread that it has always been. The gitchy-goo “What a Girl Wants” and “Genie in the Bottle,” from the pre-“Stripped,” fully clothed Aguilera era, were very yesterday, too.

There were intermittent moments of success — “Infatuation,” a recent single off “Stripped,” went over well — but it was telling that Miss Aguilera drew fewer raves for her own material than when she asked:

“Who’s got a crush on Justin?”

Miss Aguilera’s newfound dirty-diva persona is, hands down — or do I mean hands off? — a bust.

The “Mickey Mouse Club Alumni Revue” — whoops, I mean the “Justified and Stripped” tour, of course — had been scheduled for Aug. 19, but a million-dollar production accident on the Jersey Shore forced a postponement.

One can easily see why the repairs were necessary: The dance-pop show’s production value — chockablock with fiery special effects, a cherry picker (for him) and thematic set-pieces (for her) such as a makeshift boudoir and a motorcycle with sparking exhaust — was more important than the music itself.

Looking like teen-pop versions of “Cats,” Mr. Timberlake and Miss Aguilera — call them Justina for short — each had their own eight-member team of dancers, while the core musicians were hidden away like so many catering staffers.

They had little room to complain, however: As often as not, a backing tape and preprogrammed beats provided the accompaniment.

In select cities on the “Justified and Stripped” tour, Mr. Timberlake is playing smaller clubs and venues immediately following the big show. Washington was one of those select cities.

He shagged over to the 9:30 Club for an intimate apres-arena performance before about 900 lucky fans, which began at the wee hour of 1:15 a.m.

Judging from the long queue full of stylishly dressed young women who had snaked around the corner of Eighth and V streets NW, waiting for entree into what was temporarily the city’s hottest nightclub, you might have thought there was a special midnight Kate Spade warehouse sample sale.

Yet it was Mr. Timberlake they were lining up to see, for a performance they learned of just three days earlier.

The MCI Center show was all-ages, and Mr. Timberlake behaved appropriately. At the 21-and-over 9:30 Club, it was risque Justin — a potty mouth, middle-finger taunts and semaphores for various unmentionable acts.

Clearly trying to ditch his cuddly boy-pop persona, the white lover boy has taken on aspects of black gangsta-rap — the tilted baseball cap, the baggy pants and, what may have been directed at his old flame Britney Spears, profane allusions to women.

In a recent phone interview, Mr. Timberlake dismissed any thought that teaming up with Miss Aguilera was a slap at Miss Spears. “I would never do anything just for spite,” he said. “I’m not that type of person.”

He sang a different tune Monday night.

The anti-whining “Cry Me a River” had always been rumored to be about Miss Spears (another “Mickey Mouse Club” alumna, by the way), and Mr. Timberlake all but confirmed the dishing.

“I betcha think this song is about you,” he sang after finishing “River,” excerpting a line from the famous Carly Simon song “You’re So Vain.” Added Mr. Timberlake, now actress Cameron Diaz’s new beau: “It is.”

While clearly reveling in the gigantism of the arena production (“You’re embarrassing me, stop it,” he would say to rapturous cheers, a hard thing to believe), Mr. Timberlake showed signs of wanting to be taken more seriously as a musician.

As he did at MCI, the singer bashed away on an acoustic guitar for the ballad “Take It From Here.” Darn it if he didn’t have the rudimentary chords down pat. At the club, he also sat down to play a Fender Rhodes keyboard, on which he was equally, if modestly, competent.

On the phone, Mr. Timberlake said his pairing with Miss Aguilera unites two performers at curious career crossroads; the tour is a way to “break the mold of what people see as teen pop and move in a different direction,” he said.

He was less generous about Miss Aguilera’s artistic evolution Monday night. Rejecting audience calls for him to remove clothing, Mr. Timberlake was pointed: “This ain’t ‘Stripped.’ We don’t take [stuff] off.”

For Mr. Timberlake, moving teen pop in a different direction seems to mean moving it back in time, a reverse chronology that was apparent from his back-to-back performances in the District.

He started out with lightweight imitations of “Off the Wall”- and “Thriller”-era Michael Jackson and old-school hip-hop at the MCI Center and ended up trying to sound like Stevie Wonder by the end of his double-header.

It helped that he was backed by an all-black phalanx of jazz-trained funk musicians who were actually seen and heard at the 9:30 Club.

“Teen pop will never be dead,” Mr. Timberlake said over the phone. “As long as there are teens and we have a culture with popular music, it will never die.”

I’m sure he’s right, but the more he tries to play and sound like a grown-up, the more he will contribute to the death of teen pop as we’ve known it recently.

Christian Toto contributed to this report.

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