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Justin Timberlake: Pop Culture's Smartest Guy In The Room

06/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Wild TV Writer; Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone; Co-Author, 'Everybody's Brother'

The other day I was thinking about Justin Timberlake -- a mildly curious thing for a straight man in his forties to spend much time doing, perhaps, but so be it. If it helps, I'm pretty sure that my wife was thinking about Justin too. We were both on a road trip with our two young boys, all of us happily listening as "Dead and Gone," Justin's stellar turn with T.I., kept popping up on a number of different radio stations.

Later the whole family watched all the cleaner bits from last weekend's "Saturday Night Live" together and witnessed Justin kicking comedic ass yet again. That got me thinking about how amazing and impressive it is that the sweet, likeable and ambitious kid I first met in a Florida corporate park as a teenager more than a decade ago has gradually become a singular sensation -- arguably our current pop culture's smartest guy in the room, for real.

Back when I met Justin in 1998, I was writing the first Rolling Stone profile about the then still up-and-coming boy band 'N Sync. I came away from a few days with the guys with two overriding impressions - one was that the group's self-proclaimed "Big Daddy" Lou Pearlman was pretty creepy. The fact that this middle aged boy band impresario mentioned the he'd also gotten into the Chippendale's business too should perhaps have set off a few dozen red flags, but somehow I didn't have a real clue that he was not just a creep, but a true scoundrel as well.

Lou, if they happen get Huffington Post in whatever lucky penal facility currently houses your convicted ass, I apologize if I just ruined your otherwise lovely day in lockdown -- love or otherwise.

My other infinitely more pleasant memory is of Justin himself. He seemed like very much a team player, but I recall him bringing me out to his brand new car and playing me a bunch of current favorite CDs -- a very cool and interesting selection of hip hop and soul recordings that in retrospect suggested the more interesting direction his own music would someday go.

I got to see 'N Sync perform in Miami during my trip and that was my first indication of his ability as a singer and a performer. He was good even then, but you could see he wasn't going to be satisfied with simply being good for long. Somehow Justin's experiences as a child star had not made him crazy, but rather given him a sense of perspective about the business that seemed unusual for his age -- or any age actually.

Since then I've had the pleasure of working with Justin a fair amount, and to this day, he strikes me as a guy with remarkably good instincts. The last time I saw Justin was at the Grammys where he graciously stepped in to help save the show after Chris Brown and Rihanna became the world's most famous no-shows. Working with Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich, Justin helped put together a spontaneously great Grammy moment with Reverend Al Green and an instant backing band. Backstage right before the show went live, I thanked Justin for helping us out. "It's what we do," Justin said. "Sadly Justin, we don't do the same thing," I told him.

I won't feel too bad about that. Nobody else does everything Justin does -- or does so well.

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