'N Sync's 'Gone' Comes Back: Why Michael Jackson's Proposed Duet is an Essential Justin Timberlake Track
Improbably, 'N Sync's "Gone" is back in the news: in a new interview with Oprah Winfrey's OWN, Justin Timberlake reveals that "Love Never Felt So Good," his new single featured on Michael Jackson's upcoming posthumous album "Xscape," was born when he wrote "Gone" for Jackson over a decade ago, back when Timberlake was still a member of the impossibly successful boy band. Back then, Jackson's people has turned Timberlake's song down, so JT decided to casually offer it to his group.
"We were having an A&R meeting for the third 'N Sync album [2001's "Celebrity"] at that time, and I said, 'Well, I have this other song, but I originally wrote it for Michael,'" says Timberlake in the confessional.
Then Jackson did want "Gone," recorded as a duet between himself and Timberlake, presumably after he heard the finished song. Unfortunately, he reached out to Timberlake after the song had already been released as an 'N Sync track, and the two couldn't figure out how to bill a revamped version.
"I'm on the phone, I'm literally punching myself in the face, because I said, 'I can't do that. Could we do an 'N Sync track featuring Michael Jackson? Or Michael Jackson featuring 'N Sync?' And he was very absolute about the fact that he wanted it to be a duet between himself and I."
Imagine the King of Pop asked to duet with you, on a song you wrote for him, and you had to tell him that it can't work. You'd punch yourself in the face too, right? "Gone," released as the second single from "Celebrity," did not become 'N Sync's biggest hit, even from that album; "Pop" was fizzier, and "Girlfriend" peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100 chart, whereas "Gone" topped out at No. 11. "Gone" is not a touchstone of the early 00's boy band era, and if one were to select the song out of all the 'N Sync singles at a karaoke bar, he or she would undoubtedly conjure some curious looks.
But that case of terrible timing between Jackson and Timberlake turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the latter. "Gone," an evocative breakup ballad unlike anything else in 'N Sync's catalogue, established Timberlake as a solo artist long before he was actually a solo artist, and remains one of his very best singles to date.
Lyrically, "Gone" is a fairly straightforward account of post-breakup loneliness, with Timberlake crooning, "I've been sitting here/Can't get you off my mind," waiting for a sliver of hope to materialize. But the deployment of the title word in the chorus -- an echoing yelp escaping at the top of the group's register, after several lines of low-rising reasoning -- remains legitimately bone-chilling. In the song, "gone" represents a type of finality that Timberlake simply cannot understand, that he refuses to accept. He warbles "Girl, you're gone," his pain bare, as the rest of 'N Sync keeps hammering the word home. It's a startling little effect that makes a previously released 'N Sync ballad like "Thinking Of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)" sound like child's play.
Then again, "Gone" is full of startling little effects. The production throughout the song remains wonderfully ornate, even compared to the pristine pop sheen of 'N Sync's breakout singles. There's the orchestral intro that sets the dramatic table, the creak-and-pop percussion lurching forward, the guitar chord progression that ends abruptly within each verse line. The key change on the bridge grasps more fiercely at a resolution that doesn't exist; later, the ticking clock on the line "The time is passing so slowly now" is the sort of minute detail that one can discover and appreciate on a 25th listen.
It's no surprise that Timberlake wrote "Gone" on the side as a means of sending a song to Jackson, because when 'N Sync used the song, they clearly let Timberlake run with it. "Gone" is distinct from every other song on "Celebrity" because it's the only song on which Timberlake performs solo, as JC Chasez alternated frontman duties with JT on the rest of the album. Here, Timberlake's four band mates are essentially a backing choir: Chasez, Lance Bass, Chris Kirkpatrick and Joey Fatone emphasize a few of Timberlake's verse lines, toss in some "Oooh-oooh-oooh's" for good measure on the bridge, and then present a unified front on the chorus. And for his part, Timberlake completely delivers on the opportunity to front the group, never over-pursuing syllables and finally letting his frustration about his lost love boil over -- "Can't get you off of my mind" -- on the last chorus.
Praising "Gone" in a Popdust post on Timberlake last year, Billboard.com contributor Andrew Unterberger compared the song to "Careless Whisper," a hit that was technically credited to Wham! but set the stage for George Michael's solo career. Indeed, "Gone" was just as important at establishing its lead singer as a viable solo performer… which makes this revelation about Michael Jackson's near-involvement with the song a fantastic, somewhat terrifying "what if?" moment in pop history. Timberlake is the star of "Gone," but 'N Sync's backing vocals are nearly as crucial to the track, which makes the notion of "Gone" being recorded as a Timberlake solo song an uneasy one. Similarly, to trade verses of "Gone" with another singer -- even someone like Jackson, who could have expertly handled the song, and would have surpassed everything on his 2001 album "Invincible" with it -- would be to jeopardize the song's singular vision. Hypothetically, Timberlake and Jackson duetting on "Gone" would have been a fascinating passing-of-the-torch moment, but it's simply too difficult to imagine a song this great being changed so radically.
Timberlake concludes his OWN interview snippet by saying that Jackson's proposed collaboration on "Gone" more or less sparked his solo career. "I think it's the first idea I ever got about doing something on my own, because it was the first time I have ever really felt the confidence to do it," Timberlake professes. That idea might be a little hard to digest -- Timberlake never considered going solo until 'N Sync was on the second single of "Celebrity"? -- but once again demonstrates the long-ignored importance of "Gone" in the pop canon. It's not as sonically sexy as "SexyBack" or dazzlingly acidic as "Cry Me a River," but "Gone" is an undeniable heartbreak jam deserves the recognition it's unexpectedly receiving 13 years later.