At the beginning of 2013, Cyrus and Timberlake existed at opposite points on the pop spectrum: Cyrus had everything to prove with her next musical project, while Timberlake, whose legacy as a solo star had swelled as fans hungrily anticipated new music, had nothing to prove with the music that did come, last March's "The 20/20 Experience." Of course, Timberlake didn't always have enough juice to justify a neo-soul opus full of seven-minute cuts. A decade ago, Timberlake was in "My music will shut everyone up" mode, too, as he railed against a teenybopper image formed by years of choreographed maneuvering with 'N Sync and a lengthy relationship with a wholesome pop starlet. With the release of his debut solo album in late 2002, Timberlake was pleading his case to survive the boy band era's bursted bubble and be taken seriously as an artist. The album, fittingly, was called "Justified."
"I don't want to cash in on the fact that I got to work with the hottest producers," Timberlake told Interview magazine in February 2003, about his "Justified" collaborations with Timbaland and the Neptunes. "I think that music is an experience, and people should experience it on their own." The interview ended with Timberlake dismissing a question about ex-flame Britney Spears as "gossip."
We have all digested Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" music video by now (current VEVO view count after 10 days: 123 million). We have all reacted to the salacious licking of sledgehammers, watched various memes of the singer's naked wrecking ball ride (the Nic Cage GIF will haunt dreams, forever) and been sent YouTube parodies of regular guys re-creating her clothes-free swing. Ask anyone within 15 feet of you what they think of Terry Richardson's "Wrecking Ball" video, and expect a dissertation in return. For all the furor surrounding Cyrus' latest visual, however, let's take a look back at the 2003 clip for Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," one of the more brilliant musical moments in pop music since the dawn of the century. Directed by Francis Lawrence, the visual is JT's most controversial music video to date, no matter how many pairs of bare breasts appear in this year's "Tunnel Vision" clip.
First of all: the Britney look-alike. Months after Timberlake and Spears ended their sky-high-profile relationship, Lawrence opted to include a blonde woman with a complexion strikingly similar to Spears' (her face is obscured by a hat in most of the video, but is shown for a split-second at the conclusion) as the victim of Timberlake's revenge fantasy in the breakup single's video. Did Timberlake deny that Spears inspired the video? Absolutely. But anyone could see that Timberlake and Lawrence knew what they were doing when they based their video around a rich, stylish, faceless blonde who crushes the heart of Timberlake's "character." "Britney Vs. Justin: The War Is On" was the headline on the front page of Us Weekly after the "Cry Me a River" video was released. JT did not need a sledgehammer to start a riot.
Even if the heartless female in the video had been brunette, however, the "Cry Me a River" clip's concept would have raised plenty of eyebrows. The 'N Sync member's reaction to watching his girl leave her mansion with another dude is to break into her home, bring in a scantily clad female to suck on his lip, videotape the exploits and revel in the pain he is about to cause. The final third of the video is pure voyeurism: Timberlake gazes on creepily as the blonde returns home, hides in her closet as she undresses, then presses his palms up against her glass shower door, his presence unbeknownst as she turns around and is emotionally smashed with his videotaped hookup. Everything about the "Cry Me a River" video is cold and metallic, from the bleak shots of the blonde's mansion to Timberlake's careless dismissal of his brunette hook-up partner. Less than two years removed from the bubblegum bliss of 'N Sync's "Pop" video, "Cry Me a River" was a knowing image adjustment, pummeling the idea that Timberlake was now a dangerous adult into its audience's mind.
The "Cry Me a River" video served a duel purpose for Timberlake: to court controversy, and to make its star seem more grown-up. Certainly, Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" video has the same goal -- along with the nudity and slow-motion tonguing, there are shots of bruising emotion, with tears in Cyrus' eyes as she is centered in bright close-ups she cannot escape. "If people get past the point I make, and you actually look at me, you can tell I look more broken than even the song sounds," Cyrus recently said about the "Wrecking Ball" video. Whereas Timberlake displayed his manhood in the "Cry Me a River" video by wounding his ex, Cyrus is the wounded one in "Wrecking Ball," and no longer looks like a child.
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It's easy to speculate about the lyrics of "Wrecking Ball" and how they relate to Cyrus' recent breakup with Liam Hemsworth. It was just as simple to tie Timberlake's line "You were my sun/ You were my Earth" to a certain female pop superstar a decade ago. However, the timing of the release of "Wrecking Ball" in Cyrus' music career is far more crucial than its timing in her personal life. After Cyrus returned to Top 40 with the beguiling, hip-hop-inflected dance song "We Can't Stop," "Wrecking Ball" is an emotional hammer (pun intended) that has repositioned Cyrus as a serious artist with staying power. There is no gimmickry in its composition or delivery: after its preceding single gave a toast to the homegirls with the big butts, "Wrecking Ball" is a soaring, straight-faced ballad about the crushing feeling of unconditional love not being returned. "We Can't Stop" exploded on the impact of its first listen, but "Wrecking Ball" is something subtler, and takes a few replays to convey its devastation.
Likewise, "Cry Me a River" was Timberlake's follow-up to a dance single brimming with hooks and hip-hop influence. "Like I Love You," the lead single from "Justified," was a sleek, scorching Neptunes banger featuring rap duo the Clipse, and introduced Timberlake as a solo artist capable of producing Michael Jackson songs for a new generation. "Cry Me a River," of course, was something deeper, a siren of vulnerability bolstered by Timbaland's operatic collection of beats and beat-boxing. Like "Wrecking Ball," which has topped the Hot 100 chart after "We Can't Stop" peaked at No. 2 on the tally, "Cry Me a River" was a bigger hit than its predecessor, climbing to No. 3 on the Hot 100 after the more immediate "Like I Love You" tapped out at No. 11. Years later, "Cry Me a River" is considered the far more iconic Timberlake single -- a fate that may also be waiting for "Wrecking Ball."
For those either concerned or appalled of Cyrus' recent twerk-happy antics: it's worth remembering that the most accomplished pop singer-songwriter of his generation once exposed a female artist's breast in front of 144 million viewers during a Super Bowl halftime show, and survived. Cyrus is breathtaking and talented, and, now that she has our attention with her own version of "Cry Me a River," can dial down the shock tactics and present her artistic vision in the form of a new full-length. Who knows? In a decade, Cyrus might be releasing a two-part album based on a euphoric marriage, and performing "Wrecking Ball" as the centerpiece of a co-headlined stadium tour.