They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
Justin Timberlake shouldn’t be what he is. Starting out in a boy band doesn’t normally signal the beginning of a long career. N’Sync was, like most boy bands before them, a meteor, designed to burn hot and then disappear. But a funny thing happened: Justin Timberlake emerged out of what was left and got to work transforming himself into a star.
When N’Sync put itself on the shelf in 2002, Justin responded by putting out his first solo album, Justified. He made no secret of his ambitions, stating he’d like to pattern himself after Michael Jackson. A lofty goal, but Timberlake put the time in, touring hard and putting out danceable tunes with wide appeal. His next album, though, would put the world on notice.
FutureSex/LoveSounds was a departure from his N’Sync and previous solo work. Justified was a fairly standard, well-made R&B record, one that served to let the world know Justin was able to stand on his own as an artist. FutureSex/LoveSounds, then, served to show that not only could he be his own artist, he could be great. He turned to more of a hip-hop sound, and “SexyBack” took over the world for a couple of months. He was everywhere – movies, awards shows, guest appearances, and one of the most legendary Saturday Night Live appearances of all time kept him in the public eye nonstop, even as time passed between albums.
A lot of time, actually. Timberlake waited over six years before putting out the first half of The 20/20 Experience. Once again, he completely changed his sound. Rolling Stone called it his neo-soul record. Songs like “Mirrors” and “Suit & Tie” were smoother than anything he’d done before, casting Justin almost in a Sinatra role, a man completely in charge of whatever room he finds himself in, smooth and self-aware and totally the focus of every eye in the room. He followed that up with the second half of the double album, maintaining his long streak of success.
Justin would be a legend if all he did was perform skits on Saturday Night Live and show up with Jimmy Fallon. He’d be known if he were just an actor. But he started with the music, and it’s the music he keeps turning back to, delivering something different every time. With his refusal to be pigeonholed, and his appearances in so many different places, he’s managed to influence artists in a wide variety of fields. That range is represented in the following covers. As always, Justin Timberlake is almost impossible to ignore.
Hunter Hayes – Mirrors (Justin Timberlake cover)
“Mirrors”, one of Timberlake’s best songs, is a ballad about finding one’s other half. A feeling that universal translates into any genre. Multi-talented young country star Hunter Hayes takes it and puts an acoustic spin on it, stripping the layers of production from the original, replacing them with guitars and a mandolin, and turning in a version that sounds very different but keeps the intensity of feeling Justin gave the original.
CHVRCHES – Cry Me a River (Justin Timberlake cover)
Everybody needs a good kiss-off song or two somewhere in their catalog. The original recording of “Cry Me a River” is a little slow, full of starts and stops, with pauses that reflect the sadness in Justin’s voice as he tells his ex goodbye. CHVRCHES adds a driving synthline that never stops. The lack of empty space in the song gives their take an edge of righteous anger that fits the lyrics perfectly.
Corinne Bailey Rae – SexyBack (Justin Timberlake cover)
“SexyBack” is the perfect song to listen to before you head out for the night. We might not all be as good-looking as Justin Timberlake, but it’s nice to sing along and pretend like we can make everyone in the room focus on us for a little while. Corinne Bailey Rae apparently knows more about being able demand that attention than most of us, though. Her take is a swinging number that could very well have followed “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in a WWII dance hall. She’s got the confidence to pull all eyes to her.
David Fanning – Drink You Away (Justin Timberlake cover)
When you’re drinking Jack and Jim, you know the country crowd is going to listen to what you’re saying. When you’re doing it to get rid of the memories, they’re not just going to pay attention, they’re going to sing along. Timberlake has gotten some country airplay with this song after performing it with Chris Stapleton at the CMA Awards last November, but David Fanning had already recorded his own cover version. Drinking to forget is a time-honored tradition, and the snarling guitars in Fanning’s country-rock style crank up the heartbreak. This is one to get a little rowdy with.
Alesana – What Goes Around (Justin Timberlake cover)
“What Goes Around…/…Comes Around” is Timberlake’s other “forget-you” song. Unlike “Cry Me a River”, though, this one is a little bit nasty. Justin promises that karma will get you in the end. Alesana covered “What Goes Around…” for Punk Goes Pop Volume Two, and turns that nastiness all the way up to 11. The contrast between the singing of the verses and the screaming delivery of the chorus fits the song well. Sometimes pain just makes you need to howl.