One thing keeping JT from being the next MJ: a lack of inventiveness. And that’s not to say that the *NSYNC alum isn’t a remarkably talented performer, but it’s undeniable that his skill set is the derivative of his predecessors. The beatboxing? That’s from Biz Markie. The ostentatious, unashamed sexuality? Little Richard perfected that. The high notes, fast feet and fedoras? Well, clearly that’s Michael.
Michael Jackson took the music video from hasty, ramshackle necessary evil to epic, enthralling mini-movie; he shattered the idea that performers shouldn’t make use of the entirety of the stages on which they sang; he originated one of the most thrilling dance moves in history. Cynics might rightly suggest that, like most celebrities, much of Jackson’s most successful decisions were probably made by advisers, but they certainly all weren’t, and a few of his moves hint at true brilliance. Conversely, Timberlake does a bang-up Michael Jackson impression, but beyond that, there’s not much else. Ultimately, it seems more “filler” than “Thriller.”
But the biggest distinction between Timberlake and Jackson is that Michael Jackson changed the way the world saw young African-American men, simultaneously bringing traditionally black music into the homes of people who would have scoffed at R&B prior to his rise. Says Mark Anthony Neal, a black studies professor at Duke, “[Jackson and the Jackson 5] became a cutting-edge example of black crossover artists … You basically had five working-class boys with Afros and bell bottoms, and they really didn’t have to trade any of that stuff in order to become mainstream stars.” Sexy without being predatory and glamorous without being arrogant, Jackson was welcomed into white homes across America years before Kanye West, 50 Cent and Jay-Z. Not only has Justin Timberlake not done anything like this, he couldn’t, even if he wanted to.
The moral of the story is a sad one, but it’s one music fans need to accept: The king is dead. There will be no replacements. It’s time to move on.
Cord Jefferson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Some of his other work has appeared in National Geographic, The Daily Beast and on MTV. You can contact him here.