With the initial tidal wave of Michael Jackson memorializing—glittery, star-studded and centered around a golden coffin—now behind us, it's only natural to begin considering who will replace Michael as the King of Pop. The world needs heroes, after all. Cue the media speculation.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Monica Guzman asks whether Shaheen Jafargholi, a tween contestant on Britain's Got Talent, is "the next Michael Jackson." MTV doesn't think so, saying, "For years now, Usher has been tapped as “the next Michael Jackson." On the other side of the world, a Filipino news service claims both those suggestions are wrong, positing that Jackson's adopted son, Prince Michael II, better known as Blanket, will be his father's successor. And those are just the first three predictions that turned up on Google News.
Over the years, other suggested replacements have included everyone from Chris Brown (before his legal troubles, which might actually help his case for replacing Jackson) to Ne-Yo to American Idol punch line Sanjaya. Who ever said pop music was easy?
Nevertheless, the pack racing to replace MJ includes a clear front-runner: bubble-gum wunderkind Justin Timberlake. Regardless of your feelings about the 28-year-old singer-cum-actor, there's no arguing that he and Jackson share strikingly similar back stories.
Born of the kind of modest, Middle American households that would belie their future superstardom, both Jackson and Timberlake toiled for years in treacly boy bands which they would later recall with more anguish than joy. Both would emerge from their respective groups as the clear leaders, far more talented than their former band mates. Both would attempt solo careers. Both would succeed.
And the similarities don't end with their routes to stardom. Also notable are Jackson and Timberlake's comparable performance styles: rhythmic pop songs perfect for choreography, impossibly high falsettos, grandiose stage shows and the dancing. Oh, the dancing—quick, airy stuff that entertained as much as it confused, often leaving awestruck audiences asking, "How'd he do that?"
The comparisons and the similarities are no coincidence, of course. Timberlake himself has admitted to emulating Jackson in a number of ways, from his footwork to his fashion—they're also obvious to anyone who pays attention to popular music.
At the BET Awards immediately following Jackson's passing, Entourage actor Jeremy Piven jokingly proclaimed, "If not for Michael Jackson, [Timberlake] would be selling curly fries in the Valley." Though it's doubtful that Timberlake would have been filling your McDonald's order under any circumstances, there is an underlying truth to Piven's comment: By design, Justin Timberlake is the closest facsimile to Michael Jackson working in music today. If you can accept that, is it time for you to also accept Timberlake as your new King of Pop, the superstar who will pull the sequined glove from the stone and begin his reign?
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.