Michael Jackson called Justin Timberlake and things got complicated

How you feel about Justin Timberlake right now completely depends on your age. 0-5: Trolls! 6-15: Who’s Justin Timberlake. 16-30: Mum, it’s for you. 31-40: It’s complicated. 41-50: I’ve taped Graham Norton because of JT. 51+: We had such a good dance at the wedding to ‘Happy’.

I’m in the 31-40 bracket – it’s complicated. For my group it’s been a confusing ride because it’s been going on for so long. At first it was easy: Justin Timberlake was the leader of a boy band with no interesting qualities, who nobody now remembers affectionately, at a time when people have started buying FILA fleeces again. Growing up, I never met anyone who hated NSYNC, but I never met anyone who loved them either, or who felt anything at all. And yet, late nineties rule dictated that their lead singer is probably a bit of tit – the one going out with the queen of everything, Britney Spears. Regardless, you didn’t need to bother yourself with thinking about Justin Timberlake because he wasn’t going to be around forever. Then he danced in front of a 7 Eleven in the ‘Like I Love You’ video. I just watched it back and couldn’t stop looking at his doily beanie hat – the type sold at church fates, the type my nan would describe as “too old” for her. It must have been there in 2002 but, like everyone else, I was distracted by the song and the dancing that looked and sounded just like Michael Jackson.

Justin has it that his fateful involvement with Jackson goes beyond the homage that reinvented him on ‘Like I Love You’, the rest of the ‘Justified’ LP and pretty much everything he’s done since. It goes back to a phone call in 2001.

Around that time Timberlake had written a song called ‘Gone’ for Jackson’s album ‘Invincible’. Even with that record turning out as appallingly as it did, and with Jackson just 12 months away from calling his baby Blanket and dangling him out of a fourth story window, Michael had enough sense to turn down this complete turd of a song. You can either imagine how bad it must have been or watch its video on YouTube, because NSYNC ended up recording it and single-releasing it themselves. It certainly makes you appreciate ‘Stranger In Moscow’ a lot more – the dampest song Jackson ever recorded. The two overlong tracks even share similar black-and-white-for-the-sake-of-it videos, although Jackson’s doesn’t appear to be purposefully cutting out four other guys in black sleeveless T-shirts who are miming to what is clearly their frontman singing all the backing vocals himself.

But Jackson didn’t simply say no to ‘Gone’. He said no right up until it was released. Then he said yes please, I’ll take it. That sounds kind of odd, but not if you saw Martin Bashir’s Living With Michael Jackson documentary in 2003 – a film in which Jackson goes urn shopping and tries to buy furniture that he’d already bought the previous week.

As Timberlake told the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2014, Michael heard that ‘Gone’ was out and called him up to pitch that they release it together as a duet. “But it’s already out, Michael.” “What’s your point?”

Although this idea was now impossible on account of how time works, Timberlake says he suggested that they do it as NSYNC featuring Michael Jackson, but Michael wasn’t interest in that – Timberlake took great joy in telling OWN that “[Michael] was very absolute about the fact that he wanted it to be a duet between himself and I… I think it was the first idea I ever got about doing something on my own,” he went on, “because it was the first time I had ever really felt the confidence to do it.”

It’s intoxicating stuff, I’m sure: the most famous man on the planet – a genius and a nutcase – calls you up to accept that piece of crap song you wrote for him now that he’s not allowed it. He’s telling you the rest of your band are worthless (which, ok, was fair) and it’s all about you. It’s exciting. So exciting that Timberlake decided to become Michael Jackson. Everyone wins – the real Jackson in as much as winning and losing hold no currency in Neverland, unless it’s a tickle fight, and Timberlake because ‘Like I Love You’ leads to ‘Cry Me A River’, leads to ‘Rock Your Body’, leads to ‘Senorita’, leads to Hollywood roles, leads to everything.

And we won too… for a time. In going solo, the strength of Timberlake’s music made us have to think something about him. First we loved the music, and then we started to love him. I watched Alpha Dog unprompted. And Dick In A Box a hundred times. I mean, I can’t look at the guy now – his Super Bowl show, his conceited History of Rap bit, how effortlessly he slimed through The Social Network as Shawn Fanning – but I mostly blame that on time and the insuppressible nature of a smugness that the nineties could see through. He’s a tit, right? Or not. It’s complicated.