Formula 1 Music: Justin Timberlake

Circuit of the Americas race hosts another ol’ blue eyes

Lights over the crowd gathered at F1’s super stage on Saturday night went out as Frank Sinatra played over the P.A.: “I planned each charted course/ Each careful step along the byway/ And more, much more than this/ I did it my way.” As “My Way” faded and Justin Timberlake appeared, the link between that song and the pop star’s career trajectory felt undeniable.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

The 36-year-old singer understands entertainment in that rare way of someone who’s been working crowds professionally since childhood. The onetime Mouseketeer turned N’Sync leader turned international pop star is so present onstage that it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t evaporate into thin air as soon as he steps off of it. That stadium-sized charisma, honed by over 20 years of performances, kept the audience wrapped around his finger for just over an hour.

He zoomed through truncated versions of his songs with little break or banter in between, effectively making his show a medley of his own greatest hits. There were a few surprises, though. A rendition of “My Cherie Amour,” by Sunday’s F1 headliner Stevie Wonder, faded into an acoustic-driven version of “What Goes Around... Comes Around,” finger-picked by Timberlake.

Early career dance hit “Rock Your Body” brightened via guitar and glistening synth lines, but quickly moved into the unabashed pop of 2016’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which was, in turn, capped by a brief nod to Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” Aside from the notable omission of “Pusher Love Girl,” Timberlake hit all of the fan-expected high notes, and he did it at break-neck speed.

Through it all, he danced. He sang. And he didn’t hold back on the bangers, either.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

After all, that’s expected at a pop show of this magnitude. What sets Timberlake apart, however, is his understanding of what’s going on around him onstage, a rarity for a guy whose devoted fans would probably pay to see him sing karaoke. His massive backing band, the Tennessee Kids, are front-and-center live – literally, at times.

The brass section aligned with Timberlake at the front of the stage for the rollicking “Drink You Away.” After a bleeding guitar solo on “My Love,” which definitely isn’t on the studio version, the bandleader introduced his backers as the “best band in the world.”

“Try me,” he dared.

It’s more than a professional generosity. Timberlake respects and recognizes musicianship, which is how he translates even his poppiest cuts into robust performance. He took to the keys for “Señorita,” briefly transforming the stage into a lounge, with horn players slinking around and backup singers writhing at the piano. That left only a brimming Circuit of the Americas to sing along at the end. “LoveStoned” got juiced up by horns and disco-style guitar, buoyed by the singer’s vocals even as he moved into the stripped-down interlude, his signature falsetto carrying the song to completion.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

That’s how he’s entranced audiences for over two decades, but his respect for the craft – as a performer and as a musician – has elevated him to the status he holds today. And it wasn’t guaranteed to him by his early success. After the demise of N’Sync, he could have easily gone the way of, well, all of his fellow boy bandmates.

Instead, the singer transcended. He took the time off to figure out exactly what he wants as a soloist. Since then, he’s continued to tweak that style thoughtfully, even if it means large breaks in his career – the hitmaker churn be damned.

In other words, Justin Timberlake’s done it his way.

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Justin Timberlake, Formula One 2017, Frank Sinatra, N’Sync, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Tennessee Kids

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