One of the coolest nights of my New York life took place on August 29, 2003. The Video Music Awards production had consumed Radio City Music Hall and most of midtown. As the night began I was with new friends (all of whom, with one exception, now lost in time) in an apartment on the Upper East Side, watching the show on TV. Later that night Justin Timberlake was giving a semi-secret after-show concert at the Roseland Ballroom, and my friend (the one who endured) had somehow found out about it and procured tickets. That afternoon I had gone to a thrift store near my apartment on Columbus to buy a cool new shirt. I was ready. Around one in the morning we hopped in a cab to head downtown and joined the long line of people curving around the block to get in.
Inside we stood on our tiptoes and stared at the center of the world. He performed with Timbaland, Pharrell, John Mayer. Relevant-at-the-time celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Cameron Diaz glowed in the balcony as cameras flashed before them. The music was familiar and driving, giving us life. Hours later we emerged into the darkest hours of the morning, exhausted and wide awake. We were in New York City, young and broke and unstoppable.
It was almost a perfect night. On the way in security guards had confiscated the disposable camera I had brought, and as we were leaving I realized I wouldn't be able to recover it -- they had thrown it away in the trash. The camera had photos from a friend's recent wedding, and I was wracked with guilt and fear that the pictures were lost. My friends implored me to get into a cab and leave, but I ended the night by myself sorting through garbage bags outside of Roseland, looking for a camera that of course I never found.
The pathetic ending, though, is necessary to demonstrate the reality of that spectacular night. A better conclusion would have required flights of make-believe.
Of course, that was now ten years ago. And when I saw Justin host SNL a few weeks back, I thought, for the first time, that he looked kind of ... older. Not that he looked objectively old or haggard, but that he no longer looked young. He used to be the Justin Bieber of the early aughts, and now he's too old to get away with something as unabashedly silly (yet awesome) as "Beauty and the Beat." He is in a different space now, ceding the teen-pop ground and moving on to a silkier, more mature R&B tradition.
One funny thing about my job working with college students is that I feel acutely aware of the passage of time, as I become older yet the cohort of people I work with remains static. I see their experience of music become more and more estranged from my own. When they find out I listen to JT or Maroon 5 or anyone like that they are often incredulous, as if I should be at home watching Lawrence Welk.
As a result I follow Justin Timberlake through music with the confidence that I can go where he is leading. He is my spirit animal. And the new album is fantastic: warmer than the last and with solid through-lines connecting its songs to the tracks on the 2003 album, "Justified," that was my soundtrack to those incredulous years ("Nothin' Else" to "Strawberry Bubblegum," "Last Night" to "Tunnel Vision").
Pop culture is a force of the young. Maybe he is still doing those midnight shows, but I'm sure not going to them -- that particular moment has passed. Now we dance in the kitchen with our daughters, cleaning dishes in the evening.