Justin Timberlake becomes the latest pop star to 'go country'

Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake got back to his roots during the Nashville, Tennessee, stop of his 20/20 Experience world tour on Friday night.

The Suit and Tie singer, originally from Memphis, offered the Bridgestone Arena a surprise rendition of the Garth Brooks smash I’ve Got Friends in Low Places, and he sent the crowd into a joyous uproar when he brought Brooks onstage to sing a raucous 10-minute version of the song with him.

Brooks, clad in dad jeans baggy enough to craft at least two more of Timberlake’s skinny suits, gamely played along, even launching into the famous “kiss my ass” verse, which he rarely performs in concert any more. For Timberlake, the whole moment strangely worked, and the inherent goofiness of I’ve Got Friends allowed him to flaunt his playful and genuinely funny persona without feeling like he was in a Saturday Night Live sketch.

But is Timberlake ready to trade in his Tom Ford slacks for Wranglers? Well, it would be a stretch to say that the surprise duet, a well-executed piece of promotion for both him and Brooks, was a clear signal that Timberlake is ready to move beyond pop/R&B into new musical realms. But Timberlake’s flirtation with country music isn’t straight out of left field. While promoting Inside Llewyn Davis in late 2013, Timberlake spoke openly about his desire to get a foot in the door of Music Row. “There’s still so much that can happen in Nashville, and I look to the future and I want to be a part of it,” Timberlake told the Tennesseean. “And I’m not just blowing smoke.” On some level, whether in production or recording, Timberlake wants to go country, and the dapper star isn’t the only pop performer keeping an eye on the Southern epicenter of music culture either.

As Taylor Swift makes her transition from country to pop, it appears that a bevy of her new pop cohorts have their sights set on her former stomping grounds, at least as a point of major intrigue. Perhaps we’ll be hearing Welcome to Nashville pretty soon. Kelly Clarkson has gone out of her way to ingratiate herself to the country world, guesting on tracks by Jason Aldean and Trisha Yearwood, releasing a country single of her own featuring Vince Gill, and even launching a Nashville charity event, the Miracle on Broadway. In terms of cred, it doesn’t hurt that she’s married to the stepson of industry legend Reba McEntire, either.

Katy Perry has also built ties to country music recently, mostly through her endorsement of Follow Your Arrow singer Kacey Musgraves. Perry invited Musgraves on her massive, candy-coated Prismatic tour this year, and they collaborated on an episode of CMT Crossroads, during which Perry looked visibly thrilled to deliver real songwriters’ songs, full of wry wit and melancholy, without incessant belting. She said she’d like to record an acoustic album much like Musgraves’s one day. Miley Cyrus made covering her godmother Dolly Parton’s Jolene a major pillar of her comeback, and newly minted pop royalty Meghan Trainor and Ariana Grande both performed at this year’s CMA Awards. (Given the dire lack of industry support, country music is running low on female superstars, and the women of pop are typically welcomed to awards shows with open arms.) Older stars like Sheryl Crow, Darius Rucker and even Lionel Richie have been able to extend their careers and expand their audiences by immersing themselves in the Nashville music scene.

It’s no secret that the genre distinctions between country and pop have blurred in recent years. As pop has moved in the direction of EDM and hip-hop, country music has filled the traditional pop void with stars like Sam Hunt and Lady Antebellum. Pop hits like Avicii’s Wake Me Up and Pitbull’s Timber reference America’s roots music legacy, and country hits like Jerrod Neimann’s Drink to That All Night have been remixed with guest spots from Mr Worldwide himself. But there seems to be a distinct difference of perspective in how the two genres view each other. For pop stars like Timberlake and Perry, country music represents a kind of incisive storytelling not possible at the dizzying heights of global superstardom. It’s substantive and nuanced in a way that the most broad, anthemic pop hits can’t be. But for country stars like Neimann and Florida Georgia Line, pop music represents an enticingly raunchy and party-primed method of engagement, free from the moral foundations and traditional instrumentation of country.

The irony here is that, at the moment, pop music is far more substantive than mainstream country. If the bros of country really wanted to emulate pop, they’d be releasing songs about body image (like All About That Bass) or high school social structures (such as Lorde’s Team) or strained parent-child relationships (Imagine Dragons’ I Bet My Life). And if Timberlake wanted to win at country radio, he’d merely need to make a song about trying to pick up a Southern dime in Daisy Dukes. But music’s biggest stars, like the public at large, don’t want to be restricted by any kind of social or artistic definitions, and so genre pretexts really don’t matter. For these musicians, branching from pop to country or vice versa isn’t just a flight of fancy – it’s liberating.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Grady Smith, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 23rd December 2014 16.33 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010