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The Cute Ones

To watch Justin Timberlake‘s video for his single ”Like I Love You“ is to fall through the looking glass of a certain crumbling-faced, faux-mulatto pop icon; Justin’s the manchild Michael Jackson wants to see when he‘s talking to the man in the mirror. Tousle-haired, strategically scruffy and youthfully limber, Timberlake walks a precarious ledge in the maiden clip of his solo incarnation. He’s both Pat Boone (great white hopegreat white usurper) and a genuinely ecstatic fan shamelessly mimicking his hero. The cross-racial pollination of their fused fantasy, and the complicated sexual sparks that it throws off, speak to the myriad ways that pop culture -- and the larger political and cultural vase that holds it -- has changed since the days when Boone (and Elvis) reigned; it speaks even more powerfully to the ways in which it hasn‘t. Rich, pretty, young and white is still the trump card.

Negritude, distorted through ghetto unfabulousness and funneled through MTV and Madison Avenue, defines American pop. The result is by-the-numbers body language that’s spoken across race and class boundaries, a caricatured blaccent that‘s emerging as the new American accent, and a contrived authenticity that revels in its plasticity, flaunts its utter disposability. It’s Negro cool attached with Velcro.

Groomed and shaped first by Disney, then by creepy boy-band impresario Lou Perlman, Justin (day job: ”the cute one“ in ‘N Sync) is a wigger. Eminem, groomed and shaped first by an unstable home life, then by the nihilisticmisogynistic fury of hip-hop, is not. Both are poseurs, of course, but Justin’s pose is the result of test-market results, demographic charts and immersion in mass culture via MTV. Em‘s is the self-consciously ”organic“ performance of masculinity that anchors hip-hop; he learned and refined it on the hard-knock streets of Detroit. But the two are flip sides of the same coin, beneficiaries of the music industry’s old-school affirmative action: the reflex to put a white face to Negro beats and rhythms and call it social progress. It‘s a practice that hip-hop, for all its cultural power, hasn’t yet put an end to. And with Justified, young master Timberlake effectively smudges the boundaries between his pinup pop star and Auntie Em‘s glaring b-boy even more.

Just as blue-eyed soul singers of the past reflected their respective eras (Dusty Springfield and robust ’60s soul; Hall & Oates drawing on both the Motown of their youth and the ‘70s soul of their contemporaries; Teena Marie working from the same DIY template as her peers Rick James and Prince), the real star of Justified is this era’s true musical force, the producer‘s booth. It’s there that Pharrell Williams (of the Neptunes) and knob-turner extraordinaire Timbaland go toe-to-toe. Justin, who does a mildly nasal, slightly breathy impression of Stevie Wonder meets Michael Jackson meets Prince, is merely the cipher at the mike, going through playa-in-lovelustpain motions.

Pharrell brings his trademarked and ubiquitous cold, glistening funk to the table. The anxious guitar that he teases against spleen-shattering drums on ”Like I Love You“ is classic him. Timbaland counters with an Afro-Arab harem groove on ”(Oh No) What You Got,“ pushing Justin to ply an androgyne‘s falsetto. Pharrell breaks out strings while retaining his assaultive beats on ”Take It From Here,“ a gooey ballad draped in hip-hop drag; Timbaland counters with strings, rainstorm sound effects and a dash of opera on ”Cry Me a River.“ Pharrell channels Off the Wall--era Michael Jackson on ”Rock Your Body“; Timbaland brings in Janet herself to coo and moan on ”(And She Said) Take Me Now.“ It all ends on a stunningly flat note: a Brian McKnight--produced and --co-written ballad that defines dreary. Delete that last track -- and Justin -- and you have a kick-ass hip-hop album.

Where Justin had only one ill-fitting track on his CD, Christina Aguilera’s Stripped is a frenzied run-through of genres and styles -- hip-hop, bombastic Mariah Carey--style ballads, faux-feminist rock -- in search of anything that will fit. There are a handful of tunes written by Linda Perry, the Diane Warren for grrrls looking to spin prefabricated angst and misery into commercial gold. Lil‘ Kim and Redman put in cameos. There’s the de rigueur tearjerker about domestic abuse. And so on. That the album is so uninspired despite all its contrivance is especially unfortunate considering that Aguilera is a blue-eyed soul singer in the old sense of the word. She can easily go head-to-head with almost any other singer working right now, and blow most of them away. But she‘s unable to transcend cliched -- and often self-defeating -- definitions of freedom and female power. The result is an album that shape-shifts from one femme prototype to another with grim determination: She wants to be Madonna, Wendy O. Williams and a weepily defiant Mariah, all at once. In the end, Christina herself barely registers at all.