How Justin Timberlake Went From Boy Band Laughing Stock To Pop Culture Icon

In 2000, Justin Timberlake was singing backup to JC Chasez on “Digital Get Down,” and now, 13 years later, he’s a fan favorite SNL host who was the highlight of the Grammys and is about to release his highly anticipated third solo album, The 20/20 Experience, thanks to some help from his buddy, Jay-Z. Also, he’s married to Mary Camden.

The hell happened? Well, let’s take a look: here how’s Timberlake went from sharing the spotlight in a boy band to becoming one of the world’s most respected pop musicians, and an in-demand actor, in seven “simple” steps.

1. ‘N Sync got better with every album (except for Home for Christmas).

‘N Sync — made up of Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone, and Lance Bass, and named after a comment made by JT’s mom — began as a fairly unassuming, predictably cheesy boy band. Their self-titled debut has the prerequisite amount of embarrassing filler and guilty pleasure chart-toppers, including “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “I Want You Back,” and then came the oh-crap-we-need-to-release-something-before-our-fickle-fans-forget-about-us second album, the NOT-Hanukkah themed Home for Christmas. But then something weird happened: ‘N Sync, after divorcing Lou Pearlman and hooking up with Jive, got good. Not great, mind you, because after all, there were still a manufactured boy band from *shudder* Orlando, but “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” from 2000’s No Strings Attached, are pop radio classics, and their fourth and final album, Celebrity, much of which was written by JT and JC, showed a maturity never found in former-rivals Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees.

2. ‘N Sync disbanded at exactly the right time.

Also unlike BSB, which has sputtered on with three, soon-to-be four albums since 2000’s Black & Blue, ‘N Sync called it quits when the boy band writing was on the wall, and haven’t reunited since. This was a wise move on their (well, Timberlake’s) part because it’s as if ‘N Sync never happened — JT hasn’t needed to acknowledge he was once apart of a group that wore this. If you ignore your boy band past, it won’t bother you, either.

3. Knowing who to work with.

For his solo debut, Justified (which is no longer the first pop culture item that pops up when you Google that word), Timberlake surrounded himself with the right people. He co-wrote every song on the album, including “Cry Me a River” and “Rock Your Body,” but he also hired a murderer’s row of talent to work with him. In-demand producers Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, a.k.a. the Neptunes, touched up nearly every track and encouraged the sexy falsetto sound Timberlake was/is fond of, and the ones they didn’t assist with were handled by Timbaland, the Underdogs (who have worked with everyone from Beyoncé to R. Kelly), and Brian McKnight. Justified sounds a little dated in 2013, as does much of the Neptunes work in the early 2000s, but it wasn’t a failure then, earned Timberlake credibility from the press, and would be the best former-boy band member’s solo album, were it not for…

4. Don’t restrict yourself to one genre

Actually, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After Justified and that whole Super Bowl thing, Timberlake waited a few years to release a follow-up album, instead focusing his attention on acting. His first film, Edison, where he was surrounded by Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, went unnoticed, while his second, the Sundance-screened Alpha Dog, got “meh” reviews, but Timberlake’s performance as a kidnapper was well received. And so it went, with Timberlake never settling on one genre of film; he’s done live-action comedies (The Love Guru), kids movies (Shrek the Third), whatever the hell Southland Tales was (Southland Tales), romantic comedies (Friends with Benefits), science fiction (In Time), and Sorkin (The Social Network). It showed he had range, as did his performance hosting SNL in 2003, and if the movie bombed, people could just say, “Hey, acting’s not his day job…”

5. Make a legitimately great album.

“…making music is,” and FutureSex/LoveSounds is a sexy pop masterpiece. On the 2006 album, Timberlake does the best Prince impression a white boy has ever done/will ever do, while also wisely going for an off-the-cuff, slick sound, which, unlike Justified, allows FutureSex to be remembered outside the context of when it was released. It sounds timeless and, most importantly, “cool,” the greatest compliment you can give to a top-40 artist.

6. Play against your image.

He’s also — please forgive the obviousness of this statement — really funny. Timberlake’s self-deprecating, possesses excellent comedic timing, has a knack for impressions, and is gung-ho for any sketch idea, like the time he put a cardboard box over his penis. He already had music fans in his pocket after FutureSex, but “Dick in a Box” — a brilliant spoof of Timberlake’s sexy image that made him perform the most awkward seduction act ever — won over comedy nerds, too, who couldn’t help but like him. It’s one of the rare things the 40-year-old slouched guy in the corner and the perky 16-year-old girl have in common, except for a shared attraction to 16 year olds. On top of all that, Timberlake hasn’t oversaturated the market with his image (consider him the Anti-Pitbull), he has an unassuming, boring personal life despite hobknobbing with the likes of Jay-Z, and overall, and perhaps most simply of all, he doesn’t seem like a douche, especially when he’s accompanying Marines to balls before it was cool.

7. The Hair

Forget everything I just said. JT’s successful because he ditched the ramen hair. The end.