Making A Musician: The Continual Rise Of Justin Timberlake

Only a handful of artists have had a number one album. Even fewer can also boast a successful acting career in drama and comedy, as well as multiple Grammy awards. Only one can claim all of the above, as well as a record-breaking run in one of the biggest pop groups in history. Though it may sound like hyperbole, it’s just true that Justin Timberlake is one-of-a-kind artist in a world filled with people aspiring to achieve what he has managed to do.

It’s tough to achieve that much in a lifetime, so it is a marvel that Timberlake turns just 35 years old on Sunday, January 31. To commemorate the birthday of the current King of Pop, as well as the 20th anniversary of the formation of the legendary Boy Band, *NSYNC, we’ve created a timeline from Justin’s birth in 1981 to today to celebrate all the major moments that have shaped the successful career of the quintessential pop star of today. Take a stroll through the life of Justin Randall Timberlake and enjoy the major moments that shaped a career for the ages.

1992 – Launch of an Epic Career

January 31, 1981 is the birthdate of Justin Randall Timberlake. This date marks the beginning of the timeline tracking the ascension of today’s definition of the consummate entertainer. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Justin’s main influences growing up stemmed from country music. His first national exposure was from the talent competition Star Search in 1992, where he performed “Love’s Got A Hold on You” by Alan Jackson. Timberlake performed the country hit with a cowboy hat, boots, and a giant belt buckle. While he didn’t win the competition that night, his talent was on display for all in attendance to see.

1993 – Finding the Spotlight with the ’90s Mickey Mouse Club

Looking back to the early 1990s, it seems unimaginable that a major group of entertainment talent in the late ’90s and early 2000s came from one TV show that aired on the Disney Channel. The 1989 to 1996 edition of The Mickey Mouse Club helped to launch the acting and musical careers of Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and several others. In this highly competitive space to showcase acting chops, slick dance moves and pop vocals, it became clear that Justin Timberlake belonged among the top young talent in the entertainment industry. Timberlake was a prominent contributor on the show from 1993 to 1995 and used his two years as a launching pad for his musical success. He met JC Chasez while on the show, whose relationship with Justin led directly to the creation of *NSYNC.

1995 – Establishing Boy Band Excellence

Building off the success of their stint on The MMC, Timberlake and Chasez sought out talent to create a boy band. They partnered with Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick, and Lance Bass to create *NSYNC in 1995. To find their sound and build a following, the burgeoning group toured Europe throughout 1996 with Justin and JC as the lead singers. Eventually, the group decided it was time to come back to the United States and chase stardom in the American pop scene. In 1997, the group released their self-titled debut album stateside to much fanfare as the album reached No. 2 on the Billboard charts behind the strength of singles “I Want You Back,” “Tearin’ Up My Heart” — both produced by then-unknown Max Martin — and “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You.” The 16-year-old Justin Timberlake quickly became a teenage heartthrob as the group’s album went on to sell 11 million copies.

1999 – First Foray in Film

Building off the breakout stardom gained from *NSYNC, Timberlake acted a supporting role in the Disney Channel movie, Model Behavior. While the movie lacked the depth and gravitas of a major movie production, Timberlake exhibited the bright spots necessary of a movie star and showed that he was not only a pop star, but rather an entertainer.

2000 – A Boy Band Breaks Records

After the massive success of their debut album and a legal dispute with their first record label that led to them joining industry giant Jive Records, fans were clamoring for more *NSYNC. With the massive, chart-topping singles “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” the boy band released their second album, No Strings Attached. The album was an unprecedented success, selling 2.4 million copies in its first week, breaking the record previously held by Michael Jackson’s Thriller and establishing such a high mark that *NSYNC’s record would stand for fifteen years, until the release of Adele’s 25.

Timberlake established himself as the clear star of the group, singing lead vocals and handling some of the songwriting duties on the album unlike the other members. His blonde afro and smile made charmed millions of fans as 20-year-old Timberlake became an A-lister with the most popular music in the country, only rivaled by his then-girlfriend, Britney Spears.

2001 – End of an Era

As the Boy Band boom was coming to a conclusion, *NSYNC was still going strong. While touring for No Strings Attached, the band recorded what would be their final album, the aptly titled, Celebrity. The album sold 1.8 million copies in its first week, once again surpassing Thriller, but falling short of the lofty heights of No Strings Attached. The singles, “POP,” “Gone,” and “Girlfriend” were heavy on Justin singing the lead vocals while all others virtually fell into the role of glorified backup singers.

By this point, the group as a whole had reached the ether of the music world, all the members becoming individual stars in their own right. However, only Timberlake had reached true A-list stardom, stardom where he could and the other prominent face in pop music, Britney Spears, could get away with blonde cornrows or wearing matching denim outfits with then-girlfriend to the 2001 American Music Awards. Timberlake had become the focal point of *NSYNC and the group’s understanding of that truth began to fracture the relationship between the members. The group decided to take a “temporary hiatus” in 2002 that eventually became a permanent breakup after selling more than 50 million records in their seven-year run.

2002 – The Star Goes Solo

After the breakup of one of the biggest boy bands in history, there was much speculation as to what would happen next with its breakout star. The answer was a solo album. In front of a national audience at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, Justin Timberlake performed his debut single, “Like I Love You.” Justified, which came in November of that year, would again be another smash for Timberlake with tracks like the previously mentioned “Like I Love You,” “Senorita,” “Rock Your Body” and the Britney Spears tell-off anthem “Cry Me a River.”

The album would go on to sell more than seven million copies worldwide and earn Timberlake two Grammys. While it was clear that the foray into solo artistry wasn’t a success on the level of *NSYNC, the spotlight shined on Timberlake brighter than ever before.

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That spotlight led Justin to being the first celebrity pranked on the MTV show Punk’d. MTV heavily promoted the Ashton Kutcher project with the promise of Justin Timberlake being embarrassed on national television and, in that regard, it was a major success. Timberlake cried while fake federal agents were towing his cars, repossessing his musical instruments and, most important to Justin, taking away his dogs only to find out after a prolonged bit of torture that he was being pranked by the TV show.

2004 – A Super Malfunction

In early 2004, Justin Timberlake was riding high off the success of his debut. He was asked to perform at Super Bowl XXXVIII with the event’s main attraction, Janet Jackson, in front of an audience of more than 100 million TV viewers. Timberlake closed out the halftime set with a rendition of his single, “Rock Your Body” and caused a controversy of epic proportions by ripping off a piece of Jackson’s black leather top, exposing her breast in front of one of the largest TV audiences of all-time. Timberlake would apologize for the incident by calling it a “wardrobe malfunction,” bringing that term into the cultural lexicon as the go-to explanation for an issue regarding clothing, and would later say that it wasn’t fair that Janet Jackson got most of the scorn, saying, “I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society,” he explains. “I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”

2005 – Taking a Break from Music

After the Super Bowl controversy, Justin decided to take a break from making music after ten years of consecutive recording and touring with *NSYNC, as well as on his own. It was also discovered that Timberlake had developed vocal nodes in his throat that would prevent him from singing or even speaking loudly for several months. During this time off, Justin tried his hand at acting, with a supporting role in movies such as Edison, Alpha Dog, Black Snake Moan, as well as a voiceover role in Shrek the Third. Movies would become a consistent part of his repertoire for the rest of the of the ’00s.

2006 – Timberlake Brings “SexyBack”

In late 2006, Justin returned to the mic when he released FutureSex/LoveSounds, which revealed a more adult side. The Timbaland-produced project was Justin’s first number one album, earning two Grammys while selling more than 600,000 copies in its first week. The singles “SexyBack,” “My Love” and “What Goes Around… Comes Around” all reached the No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. During the promotion of the album, Timberlake had the honor of being both host and musical guest on Saturday Night Live, during which he unveiled the Emmy-winning sketch, “Dick in a Box.” This became one of the iconic moments in modern SNL history and one of the first viral videos on YouTube. Timberlake would go on a world tour spanning the entire year of 2007 before announcing yet another hiatus from music, only coming back to be a featured artist on a few tracks.

2010 – Major Film Roles

Following some time out of the spotlight of his music superstardom, Timberlake became a full-fledged leading man, portraying major roles in The Social Network, as Napster founder Sean Parker, Bad Teacher, Friends with Benefits, In Time, Runner Runner, and Inside Llewyn Davis. While he was not as critically acclaimed as an actor compared to his music career, starring in movies alongside stars such as Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck, Cameron Diaz, and Mila Kunis legitimized Justin’s movie career. He also continued to revisit SNL, reprising his roles in skits with Andy Samberg and Jimmy Fallon, creating viral moment after moment during his appearances. He also took the time out of the bright lights of pop stardom to marry longtime girlfriend and fellow thespian, Jessica Biel in October 2012.

2013 – Return to Music

After a six-year layover, Timberlake fans were finally treated to new music in the form of The 20/20 Experience, a contemporary R&B album produced by longtime collaborator, Timbaland. The first single “Suit & Tie” featured Jay Z who Timberlake would pair with for the biggest tour of the summer of 2013, The Legends of the Summer Tour. With “Suit & Tie” and “Mirrors” leading the way, The 20/20 Experience Part One was the highest selling album of 2013. He later announced that there was a second part to The 20/20 Experience and released that companion piece in September of 2013, which also debuted at number one.

With his popularity back at an all-time high, MTV presented Justin with the Video Vanguard Award for his body of work in the music business. To commemorate the moment, Justin performed every major hit from his career, including a brief *NSYNC reunion with all five of the guys performing together for the first time since 2002. The performance became a major viral sensation and a culmination of his superstar career to this point. After the massive tour and publicity surrounding The 20/20 Experience, Timberlake decided to take some time off to spend with his first child, Silas, born in April 2015. He reemerged to perform at the 2015 Country Music Awards to perform with his friend, Chris Stapleton in what would become the most memorable moment of the night.

While spanning more than 20 years in the music industry, Justin Timberlake’s career has been the gold standard that the newest pop sensations like Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, and Nick Jonas have all said they aspire to and for good reason. Happy 35th Birthday, Justin. We hope that you continue to entertain us for many years to come.