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Meredith Goldstein

Justin Timberlake and me

A personal memento: Justin Timberlake’s

A personal memento: Justin Timberlake’s place setting.

I don’t have sexual fantasies about sleeping with Justin Timberlake.

People assume I do because I’m a big Justin fan, and that’s what big Justin fans are supposed to do — listen to “SexyBack” on repeat while picturing him shirtless on top of us.

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For the record, I don’t like “SexyBack” very much. And Justin is not even my favorite singer. That’s not how this works.

What I feel for him reminds me of the relationship some of my friends have with Bruce Springsteen. They believe in him. They found him at an important time in their lives. His live shows feel like church. Sometimes they want to be just like him.

I fell for Justin during the summer of 2000. I was young and lonely, living in New England for the first time. He was being lowered with the rest of ’N Sync onto the Foxboro Stadium stage on puppet strings. He radiated energy. And he could actually sing. The 12-year-olds next to me were crying because they were so happy to see him. We all danced. I couldn’t help myself. I was startled by the joy.

From then on, he was mine. Whenever people said his music was bad, I came to his defense. Someone bought me a Justin calendar. Maybe it was meant for 15-year-olds, but I hung it without irony.

On the day his first solo album, “Justified,” came out, I ditched work to listen to it in my car. Some songs felt like throwaways, but I was charmed. When I got to “Cry Me a River,” I put my head down because we had both been so mistreated by our significant others. Once I learned the lyrics, we sang that one together.

Because I work for a newspaper, I have actually spoken to Justin Timberlake. Years ago, just before the release of his second solo album, “FutureSex/LoveSounds,” the Globe sent me to cover his promotional appearance at the Cam­bridgeSide Galleria. I have to admit that when I looked into his eyes for the first time, I was surprised he didn’t recognize me. It was as if we hadn’t been through everything together. Then I remembered that he only knows me when he sings.

I heard that album for the first time that day. I fell for the last track, “(Another Song) All Over Again.” Slow, steady. Like Donny Hathaway.

The thing about Justin’s music is that it is all about joy. Joy right now, in the moment, no matter what. Even when his songs are overproduced and polished, they sound as if he might have written them after jumping up and down on a bed. Even when they’re sad, seductive, or serious, he sounds as if he could laugh at any moment. Sometimes he echoes other artists — maybe Prince or Michael Jackson — but he’s not ashamed. And when he sings a hit like “What Goes Around . . . Comes Around,” he gets everything right.

That second album — with all of its ups and downs — carried me for a few years. But then there was silence.

It’s a weird thing when your musical soulmate goes missing. It becomes an estrangement. You’re growing, but your soundtrack isn’t growing with you. Each album sits with you for a few years. But then you need more.

In 2010, Justin would return to Cambridge to be roasted by Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals as Man of the Year. The Globe sent me to cover it. I had just received some terrible news about a family member and was tempted to ask my editor to send another reporter in my place. But my sister told me to go — it was Justin, after all — so I did.

Before the interview, the owner of the local restaurant where he was having dinner invited me behind the bar, where I could see him up close. I watched him eat with Jessica Biel. He looked happy. I tried to think supportive thoughts.

Later at Harvard, I asked him about his latest movie, “The Social Network.” But I was staring at him, thinking, “Sing, please.” When he told another reporter how much he loved hearing that fans play his music when they do everyday tasks like laundry or exercise, I held back tears. That was me. And yet he didn’t mention any more music.

When I left the interview, I sat in the lobby of the Charles Hotel and cried. Justin was a movie star.

The next day, a friend revealed that she grabbed Justin’s place setting from the restaurant. She sent it to me — with the chocolate that touched his lips still on the fork. This kind of thing happens when you’re a big Justin fan. People think you want his dirty fork. I kept it, but it’s not what I really needed. What I needed was a soundtrack for who I had become.

Like I said, I don’t dream about having sex with Justin Timberlake. But over the past few years, I have had a fantasy that involves him coming to town and dropping by my house. He tells me that he wants to relax somewhere cool, where he can go unnoticed, so I take him into Jamaica Plain and we walk up Centre Street. We stop at a few of my friends’ houses where we have wine and maybe we smoke pot, because he implies in his songs that he likes to do that. And then we just wander, stopping to look at records and get coffee. Eventually we make our way to Jamaica Pond, and before we know it, we’ve walked around it three times.

He’s got a guitar strapped to his back, so he takes it out and starts playing me covers. Ryan Adams’s “Come Pick Me Up.” Something by Solomon Burke, maybe. He tries to play my favorite Elvis Costello song, “I Want You,” but it winds up sounding ridiculous, so he tries Paul Simon, and that sounds worse, so he just goes into his own song, “Let’s Take a Ride,” from the “Justified” album, which he’s surprised I love so much considering it wasn’t a hit. It’s been so long for him that he can’t even remember the words, and I have to prompt him.

Then he tells me a secret. He’s been writing new music and he’s afraid to release it because it’s been so long. I listen to a song or two. It’s good, and I tell him so. Then we talk about our love problems and decide that we just want to forget it all by eating too much Ethiopian food. He drops me off at my apartment.

Yes, my relationship with Justin Timberlake is obviously one-sided. Except that it’s not. Because whatever’s on “The 20/20 Experience” is going to be my background music. For something big. Or maybe small. Or sexy. I don’t know, because it hasn’t happened yet.

Later, when I’m older and I hear a song from this album, I’ll say, “This came out just as I. . .” and then I’ll remember the good or the bad thing that the songs pushed me through, and how I listened to the big hits at the gym and warmed to other tracks over time.

It begins right now. I’m about to hit play. The beat goes on. For both of us.

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com.
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