The Painful Meaning Behind the Song “Ghost” by Justin Bieber
by Catherine Walthall July 21, 2022, 9:41 am
It’s been over a decade since Justin Bieber made his splashy debut as a teen idol. And like most people, Bieber has loved and lost several times since the year 2009. Unlike most people, though, Bieber has become one of the best-selling, most-listened-to artists of all time. And in early 2021, he dropped his sixth studio album, Justice .
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Several songs make this particular record worthy of note, but one, in particular, is the two-and-a-half-minute song “Ghost.” Arresting in its sonic ups and downs, “Ghost” touches on some heavy-hitting topics in its lyrics. Read below for the meaning behind those song lyrics.
The meaning behind the song lyrics
“Ghost” is about losing a loved one, likely because they have passed away. I know you crossed a bridge that I can’t follow , Bieber sings.
But “Ghost” doesn’t exclusively serve in an elegiac fashion. The tune can serve as a comfort for those battling the woes of long-distance or separation. As Bieber told Vogue in 2021, the song is about “losing somebody you love. And I know a lot of people have; I know this has been a really challenging year where we’ve lost loved ones and relationships too. The hook is saying, ‘If I can’t get close to you, I’ll settle for the ghost of you.’ That works for this quarantine situation […] we’re not relating and connecting in the same way. It has allowed us to only really have these memories. I hope this resonates and I hope it fills your heart up with joy or comfort in some sort of way.”
That if I can’t be close to you I’ll settle for the ghost of you I miss you more than life (more than life) And if you can’t be next to me Your memory is ecstasy
“‘Ghost’ is a really special record,” Bieber said in a later 2021 interview. “My objective with making this song was to make people feel like there is hope and that the trauma and the hurt that you feel isn’t going to last forever. It takes time to heal. There will be a moment where that pain doesn’t hurt so bad. Know that that feeling will subside.”
Who is the “Ghost”?
Bieber wrote “Ghost” with singer/songwriter Jon Bellion (known for his song “All Time Low”), two of the Monsters & Strangerz songwriters/producers (Jordan K. Johnson and Stefan Johnson), and Michael Pollack. Each songwriter imbued a slightly different meaning to the song, proving that music is, at its core, subjective.
For Bellion, “Ghost” meant a more literal loss of a loved one. In 2022, Bellion took to Twitter to reveal who he thought of when “Ghost” comes on. “Wrote this one about my grandmother,” he said. “Really cool to feel her every time I turn the radio on in the car. Miss you Gma.”
Who does “Ghost” remind you of? Let us know, comment below.
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Ghost by Justin Bieber
- "Ghost" is a heartfelt song where Justin Bieber sings of someone who is no longer with him. This person was special to the singer and all he has left are the happy memories of their time together.
- So, is the song about a breakup, or the passing on of a loved one? The first verse seems to imply both; in the first two lines, Bieber sings of missing a former romantic partner. Youngblood thinks there's always tomorrow I miss your touch on nights when I'm hollow The last line implies death separates them. I know you cross the bridge that I can't follow
- Some fans speculated that Bieber is singing about Selena Gomez, whom he dated for several years. As evidence they point out that in 2010 her band, Selena Gomez & the Scene, released a song titled "Ghost Of You." However, this theory does not sit well with the rest of the Justice album, much of which finds Bieber singing of his love for his wife, Hailey.
- So what does Bieber say about the song? He told Vogue he wrote it in order to comfort those who have lost loved ones during the COVID pandemic or been separated from them because of the lockdown. The song is about "losing somebody you love," Bieber said. "And I know a lot of people have. I know this has been a really challenging year where we've lost loved ones and relationships too. The hook is saying, 'If I can't get close to you, I'll settle for the ghost of you.' That works for this quarantine situation. We're not relating and connecting in the same way. It has allowed us to only really have these memories."
- Justin Bieber wrote "Ghost" with the New York songwriter Michael Pollack, New York rapper/producer Jon Bellion, and The Monsters & Strangerz production duo. The five worked on his " Anyone " single together while Pollack and Bellion also co-penned Justice 's lead song, " Holy ."
- Colin Tilley directed the music video, which co-stars actress Diane Keaton ( The Godfather trilogy, Annie Hall ) as Bieber's grandmother. The clip opens on the death of Bieber's grandfather. The rest of the visual sees a doting Bieber encouraging Keaton to enjoy life again after losing her husband. Bieber handpicked the screen legend to star as his grandmother. He called Keaton up and she readily agreed, even supplying her own wardrobe (including her iconic hats). "The outfits were indicative of my style because they're mine," said Keaton to Vogue . "Some of the outfits are from my closet. I had some wonderful things from Gucci." Keaton knows her way around music videos: She directed Belinda Carlisle's " Heaven Is A Place On Earth " and " I Get Weak ."
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- Leah from Wales This is gonna sound stupid but a few people feel like the song is also dedicated to Avalanna Routh, a young fan (who would be around my age now) (I'm 16 turning 17 soon) but she died of cancer at 6 and she was one of Justin's favourite people. Something about the song gives me that vibe
- Amyra from Nigeria Am madly in love with Justin bierber
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9 Songs You Didn't Know Jon Bellion Wrote & Produced: Hits By Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez & More
Pop superproducer Jon Bellion is the man behind Tori Kelly's new ep, 'tori,' but he's also been involved with countless hits for more than a decade. Check out nine of Bellion's biggest songs, from Eminem to Jonas Brothers.
If the name Jon Bellion sounds familiar, it's probably because of his 2016 single "All Time Low." With its relentless "low-low-low-low-low" chorus, the electronic-fused pop confection scored Bellion his first major hit — as a solo artist, that is.
Prior to Bellion's breakthrough with his debut solo single, he'd already made a name for himself behind the scenes by writing and producing songs for the likes of Eminem , Jason Derulo, Zedd and CeeLo Green . And in the seven years since "All Time Low" became a top 20 hit, he's celebrated plenty of other smashes with some of pop's A-listers from Christina Aguilera to Justin Bieber .
This year alone, he worked with the Jonas Brothers to executive produce their statement-making record The Album , helped shape Maroon 5 's "Middle Ground" — which is expected to be the lead single off the veteran pop-rockers' forthcoming eighth studio album — and teamed up with Switchfoot for an orchestral 2023 update of the band's 2003 breakout single " Meant to Live ."
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Bellion's most recent work can be heard on Tori Kelly 's new self-titled EP tori , which dropped July 28. Along with producing the project, Bellion joined Kelly for a magnetic, electro-tinged track titled "young gun." Upon the EP's release, Kelly herself noted Bellion's impact , calling their collaboration "the start of something really special."
In honor of Bellion's latest project, take a look at nine songs you may not have known contained Bellion's signature touch — a roadmap to his becoming one of the most in-demand producers of the moment.
Eminem feat. Rihanna — "The Monster"
One of Bellion's earliest smashes came courtesy of Eminem — well, and Bebe Rexha . The pop singer penned the track's dark hook while working on her debut album, but it later made its way to Eminem and eventually shapeshifted into his fourth collaboration with Rihanna . The song became the duo's second No. 1 collaboration following 2010's "Love The Way You Lie" and remains one of most monstrous hits in Bellion's career.
Jason Derulo — "Trumpets"
Jason Derulo worked solely with Bellion on this top 20 hit from his 2013 Tattoos , which was later re-packaged as 2014's Talk Dirty . Built around an irresistible horn line of, yes, literal trumpets, Bellion and Derulo concocted a bouncy, flirtatious symphony to smoothly objectify the R&B singer's lady love, and manages to name drop Coldplay , Katy Perry and Kanye West over the course of just three minutes and thirty-seven seconds.
Christina Aguilera feat. Demi Lovato — "Fall in Line"
Bellion handled production on Christina Aguilera's fierce 2018 team-up with Demi Lovato , "Fall in Line," off the former's 2018 LP Liberation . Behind the boards, Bellion effectively captured all of the feminist rage and empowerment that the two vocal powerhouses lit into their lyrics, pairing their sneering vocals with a vamping strings section, rattling chains and a robotic male overlord futilely demanding, "March, two, three, right, two, three/ Shut your mouth, stick your ass out for me."
"Fall in Line" scored a nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 2019 GRAMMYs, marking Aguilera's twentieth career nod and Lovato's second.
Maroon 5 — "Memories"
To kick off their seventh album, JORDI , Maroon 5 enlisted Bellion to co-write lead single "Memories." The gentle ballad found frontman Adam Levine mourning the loss of a friend, pouring one out over a lilting reggae-pop line that cleverly samples Johann Pachelbel's "Canon in D Major." While the heartfelt song is dedicated to the band's longtime manager (and namesake of the LP) Jordan Feldstein, who tragically passed away in 2017 due to a blood clot, the relatable sentiment of "Memories" helped it peak at No. 2 on the Hot 100.
In addition to "Memories," Bellion also worked with the band on two other songs from JORDI , co-writing fourth single "Lost" as well as Anuel AA and Tainy collab "Button." Three years later, he would reunite with the band to co-write and co-produce their latest, equally delicate single "Middle Ground" alongside the likes of Andrew Watt and Rodney Jerkins .
Miley Cyrus — "Midnight Sky"
Miley Cyrus came raring into her glam rock-inspired album Plastic Hearts on the back of "Midnight Sky," an unapologetic statement of independence following her split from longtime love Liam Hemsworth. Dripping in sultry synths, the power ballad took a page from '80s rock icons like Joan Jett , Debbie Harry and Stevie Nicks .
The sound was an entirely new one for Cyrus — which is one of Bellion's tools when working with a new superstar for the first time. In a 2023 Billboard interview , he likened his approach to inventing a new kind of ride for the given A-lister. "They have already built an amazing theme park: millions of people go to it and experience their roller coasters," he said. "They put me in charge of revamping or creating a new section of the theme park, and they let me be the foreman of it all." The new style worked in Cyrus' favor, and earned Bellion yet another top 20 hit on the Hot 100.
Justin Bieber — "Holy"
Bellion's fingerprints are all over Justin Bieber's 2021 album Justice , starting notably with its Chance the Rapper -assisted lead single "Holy," which he both co-wrote and co-produced. The superproducer contributed to six other songs on the pop-driven LP — including the pop radio No. 1 "Ghost," which was inspired by Bellion's late grandmother — as well as three deluxe tracks. And though Bellion didn't have any credited features, his voice can still be heard: he offered background vocals on seven of the songs.
Justice earned Bellion his very first GRAMMY nomination, as the project was nominated for Album Of The Year at the 2022 GRAMMYs (Bieber also received seven other nods).
Selena Gomez — "My Mind & Me"
Bellion first collaborated with Selena Gomez on Rare album cut "Vulnerable" alongside Amy Allen , Michael Pollack and The Monsters & Strangerz . Two years later, the entire team reunited for the title track to the pop singer's Apple TV+ documentary My Mind & Me .
Bellion and co. helped Gomez tap even further into the most vulnerable side of her psyche to date. "Vulnerable" saw Gomez letting her guard down with a new flame, but "My Mind & Me" allowed her to completely lay bare her mental health journey. "Sometimes I feel like an accident, people look when they're passin' it/ Never check on the passenger, they just want the free show," she sings. "Yeah, I'm constantly tryna fight somethin' that my eyes can't see," over spare guitar and piano.
Jonas Brothers — "Waffle House"
After the success of their 2019 comeback album Happiness Begins with producer Ryan Tedder , the Jonas Brothers recruited Bellion to helm the boards on their 2023 follow-up The Album . The producer helped the hitmaking siblings tap into a new facet of their pop-rock sound, finding inspiration in the '70s music their dad raised them on. (As Joe Jonas told GRAMMY.com upon the album's release, Bellion "was saying exactly what we were hoping for" when they first met to mull over ideas.)
While Bellion had a hand in every song on The Album , second single "Waffle House" is the latest to earn both him and Jonas Brothers a top 15 hit on pop radio. Bellion also serves as the one and only featured artist on The Album , coming out from behind the boards and into the vocal booth for bombastic closer "Walls."
Tori Kelly — "missin u"
Tori Kelly first linked up with Bellion thanks to Justin Bieber, as the pair worked together with the Biebs on tender bonus cut "Name" from the Justice sessions. So, when it came time to launch a new era with her self-titled EP tori, the songstress turned to Bellion to help bring her vision to life.
On lead single "missin u," the two-time GRAMMY winner throws the guitar-driven singer/songwriter vibes of her past work out the window in favor of a sleek R&B sound reminiscent of the early 2000s. The sonic gear shift is a natural fit for her lithe voice as she replays a romance that "was rainin' purple skies in my room." Somehow, Kelly even manages to outdo the vocal acrobatics of "missin u" with a deliriously brilliant "R&B edit" that adds even more layers, soul and vocal flourishes to the single.
"When I first started working with Jon Bellion, we were just beginning to scratch the surface on a new sound that truly felt like my own," Kelly explains in a video celebrating the release of her self-titled EP tori . "I know that I'm gonna look back on this collaboration as the start of something really special." As for Bellion's thoughts on his latest project? "Tori Kelly's the greatest vocalist of all time!"
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Noah Kahan's Big Year: How The "Stick Season" Singer Became A Folk-Pop Hero
On the heels of announcing an arena and stadium tour for 2024, Noah Kahan revisits some of the biggest moments that have led to it, from going viral with "Stick Season" to collaborating with Post Malone.
In July 2019, Noah Kahan made a promise to his fans via Twitter: "I prolly won't sell out Madison square garden, or even all the shows on my tour but I'll keep writing songs for you all for as long as you'll have me."
Four years later, he's made good on his word about continuing to write songs. But he's also proved himself wrong; not only has the Vermont-born star sold out his entire 2023 tour, but 2024 will see him play a sold-out Madison Square Garden — twice.
While Kahan himself asserts that he's always had a "very dedicated" fan base — whether from his days of posting to SoundCloud and YouTube or since he signed with Republic Records in 2017 – he admits he still finds it hard to process the level to which it's grown. "It's f—ing unbelievable," he says. "It feels so fake that it's almost like, the more time I spend thinking about it, the more abstract it becomes."
His humility is a large part of his appeal (as well as his sense of humor, both on Twitter and on stage), which carries into his folk-pop music. It's matched with extreme vulnerability, as Kahan has been open about his struggles with mental health. Even one of his biggest hits has revealing lyrics: "So I thought that if I piled something good on all my bad/ That I could cancel out the darkness I inherited from Dad," he sings the second verse of "Stick Season."
"Stick Season" became Kahan's breakout song in 2022, first making waves on social media — catching the attention of stars like Zach Bryan and Maisie Peters — and earning him his first radio hit. Its namesake album earned Kahan top 5 spots on Billboard's Top Alternative Albums, Top Rock Albums and Top Rock & Alternative Albums charts in October 2022, but it was the 2023 deluxe edition that really showed his trajectory: all 18 tracks debuted on Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Charts, making him one of only five artists to ever land 18 songs on the chart in one week.
Kahan's disbelief in his success is only going to continue into the new year, as his 2024 tour will also include L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl and two nights at Boston's Fenway Park. At this rate, he's seemingly on his way to Taylor Swift -level stardom — though, as he jokes, three-hour shows will never be in the cards: "From a physical health standpoint, this is as big as it can get."
In the midst of his Stick Season Tour, Kahan reminisced on the wild ride he's been on for the past 18 months. Below, he details seven of his most career-defining moments to date.
Watching "Stick Season" Blow Up
I wrote the song in 2020 and I posted the first verse and the chorus [on social media] the next morning. It was kind of an awkward time, because I had another album coming out right after that video was posted [2021's I Was / I Am ] , and I had to promote that, and people were like, "What about that other song?" I'd be at shows and people would be like, "Play 'Stick Season'!"
I started to play it live, which is really what stoked the fire in terms of us realizing that it could be a big song. I played it in Syracuse, New York — and we hadn't posted any snippets besides what I would do on my Instagram Lives, or I'd perform it here and there on social media. Everyone in the room knew every single word to it. That was the song that got the biggest reaction all night, and it was a song that wasn't even out yet. That definitely opened my eyes to the desire for that song to be out in the world.
A lot of my set at the time was more pop-leaning, and this song is definitely more folk-leaning. I could really see the desire for sing-along folk anthems after that performance. [I remember] talking to my team and being like, "I think this song is gonna be around for a long time."
It gave confidence to something that I had been trying to do for a long time, even subconsciously. I think I was always making folk music, and I would always gravitate toward those songs, but a part of me would be like, This isn't who you are, you make pop . So I would stay away from it.
It took this one song — and playing it the way that I wanted to, and having people really respond — it opened my eyes to the audience that I didn't realize was there. It also opened my eyes to that confidence in myself that really comes through in this kind of songwriting. It let me look at folk music and storytelling as a bigger focus in my life instead of something that I did for fun or in the privacy of my home.
Seeing The Success Of Stick Season
When I was a kid, I would write my name on a blank CD, and I'd put it next to my Green Day CD, and I would pretend that we were the same. For a second it feels real, but it's really not.
Seeing my name on the charts and in conversations with all of these incredible famous artists, it kind of gave me the same feeling where I felt like, This just can't be real — I must be back in my childhood bedroom writing my band name on blank CDs . Because this doesn't happen to people making folk music, really. I was just kind of stunned into disbelief to the point where it took people reminding me that it was happening to actually process it.
I was in love with everything about the process of making this album, and honestly, that was enough for me. I felt so fulfilled. The organic nature of how it all came together felt so real to me, and it felt so important to me. And doing it in Vermont, and having the record be about Vermont and New England — it really felt like the album I've been waiting to make my whole life.
I think my fans could see how much it meant to me, and it meant the same to them. We kind of shared this real emotional attachment to this album together.
It just felt like a huge change in the way my life was gonna be. It meant that I could make music that fulfilled me that would fulfill others. I guess you could say it reinvigorated my faith in music in a lot of ways.
The chart success, and the radio play, and the co-signs from other really great artists and songwriters was incredible and overwhelming. I still haven't really processed it all.
It definitely changed my life and put me into a place where I'm selling out shows, and there's lots of people that want me to work with them. It feels so nice, because it all came from following my heart — in the least cliché way.
Playing Boston Calling
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It started to feel monumental when I got there. It's, like, three minutes away from my house, which is crazy. So I took a van from my house and I started walking around the festival, and it felt like I was Justin Bieber — people were chasing me around the festival and screaming.
It was one of the first times I've played in Boston since the deluxe [version of Stick Season ] came out, and it was the second festival of the tour, so we were not expecting this crazy reaction. We get on stage and the crowd is just a sea of people. It looked like the crowd for a headliner, and it was only, like, 6 p.m.
We had a really good performance — objectively, we kind of crushed it — and all the fans were losing their minds, and then later, I went on stage with the Lumineers , which was so insane. It just felt like this moment of this hometown crowd really coming out in full force, showing their support and showing the world that I had this kind of fan base. I felt like I was kind of stepping out into a new world in a lot of ways when I got on stage.
Singing "Homesick" was pretty incredible. It has a line about the Boston [Marathon] bombers, and we were literally right next to Watertown where the Boston bombers were caught. And hearing like 40,000 New Englanders sing "I'm mean because I grew up in New England" was incredible — it made me tear up watching videos the next day. Seeing all those people connect over this common understanding of who we are, and that region, all at once was really, really special. It was just such a Boston moment.
Ever since then, it was kind of just crazy show after crazy show. And every hometown show has been so unbelievable. It was kind of the start of the madness.
Headlining Red Rocks
A show that felt particularly special was Red Rocks. Having gone from being an opener there to a headliner in a little less than a year was really special for me. The growth was so evident.
The crowds at Red Rocks are in this trance of community and love — it felt like the crowd was connecting with each other, and watching that happen was really incredible. Every single person there had a smile on their face. I think that everybody there had an amazing time, and that made me so happy.
Another thing that I've loved about all the shows, but Red Rocks in particular, is that some of these songs are filled with painful feelings and thoughts, and things that, for me, required a lot of vulnerability. And when the crowd is singing every single word, it just means that a whole crowd of — in Red Rocks' case, 9,900 people — are just being vulnerable, and yelling it out loud.
That's the greatest gift a musician can ever get — watching people express themselves and free themselves from any kind of shame at a show. That's what I try to do with my music, and I feel like I saw thousands of people shedding their guilt, their fear and their shame, and singing the lyrics.
We were playing the song "Maine," and there's a line that's like, "If there were cameras in the traffic lights, they'd make me a star," and I remember looking up at the crowd — that line is really about knowing that you have something special, but not knowing if anyone can ever see it.
I remember singing that song and that line, and I looked up to the crowd — 9,,000 people, that's four times bigger than everyone in my hometown — screaming that line back to me, and I cried. I couldn't believe where I was in my life.
And I still can't, but there are moments that I get numb to all of it and there are moments when the absurdity of it all slaps me in the face. That was definitely a moment where I felt just shocked by where I had gotten to, and how things have grown.
Launching The Busyhead Project
The Busyhead Project is an endeavor to raise a million dollars for mental health awareness, and these organizations that are doing so much for fighting the stigma and supporting people who suffer around North America. We wanted to start this organization because I have spent a lot of my career thinking and about my own journey with mental health, but I always felt like I was not doing enough, or just kind of providing lip service.
I never wanted to feel like I was accessorizing it or commodifying it. So I wanted to do something that felt boots-on-the-ground, tangible, [and] would make a real difference. We set out with a goal to raise a million dollars [for these organizations], and we're getting really close. [Editor's note: As of press time, The Busyhead Project has raised $977,055.]
I think it just comes down to putting your money where your mouth is. Like, I'm playing bigger venues and I sell merch — I'm starting to make money, and part of my philosophy on wealth and making money is that you're supposed to use it to help other people.
I don't need a lot for myself. I live on a diet of sunflower seeds and bananas — I'm literally eating both of them right now — so I wanted to give back as much as I can. It's really that simple; trying to raise money for people that really need it, and organizations that are doing miraculous work. We're definitely not going to stop at a million — I hope not, because that would be kind of lame. [ Laughs .] If we can raise more money, we should raise it.
When I was a kid, I would look up "Artists with depression" or "Artists on medication." I didn't find a lot of 'em, but when I did find somebody, it would feel like I was, like, saved by God or something. That became like religion to me, to see that someone who was in the music industry was also struggling with what I was really struggling with as a kid. I want to provide that for some kid making music out there.
Breaking Onto The Hot 100 (And Collaborating With Post Malone) With "Dial Drunk"
The chart is kind of, like, the one thing from movies about the music industry that signify when the band is doing well — like The Rocker , or Rockstar , where it's like, "Oh my god, the music's on the charts!" And they're doing a montage where the chart spins, and they're on a magazine cover, you know what I mean? And what's always followed by that is a horrible downward spiral, so I think when I saw the song charting well, I was like, Oh God, this is where my career starts to go bad.
But I was really excited, and it was super cool — and, again, one of those things that's hard to actually understand from a human level.
It was also really nice because I always feel like the last thing I did is the best thing I did, so after "Stick Season" was a big success, I was like, I have to have another song! And I was touring so much, and I was on Zoloft, so I was feeling emotionally kind of numbed-down. Writing this song was kind of a wake-me-up from what was going on.
It was kind of a personal victory in a lot of ways — I challenged myself to make something new, and I did, and then it had this massive success. It felt like I can get through anything and do this again if I have to. It reminded me that what was happening in my career wasn't lightning in a bottle, but a real reflection of an audience being hungry for my music.
So then when Post Malone started recording his verse in the song, I felt like I was in a fever dream. I felt like it was gonna elevate my career to a new place, and I think it did.
He's always been an inspiration to me in the way he approaches music. I literally just reached out to him on DMs randomly one day, I was like, "Bro, I think you might like this song, we should do it together." He responded two months later, like, "Yeah, I f—ing love it!" It felt really natural.
We sat cross-legged and drank beers at the show in Massachusetts that I went out with him [to perform "Dial Drunk"]. It was so Post Malone — we talked about adult diapers and The Dewey Cox Story . He was just so funny and fun to be around.
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They had been talked about for a while when we were starting the tour in the spring, but they never felt real — I always kind of think, That'll happen later. At the point that I'm doing those shows, I'll feel like I belong in those rooms.
Having these shows scheduled is truly surreal. I just don't know how we're gonna sell that many tickets. [ Laughs .] I think I'll believe it when I'm in the room — like, Madison Square Garden, to me, has always felt like just where Paul McCartney goes, and I can't believe that I get to be having my name on the marquee.
I told my managers on the phone when they booked Fenway, "I'm actually going to retire after this." [ Laughs .] There's really no way to describe what that means to someone from New England.
As someone who grew up loving the Red Sox, going to Fenway Park all the time with my friends — getting drunk and stealing somebody's seats, and screaming at the opposing players over the dugout — that place has meant so much to me and so many people in my life. And the fact that I'm going to be one of not many people that have headlined that venue is just the craziest f—ing thing in the entire world. It feels like there's no other higher peak than playing songs about New England in the mecca of New England.
There was, like, a limit to my dreams when I was a kid — what I could do for a living and how big it could be. I'm trying to have my 8-year-old self be proud of me. I don't think he could even imagine where I'd be now.
I'm so proud of the people I work with, I'm so proud of myself, because I have really worked hard for this, and I've sacrificed a lot of things in my life to make music happen. To get to this place, it just feels like all those hard decisions were worth it.
I'm grateful for all the people that have supported me, and the people that have taken time out of their day to believe in my music when I couldn't believe in it. I'm just happy to feel like I belong here.
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How Ilsey Transformed From Hit Songwriter To Artist On 'From The Valley': "I Have The Freedom To Say What I Want"
After writing hits for superstars like Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé, Los Angeles-born singer/songwriter Ilsey is embracing change on her soul-stirring debut album, 'From The Valley.'
Ilsey is cruising down the path to self-discovery. For the past decade, the Los Angeles-born songwriter had a major presence behind the scenes, penning hits for the likes of Beyoncé and Shawn Mendes . Now, she's the one on the mic, ready to share her journey.
From The Valley details the emotional weight of a crumbling relationship and finding the courage to build yourself back up. Lead single "No California" pays homage to the breezy Laurel Canyon rockers Ilsey grew up listening to, the folk-inspired "On Wrong Side" with Justin Vernon has poetic layers of interpretation, and the somber "Overcome" mourns a failed love.
"The [album] title was very specific with the double meaning. It's this emotional valley, but then I'm also from the actual valley in LA. This album is almost a road trip of self-discovery, where you have to leave where you are to figure out who you are. And then you end up exactly where it's supposed to be — you end up home," Ilsey explains. "That's been my process of moving through heartache and figuring out who I am as a person. You have to have these valleys in your life. Without them, there's no way to appreciate the peaks."
Born Ilsey Juber, the singer grew up in a musical family in Los Angeles, where her father Laurence Juber (who also plays on this album) was the lead guitarist for Paul McCartney and Wings . "My dad was playing guitar in the room when my mom was giving birth to me," Ilsey recalls with a chuckle.
The singer's parents introduced her to the Beatles , the Eagles , Fleetwood Mac , Joni Mitchell , Jackson Browne and Motown. She began playing the drums at age 11 — she credits that to her Hanson obsession — and began writing songs on her acoustic guitar at 15. Around 2012, Ilsey "tripped and fell" into songwriting professionally after signing a Sony publishing deal with her then-band. When the band broke up, she went to the publisher for advice on next steps.
"They set up a couple of sessions for me with some producers. I went in there thinking it was going to be for me. Then all of a sudden, I got this call: 'Rihanna has one of your songs on hold,'" Ilsey recalls. "I'm a big believer that when something is working, you can't really ignore that. It seemed really obvious that that was the path to take at that moment."
While Rihanna didn't end up using the song, it was the gateway for Ilsey to kickstart her songwriting journey; some of her most notable credits include Miley Cyrus ' "Midnight Sky," Panic! at the Disco 's "High Hopes," Camila Cabello 's "She Loves Control," Christina Aguilera 's "Accelerate," and Beyoncé's "All Night." Even as From The Valley came together , Ilsey continued working with stars, including Lil Nas X , Kacey Musgraves , The 1975 and 6lack — but her debut album is her biggest dream come true yet.
Ahead of her album release, Ilsey spoke to GRAMMY.com about creating From The Valley , taking a chance on her artistry and the stories behind some of her biggest co-written hits.
When did the first thought of making your own album spark?
I met BJ Burton, who is the producer of the album. He was introduced to me through Mark Ronson , who I loved and have collaborated with for a long time. He had worked on a Miley [Cyrus] song that Miley and I had written, and had done some production on it. It turned out that he was moving to LA the next week. So he said, "We should get together and try some stuff."
I had been waiting to find the right collaborators and the people who could realize the sound that was inside of me. That was BJ. So we wrote a couple more songs, and then eventually I let him in on the fact that we were making [an album]. That was really the moment where it was like, "Oh, this is the thing that I've been looking for."
What was your process of shaping your own musical identity like?
All the songs were written for the album, with the exception of one [her cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold"]. But it was really a matter of wanting to intentionally do something that is me, and for myself. Whereas, when I'm writing songs with other people, I'm there to serve the artist. I'm there to help them realize what it is that they're trying to say.
With this, I had this very clear intention of writing the songs for myself. I'm gonna have the freedom to say what I want to say. It was pretty easy to separate the two, because I knew that I wanted this album to really express who I was.
What was that feeling like, emotionally?
I think there's a certain amount of hiding that you're able to do as a songwriter for other people. The vulnerability of stepping out in front and being the person who's actually singing the songs was definitely scary for me because I think we all have struggled with identity. That's one of the reasons I'm so grateful this is happening now and not when I was younger — I had to build that confidence over time to really feel like I deserve to be in front, and that people would actually want to hear my voice. So there was a lot of vulnerability in it, but also a lot of excitement because I've dreamt of doing this my whole life.
I'm glad you mentioned that because as we get older, we learn more about ourselves. I think if you released it when you were in your mid or early 20s, maybe you would still have some questions as to who you are and what you want to express musically. But now that you've had all this experience with songwriting, you have more of a fully realized vision of what you wanted to do.
Absolutely. The growth I have had as a songwriter and working with all these amazing people I learned so much from has really helped me to be a more fully realized version of a songwriter. Having all this experience is like training. I'm writing the songs I really want to write and I'm able to sing them in the way I want to sing them because I know my voice better now. It's all the things that lead you to become the most authentic version of yourself.
That's the beauty of music. I read that you also went to Minnesota and Wisconsin to record the album. Did you record the bulk of it there?
It was half and half because it was during the pandemic. So we had to find these windows where the world was a little more open. It actually ended up being really cool that we could put it down for a second, and then come back to it and have a whole different perspective on it. But we did a bunch in LA, and then more during the pandemic.
Did that change of scenery inspire some of the music as well?
Yeah, just working with Justin Vernon [of Bon Iver] and being at his place out in Wisconsin, which is gorgeous. It's almost farmland and gives you perspective on where you're from, too.
So much of this album is about California. When you leave California, you have a different view of it. So that helped as well. But also musically, it's why I like coming to Nashville, London and all these places. You have a different energy, you're in touch with the place that you're in, and it leads you to other places that you wouldn't normally go to.
I would love to know your experience working with Justin and BJ because I think it's important for artists to challenge each other. You all could push each other's limits in a positive way.
With BJ, we definitely challenge each other. He'll push back sometimes even when it makes me uncomfortable, in the sense that I'm pretty sure I know exactly what I want. But he's like, "Well, what if we did it like this?"
You're right, it's so important to have those people who are going to get you moving forward because you'd have to be uncomfortable in order to make anything great. BJ tends to be a lot more like that.
And when Justin and I write together, there's something really magical that happens that I've never really experienced on this level where we almost tap into the same creative energy or channel. We're able to freestyle and make it super open and easy and then we'll sort of interpret what the other person is doing through our own mind. There's something very special about working with him. I think probably a lot of people will say that. Also, our voices together felt so natural and comfortable. That helped too because when you're able to sing the idea, you really hear it for what it is.
Let's get into some of the music. When I was listening to "On Wrong Side" with Justin Vernon, it took me to another realm. There's so many layers of interpretation.
It's so funny because as time goes on, I find those other layers too. So it sort of morphs and becomes a different thing for me. It was the first song we ever did together and it was the thing that established our creative relationship. We wrote it within 20 minutes of meeting each other and the song only took about 20 minutes to write.
At first, it felt like when you're on the wrong side of a heartbreak, you're able to look at the situation and then you see the other person is being on the wrong side. It's that process of trying to figure out if there is anyone to blame in this or not. But as time went on, I started looking at it as it's also about being on the wrong side of history and being the person who's wrong in a situation. So it became a lot of different things for me, but that's the beauty of music too. Even with my own songs, the meaning can change over time. It's really up to interpretation.
My favorite is "Yellow Roses." This song is so poetic, just discussing that yearning for love that doesn't necessarily want you and hiding from the truth of what's actually going on.
This was a really central one for me on the album because it got to the heart of what the heartbreak was for me. Every rose has a different meaning and yellow is the color of friendship. When I discovered that I was like, "This is the perfect metaphor."
When you fall in love with somebody that's not able to give you the thing that you're looking for, or you fall in love with the idea of somebody, there's so much heartache in that. Then you also have to face the fact that you're going to the wrong place for it. That one was the most painful to write because it really showed me why I was heartbroken and showed me where that came from. I think everybody experiences that feeling at some point.
"No California" reminds me of '70s-era Stevie Nicks . You're riding in your car with your hair blowing in the wind, wanting to ultimately run away from whatever issues are at home. Again, it's going back to that theme of self-discovery.
I think you hit the nail on the head. When you're going through something, everything around you reminds you of that person or that thing. So you want to run away. But that really comes back to the central theme of the album: wherever you go, there you are. Because you change the location or because you change the circumstances, you're still going to have to go through the thing that you're going through.
"Heart of Gold" is the sole cover on the album. How did you initially discover the song?
That's a really good question. I can't remember the first time I heard it, because I've loved it for so long. But probably in high school at some point.
It became this sort of touchstone that I kept coming back to when I was making this album. I went out to Wisconsin one time and I threw the idea out there to do a cover of it. I expected people to be like, "Yeah, I don't know about that." But everyone wanted to do it. So it came together really easily and naturally.
I really wanted to do a different take on the song. Because I think it's important if you do a cover to make it your own. I think it turned out pretty cool.
Now let's go through your songwriting journey. How did "Nothing Breaks Like A Heart" with Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson come about?
It was amazing. That was the song that started our relationships. It was the first time we ever wrote together. Me and Mark and [session musician] Tommy Brenneck were all jamming one day, and we got this seed of an idea. We were like, "I think we have something special here." Then Mark sent it over to Miley. She said, "I'll be there tomorrow."
So we all met up at Shangri La. Miley and I dove into it and finished the idea. Then she recorded it right there. That one came out pretty easily.
She and I have talked about at certain points the fact that it almost felt like a foreshadowing for her. There's a line about a house burning down and then her house burned down that year. It was crazy how it all ended up manifesting in certain ways. But that really started Miley and I's relationship and it was awesome.
I think the power of a good, strong writer is versatility. You started with "Nothing Breaks Like a Heart" and then worked together on Miley's Plastic Hearts album. Those have two totally different sounds.
I tip my hat to her ability to move through genres and transform herself into whatever it is that she's trying to say at that moment. She definitely has very clear ideas of what she wants to do and who she is. That's one of the things I admire most about her. It's been really special to work with an artist that wants to experiment so much and has so many different sides of themselves.
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Speaking of artistic expression, you co-wrote Beyoncé's "All Night" from Lemonade .
That really came out of years of collaborating with Diplo and getting to do different things with him. He had started this idea with some other writers like Theron Thomas from R. City and a few other people on there. She loved the idea but then wanted to lyrically point it in a slightly different direction.
There's some songs where you do a little bit and there's some songs where you do a lot. I was really fortunate to be brought in to help on it, because I look at that album and my mind is always blown by how incredible it is and her artistry. She has such a clear idea of what she wants to say. It was really cool to interpret somebody's feelings like that.
Shawn Mendes' "Mercy" is such a passionate song. What was it like working with him?
Shawn's an amazing writer. Even back then — I think he was 16 or 17 at the time. At that point, he was so clear about who he was as an artist. We all played guitar on it, we all sang on it.
One of the coolest experiences of that song for me, was when we started recording the vocals. He started singing, and there was a moment where he said, "Can we take the key down?" Because he felt like it was a little bit too high for him. But there was so much pain in his voice in the best way. And I was like, "Absolutely not, we can't do that."
That was really one of those special moments where you're pushing yourself a little bit. I think he's talked about how that helped push himself to sing in an uncomfortable place. A lot of people want to stay where it's safe. That one was a risk for him.
It's a risk that paid off. Are there other songwriting highlights that you wanted to mention?
I feel so fortunate to have gotten to work with all the artists that I've worked with. I think all of them are so special. I made this album with Lykke Li and that was my favorite.
2018's So Sad, So Sexy , right?
Yeah. Working with her was so incredible because I've been a fan for so long. So I walked into it and I was like, "I don't know if I can do this because I don't want to change it or make it anything else." She was so generous creatively and let me into her world. So that was really special and was a turning point for me in my career.
That album is underrated to me. She's an otherworldly artist.
I felt so lucky to get to work with her. It was cool to be able to work on Mark's album [2019 Late Night Feelings ] when she sang and wrote [the title track] with us because that put the two worlds together. Working with him was and is incredible.
That was also a really important moment for me as a songwriter, to get to work with somebody I looked up to for so long, come into their world and see how they operate. It's really cool to get to make music with your mentors.
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Teddy Swims Is Letting Himself Be Brutally Honest On 'I've Tried Everything But Therapy'
As the world continues to discover the magnitude of Teddy Swims' soulful voice, he realized the power of opening up and letting go with his debut album, 'I've Tried Everything But Therapy.'
Four years into his career, Teddy Swims made a promise to himself to be more honest. With that in mind, he decided to be unflinchingly real with his debut album title: I've Tried Everything But Therapy .
While the title may be true for now, Swims is incredibly vulnerable. Across 10 tracks, he divulges the raw emotions of heartbreak, from reeling over what could've been in opener "Some Things I'll Never Know" to leaning into new love — while still in repair — on closer "Evergreen."
"It's the most honest I've ever let myself be," Swims, born Jaten Dimsdale, says of the album. "I'm proud of it, and I'm proud of myself. And it's a f—ing relief to just get it off my shoulders."
For someone who bares his soul in his music, both lyrically and vocally, it's rather surprising to think that he wouldn't be the type for therapy. But now that the album is out, his next step is seeking professional help — another promise he made to himself upon choosing the candid title.
In the meantime, Swims is already seeing the impact of being more and more open in his music. "Lose Control," the album's lead single, has earned Swims his first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 and first solo radio hit (in 2022, his Meghan Trainor collab "Bad For Me" reached No. 15 on Billboard's Adult Pop Airplay chart). But perhaps more notably, his powerful vocal runs on the song's dynamic chorus are stopping listeners in their tracks. As one YouTube commenter put it, "Man has a voice that speaks to the core of your soul."
Just before the album's arrival, Swims talked with GRAMMY.com about how I've Tried Everything But Therapy has helped him understand the impact of wearing his insecurities on his sleeve — and how his bewitchingly soulful voice ties it all together.
How does this album feel different from what you've put out before this, whether it's lyrically or sonically, or even how you feel mentally based around the process?
I feel like this is maturity. I can listen to these songs and I feel proud of them.
Everybody kinda doesn't like their own voice, you know? But I feel like I belong on those songs, and nobody could say what I needed to say the way I could say it. I feel like I'm saying something that I need to say and get off my chest in an entirely different way than I ever have.
I'm kind of an emotional toddler. I'm getting more of a grasp on what I want to say and how to say it, how to talk about my feelings more. I feel like the more I do it, the longer I do it, the more honest I become, the more I get out of the way of things. I'm learning to get out of the way and let the creative flow just be what it is now.
Going into writing this album, like, what were you going through? And did you have a goal in mind about what you wanted the album to be?
I really didn't know at the time. In the last four years, I've written maybe four or five hundred songs. I didn't write it knowing that it was an album, or write it knowing that this was going to be the album; but more so, when it started coming together, it just felt like things fell into place.
I realized that I've been circling around the same feelings and emotions for a very long time. It's always about — I was in a very toxic relationship, and I have been a lot in my life. This is me kind of learning that I can be loved, and that I am beautiful, and I deserve love. That's kind of what the struggle is and always has been.
The album title is interesting to me, because so many artists compare songwriting to therapy. But has songwriting always felt like therapy for you?
Songwriting can be therapeutic if you have a feeling that you need to get out, and you write that feeling down, and you get it out. But what I tend to do a lot in my life, I'll write it down into a song, and then I'll write it into another song from a different perspective. And I'll write it down 100 different ways, in 100 different perspectives, to the point that it ends up that that small problem has now turned into the biggest problem in my life, because I've thought about so many different ways.
Instead of being more therapeutic, [songwriting has] been more of a way of highlighting what I'm going through, sometimes way too much.
The title itself was kind of a promise to myself that I would go to therapy when the album comes out. I think it's something that everyone can benefit from, especially me. But there's still something about me — maybe it's a generational mindset, like, I'm not crazy, I don't need that , or maybe there's answers to questions I don't really want to ask that I'm gonna get.
I like my coping mechanisms. I like how I am and who I am when I do cope. So there's a part of me that's afraid that I'll have to change.
But I made a promise to myself, put a deadline on myself where I'll go and I'll seek help, and I'll try. It's also me being honest and open about that, to you and to everyone, that I'm like, "I need help, that's okay." I'm gonna ask for help, and that's a liberating and equally terrifying thing.
The nice thing is, there has been a lot more public acceptance of mental health in recent years. How have you felt that change since you started releasing music, and how has it impacted your songwriting?
I think what's so great about our industry these days is that I'm not held to the same standard as, like, Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson , where I have to be such a star, and you don't know anything about me. These days, as an artist, I get to be absolutely insecure and absolutely terrified, and it's what makes my artistry beautiful. And people that feel the way I feel can look at me and say, "That guy's so insecure, and he's so scared. But he's doing it, and we want him to win."
I don't want to swallow my insecurities. I don't have to wait until I feel like I'm worthy of love to put myself out there. Every bit of insecurity, and everything that's going on in my life, I'm allowed to just wear it and put it on for everybody to see. That has helped me in more ways than me trying to be anything I'm not.
You've said that for a long time, you worried about giving too much of yourself in your music, but seeing people connect to the music has made you realize it's actually making a difference. When did you start realizing that?
I am very lucky — every show we do, I have a meet and greet where I can talk to 100 people, and they tell me things that have changed their life, ways that I've affected them, and the ways that I've touched their lives.
I also want them to know that I'm just that fat kid from Rockdale County, Georgia, and still feels like that. And they make me be able to be honest and have an outlet to turn my trauma into something positive in me.
I feel like I learn it more and more every day that I am in a safe space, and I've created a safe space for people, and I become safer in that all the time. And I'm becoming more honest with myself, with them, in the safe space. It's just sacred, you know?
Was there a song of yours that kind of opened that up for you, because of the way that people connected to it?
I've had a few like that, but "Simple Things" that I released on one of my EPs is still a song I sing all the time. I thought the verses were only specific to my life and what I was going through — that was the first time I was honest, and I wrote from only what I was going through specifically to my life, and that connected and did more for people than anything I did [previously].
You've said that you're insecure, but would you consider yourself an introvert?
I think the more that I do this, the more I become one. I used to be the biggest extrovert in the world, but the more I do this job, the more I have to be social, I feel myself becoming more of an introvert.
Well, I brought that up because so many artists consider themselves introverts, when you are pouring your heart out in music that is then heard by thousands, if not millions, of people. Has that dichotomy ever crossed your mind?
Yeah, but that's kind of why I think I've become more introverted, because I gotta figure out what's still mine or if there should be anything that I should hold to myself. That is the question: What is still for me, or should there still be anything just for me?
That's so interesting to think about — I've never really thought about the battle that an artist can have when they share so much. Because it's like, at that point, you're so exposed, how are you even supposed to function as a private person in any regard?
Yeah. You figure it out, you let me know. [ Laughs .]
It's cool that you're feeling so proud of this album, though, because I'd say that means that you haven't gone too far.
It's the most honest I've ever let myself be. And I don't feel exposed — I just feel like I said what I needed to say.
I've heard that I've Tried Everything But Therapy is coming in multiple parts and this is just part one. Is that true?
Yeah, we're planning on part two, but I don't know what that looks like yet. But I want to put out more music. And I think I want to come from a different place of what I've learned from how I've healed. I just don't feel like this story's done yet.
But you said you're going to start therapy after this album releases — so you're going to release a part two of I've Tried Everything But Therapy after you've been in therapy?
Yeah, I guess that doesn't make sense. But it will!
It would be kind of interesting to have part two be the response to therapy after you have done it.
Yeah, exactly. That's the vibe. Maybe we just go straight to part three and skip part two altogether.
Before you even released part one, people were going crazy over "Lose Control" because of how soulful you sound on it. When did you realize you had such a captivating voice?
It wasn't really a realization — I was bad for a long time. But I love this, and I wanted this, so I worked hard to become good at it. I wanted to be the best I could at it, because using my voice means everything to me, and I want to know how to do everything I can with it.
Well, you're doing something right, because people are exclaiming about it left and right. I saw a comment on one of your Instagram posts that said, "I just threw my shoe across my damn office, you better sing!" Do you feel the power of your own music?
I know, technically and dynamically, I am a good singer. When I listen to myself, I can't say I can't sing, because it's all there. Any singer or vocal coach could tell "That kid knows what he's doing. He can sing his ass off."
But also, there's part of me that still doesn't like my voice, too, just like anyone else. And I think that might be why I became so good at it. Because I want to hear it and be like, "Well, you can't tell yourself you ain't good, 'cause that was f—ing — that takes skill." I've learned enough to know that I can't tell myself I'm bad. [ Laughs. ]
And I have to say, I've been impressed with all of the people you've posted singing their own versions of "Lose Control."
People can sing! And people have been writing verses to it too. The love on it has been so rewarding.
I feel very justified [that the music] is connecting. I feel like it's already helping. I feel very humbled, appreciated and loved.
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Justin Timberlake's Biggest Songs, From His Best *NSYNC Moments To The Solo Smashes
As rumors swirl about a new Justin Timberlake album and *NSYNC fans pray for a reunion tour, revisit the defining songs that have made JT one of pop's greats.
From the moment Justin Timberlake first stepped into the spotlight at just 11 years old, his star power was strikingly apparent. Initially dabbling in country music on Star Search , he further displayed his knack for performing on The Mickey Mouse Club in 1993 and 1994 before being recruited for the boy band *NSYNC in 1995 — and soon, he was on his way to pop domination.
As the group's popularity soared and they sold over 70 million records worldwide, so did Timberlake's solo appeal. With his curly blond hair and falsetto that would make Michael Jackson proud, he became a defining figure in the late '90s/early 2000s zeitgeist. He took the lead in several *NSYNC songs and progressively developed his songwriting skills, hinting to the world that he was a star of his own right.
By the time <em>NSYNC halted in early 2002, Timberlake's solo career was not a mere possibility, but an undeniable next step. A few months later, he released his debut album, Justified * , which set the stage for one of the most innovative, defining artists of his time. In the two decades since, Timberlake has released five studio albums (with a sixth reportedly on the way ), sold more than 88 million records , collaborated with the likes of Jay-Z and Madonna , and won 10 GRAMMYs. It's hard to imagine pop music today without his contributions.
Although Timberlake has periodically taken some time off music to focus on his family, acting and producing, a comeback was always around the corner. Last week, for example, he reunited with *NSYNC at the 2023 MTV Video Music Awards and confirmed the release of their first new song in 20 years, "Better Place," out Sept. 29.
He also recently reunited with Nelly Furtado and Timbaland for "Keep Going Up," the long-awaited follow-up to their 2007 smash "Give It To Me." Timbaland — a longtime collaborator of Timberlake's — further teased what's to come for JT, telling Variety that Timberlake's next album is "finished up" and sounds like " FutureSex/LoveSounds part two."
To celebrate these upcoming chapters, as well as Timberlake's boundless creativity, GRAMMY.com looks back at the most defining songs in his trailblazing career.
"Pop," Celebrity (2001)
A response to all the animosity surrounding the success of late 90s' boy bands, "Pop" gave us *NSYNC at their most "no strings attached." Composed by Timberlake in partnership with choreographer, director, and songwriter Wade Robson, it blended electropop, metal riffs and Timberlake's signature beatboxing into a thrilling, limitless portrait of what being a pop star really means.
"It doesn't matter/ 'Bout the clothes I wear, and where I go, and why/ All that matters/ Is that you get hyped, and we'll do it to you every time," Timberlake sings in the pre-chorus. As the first single off <em>NSYNC's last album, 2001's Celebrity * , "Pop" foreshadowed key elements of Timberlake's burgeoning success — setting sights on his impending, hit-filled solo career.
"Gone," Celebrity (2001)
Another collaboration between Timberlake and Robson for Celebrity , "Gone" remains one of the most stirring ballads of the new millennium. Originally written for Michael Jackson, who passed on the offer — but later regretted it, as Timberlake told Oprah's Master Class Podcast in 2014 — "Gone" was the first and only *NSYNC single where Timberlake sings all the lead vocals and plays the music video protagonist.
Although its success led to a nomination for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals at the 2002's GRAMMY Awards, the song unveiled uncomfortable feelings about the future of the group. If *NSYNC were to halt activities, it laid bare the fact that Timberlake could survive — and thrive — as a soloist just as well.
"Like I Love You," Justified (2002)
As many suspected, <em>NSYNC did go into a hiatus after the release of Celebrity , and Timberlake's much-anticipated solo debut came shortly after. In November 2002, he released the studio album Justified * , spearheaded by lead single "Like I Love You."
Pairing his penmanship with producer duo the Neptunes , Timberlake found an exquisite recipe to express himself. "Like I Love You" posed a sleek introduction to a fully-developed star, mixing funk drums, pop beats, Spanish guitars, sultry falsettos, and a participation by hip-hop duo Clipse . Coincidentally landing the same spot on the Billboard Hot 100 as "Gone" at No. 11, "Like I Love You" showed that Timberlake was able — and ready — to hold his own.
"Cry Me a River," Justified (2002)
If "Like I Love You" was an introduction to Justin Timberlake the soloist, follow-up single "Cry Me a River" cemented him as 2002's main character. A vengeful opera inspired by his former (and very high-profile) relationship with Britney Spears , Timberlake showed his spiteful side — one that would later resurface on his second album, FutureSex/LoveSounds .
The poignancy of his feelings is aided by producers Timbaland and Scott Storch , who crafted a haunting synthscape filled with wails and warnings. In the music video, Timberlake finally sheds his good-boy image, breaking into a Spears look-alike's mansion to film steamy moments of himself with another woman.
On top of giving the audience much to think about, "Cry Me a River" gave Timberlake one his first two solo GRAMMY Awards in 2003: the song won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, and Justified won Best Pop Vocal Album.
"Señorita," Justified (2002)
Justified offered hit after hit, and although "Señorita" wasn't the biggest (it peaked at No. 27 on the Hot 100), it's still a Timberlake staple. The song highlighted Timberlake's commitment to go beyond expectations, as he created his own deconstructed salsa, pushing and pulling vocals around the Neptunes' unmistakable drum beats and Stevie Wonder influences.
While singles like "Rock Your Body" may have found more popularity, "Señorita" and its odd little strutting intro is instantly recognizable — and remains one of Timberlake's best displays of the fun he has in the studio . The call-and-response section at the end, where Timberlake directs "the fellas and the ladies" to sing in different vocal tones, is the cherry on top of it all.
"SexyBack," FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
Four years after Justified , Timberlake returned raunchier than ever: "I'm bringing sexy back," he sings in the opening line of "SexyBack," unknowingly birthing 2006's ultimate catchphrase. The first single off his highly-acclaimed sophomore album, FutureSex/LoveSounds , "SexyBack" became Timberlake's first No.1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, and further solidified the finesse of his collaborations with Timbaland.
Scurrying through a suffocating dance floor, "SexyBack" distorts everything it touches, creating a cybernetic atmosphere where Timberlake will both "let you whip me, if I misbehave" and make you "watch how I attack." Timbaland's low vocals bounce off Timberlake's high-pitched lines and make for a breathless, sweaty run.
"My Love," FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
Timberlake achieved his second consecutive Hot 100 No.1 with "My Love," a song that has been defined by many as the sequel to "Cry Me a River." Although borrowing from the same insistent staccato beats, "My Love" is rather a happier, snappier version of it. Gone is the desire for retaliation — Timberlake is now focused on the sweet highs of a promising relationship.
"All I want you to do is be my love," he sings over masterful production by Nate "Danja" Hills and Timbaland, who infuse the track with quirky distortions, beatboxing and a slow beat juxtaposed to Timberlake's frenzy. Atlanta rapper T.I. also adds contrast to the track, delivering a stack of verses that contrast Timberlake's lyrics and add to the multifaceted perceptions of love. If Timberlake's lines represent one's heart soaring with possibility, the other elements of the song keep it grounded, reminding us that true love runs steady.
"What Goes Around... Comes Around," FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
The true "Cry Me a River" sequel lays on the grandiose "What Goes Around... Comes Around." Despite the single's lofty arrangements and a cinematic music video starring Scarlett Johansson, Timberlake is still heartbroken.
However, instead of seeking revenge by his own hands, he now trusts karma to take care of his lover's wrongdoings. The circular, haunting motifs of the lyrics are repeated through synth loops and Turkish strings.
"What Goes Around... Comes Around" is one of FutureSex/LoveSounds' standouts, bridging the catchy sounds of Justified with more experimental nuances. It also seemed to resonate with listeners, as it landed the singer his third consecutive chart-topper.
"LoveStoned," FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006)
While violins surely can provide a sultry mood, it's not often that they will be paired with beatboxing and funky bass — which makes "LoveStoned" a peculiar feat.
One of Timberlake's most provocative tracks off FutureSex/LoveSounds , it could also be defined as a bolder cousin to 2002's "Rock Your Body" due to its rushing, disco-esque energy. Along an easygoing progression, it carries Timbaland's trademark vibes and fiery lyrics about what the internet would call a "baddie" nowadays ("She's bad, and she knows," Timberlake sings).
Originally named "LoveStoned/I Think She Knows (Interlude)," the track swiftly slows down in the last two minutes, where an Interpol-inspired guitar solo flourishes, offering a hazy conclusion to an innovative pop expedition.
"Suit & Tie (feat. Jay-Z)" The 20/20 Experience , (2013)
After wrapping up his highly successful FutureSex/LoveShow world tour in 2007, Timberlake took some time off to focus on acting and producing for other musicians. Following a six-year musical hiatus, he released his third studio album in 2013, The 20/20 Experience , led by the steamy "Suit & Tie," featuring rapper Jay-Z.
The single is anchored by samples of Sly, Slick and Wicked's 1972 song "Sho' Nuff" and swirls around a matured, glistening R&B production by Timberlake, Timbaland and J-Roc . It's the most sophisticated that Timberlake has sounded, accompanied by a fittingly classy, black-and-white music video — which won a GRAMMY for Best Music Video in 2014.
"Mirrors," The 20/20 Experience , (2013)
The second single off The 20/20 Experience , "Mirrors" was written back in 2009 and inspired by Timberlake's relationship with wife Jessica Biel, as well as his grandparents' six-decade marriage. Although the sounds harken back to "Cry Me a River" at times, the lyrics reveal that Timberlake is no longer bitter, but instead very much in love: "Now, you're the inspiration of this precious song/ And I just wanna see your face light up since you put me on/ So now I say goodbye to the old me, it's already gone."
Paired with an emotional music video, "Mirrors" is a defining landmark in Timberlake's discography, showing how personal growth impacted his music for the better. Alongside trusty producers Timbaland and J-Roc, he proved that it's possible to turn an eight-minute prog-soul aria into a timeless, effortlessly catchy love song.
"Drink You Away," The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 (2013)
Six months after the release of The 20/20 Experience , in September 2013, Timberlake dropped the second half of the album, The 20/20 Experience – 2 of 2 . Out of its four singles (which also included "Take Back the Night," "TKO," and "Not a Bad Thing"), "Drink You Away" stands out for its adventurous streak.
Here, Timberlake recalls his Southern roots, spinning a pop twist on Memphis soul and country rock riffs. "I've tried Jack, I've tried Jim/ I've tried all of their friends/ But I can't drink you away," he sings, matching love pains to alcoholism. Once again working with producers Timbaland and J-Roc, he daringly explores new scenarios, ultimately proving that his talents can't be restrained. (The track also teased Timberlake's later collab with country crooner Chris Stapleton , as the pair mashed "Drink You Away" with Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey" at the 2015 CMA Awards.)
" CAN'T STOP THE FEELING! ," Trolls (2016)
Timberlake's career may have firm pillars in experimentation, but 2016's "CAN'T STOP THE FEELING!" showed that he is also a master in well-rounded bubblegum pop. In 2016, after voicing the character Branch and serving as the executive music producer for the movie Trolls , Timberlake worked with Max Martin and Shellback for the soundtrack's lead single.
The result was a simple, yet contagiously happy disco track that quickly hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100, followed by several other countries' charts. " CAN'T STOP THE FEELING! " was also the top-selling song in the U.S. that year according to Nielsen Music's Year-End Report, and quickly achieved an omnipresent status; the song remains a global staple today.
"Young Man," Man of the Woods (2018)
After another long break between albums, Timberlake released his fifth LP, Man of the Woods , in 2018. The title references the meaning behind his firstborn son's name, Silas, and features some of his most experimental trials to date, despite enlisting the same longtime producers like the Neptunes and Timbaland.
As Timberlake's personal life changed with marriage and parenthood, so did his music. He plunged even deeper into his Tennessee origins and the country music of his childhood, as evidenced in singles "Filthy," "Supplies," and the Stapleton-featuring "Say Something."
However, the most essential song to understand Timberlake's current moment is the sweet, deeply personal "Young Man." It closes the album on a vulnerable note, showing the singer not as a superstar, but as a devoted father passing on his teachings. Vocal snippets from both Silas and Jessica Biel make it even more special, framing a fleeting moment into eternity.
After seeing Timberlake grow from a teenager himself to raising his own family, there's a full-circle element coloring his next steps with much expectation. What will be his next reinvention? If Timbaland's words are true, luckily we won't have to wait too long to find out.
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