Justin Timberlust

The tabloid glossies are revving up to destroy another beautiful love couple whose sell-by date—they have determined—has passed, and they’re in full throttle: “Cameron begs Justin: COME BACK TO ME NOW!”

On stapled, slick magazine covers across Food Town, behold the randy, dancing boy, smooth-whiskered, pink-cheeked Justin Timberlake, gaping, blinking for his youth and freedom, while a glowering, suddenly dark-haired, Demi Moore’d version of Cameron Diaz, 34 but somehow older, pouts and jangles the keys to the jail cell in her basement.

There Was Something About Cameron in the 90’s, but Mr. Timberlake is the latest boy to wear this decade’s America’s Sweetheart sash. It may be an Age of Hillary thing: Justin’s ex-, Britney, is playing the rough-living, hard-drinking rehab role and he is innocent on the way up; Britney is Norman Maine and Justin is Vicky Lester.

And on Jan. 31, the former ’N Sync star, who nearly went the way of Jordan Knight, turns 26—still so young, newly unattached, universally popular and … oddly respected. He’s the ultimate vessel of escapism and therefore the quintessential escape artist. Happy birthday, Justin—for your 26th birthday, you get a pass.

Americans react to Mr. Timberlake with the same giddy hope they fling on Barack Obama, who, with that walk of his, could do worse than use Mr. Timberlake’s “SexyBack” as his campaign song. The power of “SexyBack,” arguably one of the worst tracks on Mr. Timberlake’s excellent second album, had less to do with the “Sexy” than with the idea that anything good was “Back.”

Mr. Timberlake has been making money in music for over a decade. But this country needs any Comeback Kid it can get.

In the words of one 29-year-old male hip-hop fan: “It’s not easy to go from being Mr. ’N Sync to being a complete pimp.” Skinny white boys everywhere have taken note.

Mr. Timberlake’s two solo albums seemed to prove he’d broken from his lame past—twice, if you count the Mickey Mouse Club. No one cared if it was really producer Timbaland who deserved credit for FutureSex/LoveSounds, because Mr. Timba-lake’s conversion was like a tectonic shift on a continent where Kelly Clarkson’s queen. There’s nothing like reinvention at a time when everything seems stuck.

In Nick Cassavetes’ widely disparaged Alpha Dog, critics not only heralded Mr. Timberlake as a real actor, but, according to The Village Voice, as “the moral center of a movie sorely in need of some conscience.” His character in the film helps kill a kid. What a feat of charisma and white teeth.

Take us with you, was the popcorn-chomping vibe at Alpha Dog on 19th Street in Manhattan every time Mr. Timberlake giggled and said “fuck” on screen, to that special place where everything’s funny and white men can dance and rap with rappers and you can admit you love your mama and no one beats you up and Scarlett Johansson still wants to sleep with you … where you’re the only American on the planet anyone still likes ….

“He’s so tall,” a woman behind me cooed.

In Mr. Timberlake’s case, authenticity of talent means less to his fans than what appears to be Mr. Timberlake’s authenticity of self: Tearing free from his packaging, supposedly, he unveiled the more desirable idol underneath. Forget up-from-the bootstraps: The beloved celebrity storyline is the one where the marionette cuts his own strings and comes to life. What a fine fantasy that is, too.

That SNL Thing

At the Golden Globes, Mr. Timberlake affectionately made fun of Prince, to whom he owes much of FutureSex/LoveSounds. Everyone laughed. Remember Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction? Remember those were Mr. Timberlake’s paws? Few cared. When Britney Spears cheated on him, or so the story goes, he made a music video about the saga, called it “Cry Me a River,” and this worked.

He did his homework. Mr. Timberlake’s lyrics are simultaneously lust-filled and polite (“Tell me which way you like that / Do you like it like this? / Do you like it like that?”), old-school romantic (“If I wrote you a symphony / Just to say how much you mean to me”) second-wave feminist (“You don’t need no Maybelline / Cuz you a beauty queen”) and so pro-marriage, you need to rewind a few times before you believe your ears:

This ring here represents my heart

But there is just one thing I need from you

Saying ‘I do.’

It’s probably only a matter of time before Us and Star change the storyline, do their best to take Mr. Timberlake down to the sewer with Aniston, Jolie and Spears—there’s a law firm!—because sometimes in tabloid-world, single + man = cad. But when it comes to anointing or torching celebrities, the tabs may no longer be a match for the mass-infiltrating power of YouTube.

The current conventional wisdom about Mr. Timberlake’s popularity suggests that while his solo albums garnered critical raves, that while he made the greatest comeback in boy-band history, that while he’s very cute and wears Jams nicely and surfed and golfed giddily with the elderly Ms. Diaz for almost four seemingly monogamous years, it was actually his Saturday Night Live self-parody video “Dick in a Box” that brought him back to the commercial world of the living.

Every college kid in America, even people who never had seen ’N Sync, loved “Dick in a Box” before they even viewed it. It’s called “Dick in a Box,” and that’s comedy, all right. But it’s also called “Dick in a Box,” and for anyone who ever endured boy-band pop music in the 90’s, it was pay dirt. The link was sent via e-mail, and clicking is more expedient than reading. And it was the ideal American combination—forbidden and really funny. NBC had thrown it off its site, and Saturday Night Live, which followed up the Timberlake coup with a Jake Gyllenhaal performance nearly as funny as “Dick,” was back in the business of making stars out of stars by simply making them seem—as they did with Paul Simon, Christopher Walken and Alec Baldwin—that they understood their prior lives were a joke. Only difference was: Maybe this transformation was happening on thousands of computer screens at work on Monday, rather than on Saturday night, live.

Suddenly, straight men partial to football and/or indie rock had uncomfortably warm feelings for this former boy-band wuss. I was advised to watch “Dick in a Box” by your typical mid-thirtysomething New York music snob whose exposure to mainstream pop music is so paltry I’m pretty sure he still hasn’t heard “Hey Ya.” He spoke enthusiastically of FutureSex/LoveSounds, Mr. Timberlake’s album. He referred to Mr. Timberlake as “J.T.”

“Dick in a Box” boasts a Wikipedia entry that includes “Plot,” “­R­esponse” and “Parodies and Homages,” and claims that “Dick in a Box” is the fourth-most-viewed video on the whole entire Internet. I learned of the most famous parody, “Box in a Box,” produced by a busty University of Pennsylvania sophomore who maintains her own fan site, when a bewildered but amused 60-year-old called to tell me she’d seen it on Keith Olbermann. Waxing rhapsodic about Mr. Timberlake soon followed—she’d never really seen him before all those boxes.

‘J.T.’ Is Not Your Friend

So everyone calls him J.T. Apparently, it’s cool to show affection for a high-voiced former ballad-crooner once he abandons his vanity. The laws of celebrity in the Wedding Crashers era dictate that Vince Vaughn one-ups Brad Pitt on the thinking woman’s imaginary-boyfriend list, and Mr. Timberlake, no fool, chose self-effacement over self-seriousness.

J.T. was always hot but unthreatening. He dressed up in a gingerbread suit and danced to M.C. Hammer on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He dressed up in a huge soup cup and danced and cracked up on SNL. And, again, he dressed up as his former self in “Dick in a Box” and ripped that guy to shreds. Don’t forget, the guy’s a former Mouseketeer; he understands he’s here to entertain.

Mr. Timberlake’s a jack of all trades, like a vaudevillian who’d talk directly to the audience, anything to make ’em smile. Americans, we know, love a semblance of ordinariness; even our celebrities must jump through hoops to prove that their two feet actually touch the ground. A banner showing on SNL brings a celebrity down to a level of accessibility that fans can handle; it means Mr. Timberlake’s hanging with the funny guys, that he knows that he’s surfing the waves of culture, and that moving up and down the banister in jump-cut sequence and crooning romantically about your member is just the thing to save a career.

But none of this explains why critics thought Mr. Timberlake, in his big-screen debut, outshone a raft of experienced actors in Alpha Dog. With his lanky, long-necked vulnerability, those limbs swinging willy-nilly, his odd pallor and dark blue eyes hinting at late nights, his wide smile quick and pristine, Mr. Timberlake made a convincing stunted adolescent. But the other actors were clearly the pros.

Critics not only disliked Alpha Dog, they were repulsed by the subject matter. No one enjoys watching rich white kids behave like monsters, and they especially don’t like watching them behave like embarrassingly absurd monsters. There’s no dignity to it.

“The implication is that too much video culture and too little parental supervision make Johnny a danger—and that it sure is fun to play at being Johnnies in movies,” wrote Entertainment Weekly, recycling an argument beloved of a certain generation.

A far more popular recent film, Borat, highlighted frat boys—not even scary, handsome frat boys with tickets to Goldman Sachs, but silly, beefy, unattractive frat boys—beating their chests and heads in an R.V. That scene was unscripted—i.e., real—but this majority group is easily disregarded as some harmless drunken minority. Or Southern. Under the rug with all of them! They vote for the other guys.

J.T.’s acting turn was a far happier revelation. A singer previously thought to be all smoke and mirrors was only just beginning to prove his depth! His image survives on the premise that he’s a guy of real and endless possibilities, and apparently audiences are all too eager to affirm that dream.

“Timberlake is the latest resident and/or weekend visitor to Hip-Hop Nation to prove himself superb in the movies,” cried The Buffalo News, lumping him in with Ice-T and Ice Cube rather than, interestingly, Elvis.

But in the movie theater, no one was reacting to Frankie, the happy thug Mr. Timberlake plays. They were twittering and shivering for J.T., their all-American boy, in a good way. Men and women laughed at his every move, as if eager to prove to celluloid J.T. that they were with him, that they got his joke. They were in on it, too. They were with him, they were him. That’s a good sign for any star, and it’s about enough to get you in a big movie or elected to the Presidency. It’s what American celebrity consumerism is all about.

Happy birthday, J.T.! At least you know what you’ll be getting when you open your box—the best present any boy could ever get. May you, and we, enjoy it for years to come!’ Justin Timberlust