By Mark Guarino
Growing up is hard to do, especially when millions of dollars are at stake. Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera made their names first as child stars and later as teen idols, winning household name status — he as a member of the late ‘90s boy band ‘N Sync and she as a solo vocalist in heated rivalry with that other glam pop luminary, Britney Spears.
But history has shown time is not kind to pop sensations. Both 22, Timberlake and Aguilera joined forces as co-headliners this summer for the Stripped & Justified tour, testing the waters to see if the prepubescents they’ve been entertaining since their days on “The New Mickey Mouse Club” are ready for more adult-oriented bumping and grinding.
The tour arrived at the Allstate Arena Tuesday and at the United Center Wednesday. Squeezed between both was Timberlake’s late night after show at the House of Blues. After singing to an arena of over 20,000 people just two hours earlier, Timberlake arrived on the club’s stage after 1 a.m. Wednesday morning to play a six-song, hour-long show to about 1,500 fans, including his current girlfriend Cameron Diaz who watched from a box above.
If the entire scenario was designed to lend Timberlake credibility as a club player keeping it real, it worked. His downsized set was livelier and more impromptu than his earlier arena appearance, and it provided the opportunity to let his often wickedly funny personality shine.
Wearing a “Girls Gone Wild” trucker cap and switching from keyboards to guitar, Timberlake melded into his impressive R&B band, which included four backup singers. The setlist consisted of songs from his solo debut “Justified” (Jive) (“Senorita,” “Cry Me A River”) which included spots where he smoothly bent his elastic body to break dance — refreshing improvisation considering the heavily choreography just hours earlier. Hip-hop group the Black Eyed Peas — the tour’s openers — showed up near the end for group freestyling that helped turn the show into a buoyant, and intimate, dance party.
Comparably, his arena set Tuesday was supersized, featuring seven dancers, four singers and a ten-piece band that included three horns. Despite the occasional bursting fireworks and a crane that delivered him over the crowd at dinosaur speed, Timberlake’s show was surprisingly light on spectacle. Instead, it worked to present him as not just an admirer of old school hip-hop and the dance pop of Michael Jackson, but a legitimate heir to both. Decked out in head-to-toe Adidas, Timberlake spent almost 15 minutes on top of that crane beatboxing — and, battling his DJ and live drummer, proved he was not just an apprentice, but a master.
His high, falsetto singing was not as natural. Although he welcomed the group love and frequently egged it on (the audience was almost entirely female), Timberlake’s singing and vocal accents felt largely borrowed and formulated from past masters. He acknowledged his boy band past early on by combining past hits “Gone” and “Girlfriend.” His newer songs — co-written by hitmakers the Neptunes — were heavily funk and paired with seamless and simple choreography.
Aguilera, who played beforehand, could have learned some lessons from her partner’s lack of embellishment. Her set was crammed with endless video segments, costume changes and choreography with heavy overtones to S&M dungeon play and strip club sensuality. If Timberlake was smoothly sliding into adulthood, Aguilera was barreling towards it with a monster truck that lost its brakes.
Whereas Madonna, the ultimate pop chameleon, used a 20-year career to explore varying personalities and its challenges, Aguilera’s hurried transformations — from futuristic vixen to innocent schoolgirl to gown-adorned diva to “Lady Marmalade” hooker — were strictly opportunities for her to expose cleavage.
Too bad because some of her latest album “Stripped” (RCA) showcases her impressive voice and pop ear. Her show however was crippled by its constant din of explosions and stunts. It’s a good guess that the single-digit- aged children in the audience didn’t understand why she was handcuffed to the dungeon master’s torture cross. Although her message was sexuality makes women strong, her actions were purely old-fashioned exploitation.
The show paused to pay respect to R&B legend Etta James. Singing “At Last,” and “I Prefer You,” Aguilera flashed her tremendous range — holding notes super long and scaling scales furiously. But she did not possess the subtle sensuality of her old school idols. In this recycling effort, the only direction was to showboat, proving that today, it’s not about the song, it’s about the singer.