Talking ex-girlfriends in a recent interview with Vanity Fair magazine—and lord knows he has enough of those to go around—Justin Timberlake was asked about his first public relationship, co-Mouseketeer-turned-young-adult-love Britney Spears. Timberlake expressed affection for his old friend ("I wish her the best—that goes without saying"), but also admitted that the two pop stars have hardly kept in touch, claiming that they "haven't spoken in 9 or 10 years," and that their relationship never had a chance for long-term success. "We were two birds of the same feather—small-town kids, doing the same thing," said Timberlake. "But then you become adults, and the way you were as kids doesn’t make any sense."
Discussing Timberlake's all-growed-up quote, pop site Idolator bemoaned that it "kind of shatters all the era-gone-by pop dreams of those still holding out for some sort of romantic reconciliation between those two, doesn’t it?" But honestly, the last turn-of-the-century fan who continued to hope for a makeup between the one-time ultimate celebrity power couple had probably already given up hope completely several years ago. What Justin's words really belie is just how far he and Britney have drifted apart over the last decade—not just personally, but professionally, where their careers (and the public perceptions thereof) couldn't possibly be more different for two stars who are both still considered to be in the top tier of the pop stratosphere.
Since their mainstream saturation point in the early 00s, neither Justin nor Britney has been among the most prolific of pop musicians in terms of releasing new product. But what's interesting is that despite releasing twice as many albums over the last decade (four to two) and countless more singles than Justin, Britney is the one of the pair who is always being talked about in terms of making a comeback. The reception for each of Britney's last three albums (Blackout, Circus, Femme Fatale) was framed by that sort of "Can she bounce back?" or "Can she still do it?" discussion, despite the fact that she had never really stopped being popular in the first place. Frequent collaborator Dr. Luke was asked about her streak of "comeback albums" recently, and answered with understandable incredulity: "Where'd she go? I don't know. I didn't know she ever disappeared, really...she's always been selling out concerts and records, so I don't know that she ever disappeared."
Meanwhile, Timberlake has proven unassailable in setting his own terms for where and when he chooses to come out with new music, receiving little criticism or skepticism for doing so. Some may have furrowed eyebrows when he waited four years to release the follow-up to his 2002 smash debut success Justified, but when that sophomore effort turned out to be 2006's even more successful FutureSex/LoveSounds, those doubters wouldn't dare question him again. Now, another four years later, when asked about the prospect of a new album—a question you see less and less as his number of non-musical ventures continues to expand—Justin demurs. "I wouldn’t say I’m not going to put out another [album]," he told Vanity Fair in the same interview. "I would say that would be a bad bet, if you were betting. But I could see myself only doing one more big tour." In other words: "I'll come back if and when I damn well please, so don't bother asking."
The disparity here, naturally, is due to the vastly different way the two artists are perceived by the public at large. Whereas Justin appears to be in complete command over his career and the choices that guide it, Britney comes off as a puppet, at the mercy of the creative forces and decision-makers she surrounds herself with. So while Justin is trusted with the kind of credible projects and responsibilities very rarely afforded to ex-teen pop stars—hosting award shows, playing major roles in Oscar-winning movies, even sponsoring PGA tour events—it's questioned whether Britney will be able to get through her upcoming world tour without collapsing, or if she's even mentally fit enough to testify against her old manager. It never feels like Justin needs a comeback because even when he's not owning the Top 40, he's invariably making his presence felt in some other area of mainstream success, whereas when Britney hasn't been on the radio for the last decade, it's probably because she's experiencing some sort of personal crisis—messy breakups, paparazzi attacks, public meltdowns, and other embarrassing fare that JT has managed to steer clear of almost entirely the last decade.
Finally, you can see the way the celebrity status has diverged for the two artists by looking at the people that each has dated since the couple broke up back in 2002. Where Justin has continued to date starlets at or near the level of fame and general hotness that Britney was at back in the early '00s—Cameron Diaz, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Biel—Britney has increasingly retreated from the celebrity-couple spotlight, starting of course with her ill-fated marriages to childhood friend Jason Alexander and then backup dancer Kevin Federline, and continuing through her relationships with paparazzi Adnan Ghalib and agent Jason Trawick. It suggests that while Justin is still best able to find common ground with other A-listers, Britney feels more comfortable with people intimately involved in her personal and professional life than with fellow celebrities, the latter of whom are increasingly less likely to be able to relate to Spears' singularly weird life and career path.
The two are on such different ground these days in every way—once again, besides the fact that both are still exceedingly popular—that it's hard to imagine the two of them having an extended conversation, let alone a re-ignited relationship. Britney and Justin have both come a long way from the Mickey Mouse Club, no doubt, but the roads they've taken to adulthood have long since forked, and it's no surprise that they haven't even made contact in almost a decade. So cry over your old Total Request Live tapes and "BRITNEY + JUSTIN = FOREVER!!" notebook scribblings if you must, but don't expect a reunion between the two anytime soon.
For lots more pics, videos and up-to-the-second dish on Timberlake, be sure to check out his Popdust Artist Page.