Justin Timberlake turns 36 today. He needs no introduction but deserves credit as the biggest pop star of the twenty-first century. The pop culture environment is vastly different than it was in the late 1990s when he rocketed to fame as part of *NSYNC. Their albums No Strings Attached and Celebrity repeatedly broke records in the waning days of CD distribution. Jump to 2016 and Timberlake's summer hit, "Can't Stop the Feeling," was the year's most downloaded song. The singer's solo career has shown him capable of hopping genres and platforms as easily as if he'd created them, himself.
"Can't Stop the Feeling" also earned Timberlake his first Oscar nomination and second Golden Globe nomination, each for Best Original Song. The track was released for the Trolls movie soundtrack but its popularity wasn't at all dependent on the movie. Timberlake's diversity shows in his other award wins and nominations: multiple Emmys for acting and for music on Saturday Night Live, an Emmy for the opening song of 2008's ESPYs, a Golden Globe nomination for the song, "Please Mr. Kennedy," from Inside Llewyn Davis.
In the past several years, his film and TV career has been equally or more important than his music. He's received huge acclaim for his comedy acting on SNL and other late-night shows, especially with Jimmy Fallon. Standout appearances onscreen, like his part in The Social Network, also keep his name in the news and his music in people's ears.
He left *NSYNC seemingly at their most popular: just after their 2001 Celebrity release, the band went on hiatus but Timberlake capitalized on his fame by releasing a solo album, Justified. His album debuted at #2 and featured "Cry Me a River" and "Rock Your Body." Solo success lead to the infamous Super Bowl performance with Janet Jackson. Side note: Justin Timberlake coined the phrase "wardrobe malfunction" when he used it to apologize for the performance. So he's a wordsmith, too.
He's collaborated with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, even posthumously with Michael Jackson. His music has evolved and become more experimental, more mature, but always catchy and always designed to leap onto the charts. He displayed his talent by totally outperforming winner-of-the-night Chris Stapleton at the Country Music Awards.
With 9 Grammys since his first in 2004, he's undoubtedly one of this century's most acclaimed and successful artists. Yet he's managed to stay grounded in what sells and in what advances his career as it supports the popular form of the day. After a year that saw Chance the Rapper change the rules of the Grammys with his free music and even more success for social media performers, Justin Timberlake continues to thrive within the system, releasing albums and earning writing credits on film, TV and other artists' tracks. He's the century's biggest pop star because he has excelled in today's biggest categories of art. From boy band to global solo star musician and actor, his career represents the peak of success in the 21st century.