This week, Justin Timberlake scored his first Number One single in nearly 10 years with “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” If you haven’t heard it yet, don’t worry, you probably will. The song is built with the sturdiness and precision and menacing heft of a battleship. Everything about it seems constructed to fill your lungs and leave a smell on your clothes. The movie it’s promoting, Trolls, isn’t coming out for nearly six months. This is a weapon timed to conquer graduations and summers and eventually the entire holiday season. You are helpless against it. You cannot stop “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”
Today, May 18th, the song is perfectly fine. Maybe a little lightweight. Maybe even a little bit calculated and cynical (the exclamation point in the title really seals it), but, hey, so was “Let’s Twist Again.” I know we didn’t ask for a sequel to Pharrell’s “Happy,” but that felt good once, right? And this is for Trolls, so it’s essentially music for children. But, really, didn’t most of Ringo Starr’s songs for the Beatles all turn out to be great kids’ music? By June “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” will be irresistible. By July it will be excruciating. By August you will be begging Bruno Mars to do literally anything. September is likely the opening of Saturday Night Live‘s 41st season and there’s no way Justin Timberlake isn’t going to be gunning for Tom Hanks’ appearance numbers. Trolls is out November 4th. Awards season starts in February. Just dance, dance, dance, come on.
Producers and co-songwriters Max Martin and Shellback are no strangers to weapons-grade pop songs. This is Max Martin’s 22nd Hot 100 Number One, with a résumé that includes Britney, Katy, Taylor and more people who monopolize seasons and years. The last song to bear his production credit, Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” is still in the Top 20. If you were thinking about reading a “potential songs of the summer” listicle, the “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” songwriting credit alone — Martin, Shellback and Timberlake himself — could save you a few minutes.
It’s all a little frustrating because the song barely has an original bone in its wiggling, giddy, desperately optimistic body. From the video to the lyrics to the joyous message to the kid-flick synergy to the funky falsetto, the whole thing is basically Pharrell’s “Happy” for Trolls instead of Minions. But beyond that, there’s the disco-funk of fetishism of those guitars that Maroon 5 loved, the Curtis Mayfield fetishism of that clattering percussion that Robin Thicke loved, the Michael Jackson fetishism of those chord changes that Bruno Mars loved. Also, remember how Bruno Mars took a Trinidad Jame$ hook (“Don’t believe me just watch”) and made it even bigger? Well, Justin Timberlake says “wavy,” like Kanye West does, using the slang popularized by imprisoned rapper Max B. He says “no ceiling” like Lil Wayne. He is swagging up Trolls.
Basically “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” is all the old stuff we loved then and all the new stuff we love now. It’s a wedding dance that plumbs our collective memory to find the zeitgeist. Or something. You could probably plot its references and revamps and retro-retro-pilfering with data journalism; but chances are, whether you are in the demographic for Trolls or the parent taking someone, whether you are a pop dabbler or a deep chart nerd, there is probably something lovable here for you.
Will the retro Frankenstein “Feeling!” prove irresistible, filling us with that warm sense of “Happy”-ness — real or imagined — through what might turn out to be the most nightmarish election in the history of American democracy? Are we savvy enough to put aside our initial curiosity, which can drive a song to Number One in the streaming era? Will we resist the appeal of this suspicious pop gumdrop for rising moodier fare like Rihanna’s “Needed Me,” Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” or Future’s “Low Life”? Time will tell the tale — but the November release of Trolls is a long, long way away, which means a lot of chances for this to make you dance. Like Timberlake says, “Nowhere to hide when I’m getting you close.”