Smooth operator: Timberlake onstage with a dancer at Motorpoint Arena. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Justin Timberlake, the 20/20 Experience Tour

“This is too good. Will the pleasure never end?” asks Kate Mossman as she witnesses the endothermic showman Justin Timberlake in concert in Sheffield.

Justin Timberlake
Motorpoint Arena, Sheffield

There’s an idea – peculiarly British – that flawless musicianship sometimes comes at the expense of soul. I think it’s something put about by non-musicians trying to deal with the sick feeling of seeing someone brilliant onstage. Watching a great musician is like watching a wire-walker. You’re jittery, elated, adrenalised – but what can you do about it, standing in the crowd like Soft Mick? I felt this way when I saw Dweezil Zappa at the Barbican in 2011, duetting with a giant, pixelated version of his dad: this is too good. Will the pleasure never end? And I felt it so much at Justin Timberlake’s gig in Sheffield on 30 March that I had to leave before the last song and retire to bed to watch YouTube clips of the tour instead, better able to contend with my excitement on a 12-inch screen.

Timberlake and his 11-piece band the Tennessee Kids are rammed in a tiny space at the front of the stage for the drinking song “Drink You Away”. One of the backing singers is on the floor, a leg folded under her; one of the horn players looks like John Shuttleworth; every musician is singing. This moment of carefully choreographed chaos, an unusual use of a vast, clean space, is one of several simple but innovative production tricks tonight. Another is the interval (every big show should have an interval); another is the moving Perspex runway hanging across the crowd, raking the entire arena front to back so everyone, at some point, gets a close-up look at Timberlake’s face.

Gigs of this size often feel like a one-way deal: pop royalty puts on wonderful pageant for the scrofulous masses, exits exhausted, does it all again the following night. But I can testify, from my position under the plastic rung, that Timberlake appears to be one of those rare endothermic showmen whose energy is continually topped up by little collisions with the crowd. His eyes dart from face to face and he bites his bottom lip like he’s trying not to laugh. It’s probably just the way he’s wired – he’s got ADHD – but he’s one of the only musicians I’ve seen who appears to be more lively at the end of the show than at the start, like some kind of strange Duracell bunny in spats.

Born in Memphis, he was a child star on the Disney show The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside a pubescent Britney, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling. After a stint with the boy band ’N Sync, he reinvented himself at the turn of the millennium with a slick 1970s soul-funk sound, just before everyone else started doing that kind of thing. He went into movies and established himself as someone with a brain through various satirical TV skits, including one in which he played Elton John singing a version of “Candle in the Wind” for Hugo Chávez (Saturday Night Live). Last year’s album The 20/20 Experience impressed the kind of people who call themselves “serious music fans” with its intricate, eight-minute, Quincy Jones-style soul-pop songs. When our distant forebears look back on popular music, they will not be able to distinguish between the best of his output – such as “Rock Your Body” – and a tune by Michael Jackson. His voice is a bit bleaty at times but that goes with the territory.

The Tennessee Kids rise from below the stage – congas first, shiny as a fire engine, then horns, each player sprouting up behind a little grey lectern, like tombstones in a cartoon haunted house. The string players backstage appear as huge shadows, reminding me of the scary brooms in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

The 20/20 Experience seems an appropriate name for a show that synthesises vast swaths of 20th-century pop culture, from speakeasies to James Bond, Prince to Stevie Wonder, and its recent incarnations in Janelle Monáe and Outkast. There are moments of musical trickery, such as when he folds the last chorus of Jackson’s “Human Nature” into his own song and passes it through a minor key. As he strolls at one end of the arena, John Shuttleworth and friends play Miles Davis’s “So What” casually at the other, as if it were an afterthought.

The crowd seems to be coping well with the high quality of the show: 20,000 people join Timberlake in a rapid-fire falsetto line about drivin’ in the car with the top down. He has won polls for being sexy, though I can’t see it myself – former child stars often remain curiously asexual, especially the males, so high of voice and smooth of skin. He is a pro golfer with a fashion line in what Alan Partridge might call “sports casual” and has endorsement deals with Walmart and Audi. But his recent film roles have played up the idea of unselfconscious dweebery to great effect – the polo-necked folkie in Inside Llewyn Davis, or his part in Bad Teacher, in which he dry-humps Cameron Diaz with a roar and a wet patch on his trousers. His charisma is physical. He does the dance routines, joining his chorus line for that sliding, moonwalky stuff – then breaks into freestyle, helicoptering round like Fred Astaire in Converse trainers.

By the time we get to the Afrobeat song “Let the Groove Get In” (yes, Timberlake also does an Afrobeat song), Motorpoint Arena has turned into a sprawling dance party with every audience member facing a different direction, grooving, wearing a trilby and holding a trombone (OK, not quite).

Where do we go from here, I ask myself, scanning for the exit in panic. Is this not the “whole of music” in one evening? What’s the point in anyone doing another gig, ever? Will the pleasure never end? I glance at my set list and see that Timberlake ends with “Mirrors”, which, I recall, is a particularly good song. Time to get out. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Tech Issue

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.