Justin Timberlake Talks Songwriting Secrets, Clichés, and Earrings

The multiplatinum recording artist shared stories from his two-decade career while on campus to receive an honorary doctorate.

May 17, 2019

When Justin Timberlake was 13, he wrote his first song. And what was the inspiration that first moved the eventual Grammy and Emmy award–winner to put pen to paper?

An earring.

The young teen wanted to get his ear pierced. His parents’ answer demonstrated how they subtly encouraged Timberlake toward a path in music. “My parents said, ‘If you write a song about it, we’ll take you to get your ear pierced.’”

This was just one of the many stories the singer, songwriter, and actor recounted casually from the stage in a packed Berklee Performance Center the day before he’d be given an honorary doctorate—along with Missy Elliott and Alex Lacamoire B.M. ’95—at the 2019 commencement proceedings. Before getting to those stories, he had an exceptionally hyper crowd to calm, as he walked out to an uproarious standing ovation that lasted almost two minutes without losing a decibel of volume.

Listen to a snippet of the crowd’s reaction as he was introduced by Panos Panay, vice president of innovation and strategy:

Favoring ripped jeans over a graduation robe, Timberlake sat for an informal interview with Panay and regaled the students in the audience with stories behind his hit songs, his collaborations with the likes of Madonna, and inking his first major deal with NSYNC—the latter of which he did at age 15, just two years after his ode to earrings. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

On Not Fearing Clichés

“People say, 'I don’t want to be cliché.' But clichés are the truth over and over again, so that’s okay. Because the truth is always what we need. Not always what we want, but it’s what we need.”

“Music vibrates. Music does move a vibration. And there are certain keys that move different vibrations. E-flat minor is one—it’s an awesome key to write music in. But also? C is a great key to write in. C is the cliché of musical keys because it’s true over and over again.”

“When you hear the opening C chord in ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling!’—that’s what I want. I want that [immediate excitement]. It’s not a science, it is an art."

On Gaining Confidence as a Songwriter

“I started to gain more confidence when I started working with [pop songwriting powerhouse] Max Martin. I was 16, and in a group that you may or may not have heard of. We [the members of NSYNC] had just signed a deal. I was 15 when we actually signed the deal. But I was 16 years old when they sent us to Stockholm to work with this group of hitmakers.”

“I was really lucky to be exposed at such a young age to [Martin's] tenacity… of just writing a song. Turning over every stone to see what could sound wrong and right at the same time, and the way they worked.”

“The most important thing you can do as a songwriter is listen. To really hear what’s happening.”

“Being cool is not a thing. It’s an un-thing. Be passionate, be angry, frustrated, or be sad, or happy—just don’t try to be cool. Your confidence will come from within. Just keep writing.”

[For "Can't Stop the Feeling!"]: “That song specifically—I just don’t know how I was so lucky to stumble into that idea. Every song feels that way. I could tell you where these ideas come from, but I don’t remember how, from that point, it ended up being finished. There’s this wave of creativity that rushes over you when you find inspiration.”

On Trying to Save the World with Madonna

“With Madonna, our writing process [for the song "4 Minutes"] was such that she had a journal. It was very personal. It’s a very personal experience to cowrite with people. The songs have to come from an honest place.”

“[To Madonna]: 'These lyrics are so heavy. Can we lighten it up a little?' And she said no—she’s Madonna; she can say no. And I finally was just like, 'Oh my God, we have four minutes! We can’t save the world in four minutes! [pauses] Ok, we’re gonna save the world in four minutes'—that’s what the song was gonna be.”

On Failure and 'Daring to Suck'

“I only have one rule in the studio: dare to suck. There are no wrong answers when it comes to creating art, because it’s only going to lead you to what feels good to you. And if you’re going to connect that to other people, it has to feel good to you first.”

“Life happens in the grey area. It happens when you’re misunderstood. That’s like, when the really good stuff happens. You can learn from failure and success. There’s never a wrong answer. I think we are defined by what happens right after we feel like we’ve failed.”