"I despise what they do," he says, leaning forward, in response to the Britney Question. There's a flush of red in his cheeks, but he stays meticulously on-point. "They create soap operas out of people's lives. We had our thing, and it's over. They edit that stuff like MTV edits reality shows. It's a spin game, and I choose not to take part in it."

Timberlake's skill at appearing to feel much but say little has served him well. It's not just his voice and hips and five-o'clock shadow that have transformed the one-dimensional ex-boy-bander into a legitimate five-tool stud. He may say he doesn't grasp the concept of "having a moment," but he clearly knows how to stoke the flames of one. Rule No. 1: Don't make an ass of yourself—at least not when the cameras are rolling. "I would never say anything bad about anyone," he says, winding down. His eyes scan the floor uncomfortably. Then he issues the safe statement: "I love a lot of those people."

A person as large as Tiny, Timberlake's man-mountain of a bodyguard, could get away with wearing this much pink. Shirt, tie, pocket handkerchief. When he tells the assembled catering crew, security guards, and ushers watching sound check to "clear the bowl," there is an immediate mass exodus.

Timberlake makes his way to the stage for a quick run-through with his band, working out bits of "What Goes Around . . . ," "Damn Girl," even Coldplay's "The Scientist," for an empty arena. Then he has one final bit of business: a few grip-and-grins with tour sponsors from Dell and awkward group shots with local contest winners.

"Somebody has to pay for this tour," he says over his shoulder. He dives in—pumping flesh, posing for photos, feigning being pinched in the ass by hyperventilating fans, accepting personalized Ohio State football jerseys that will end up slung in a corner of the management office—before heading back to the greenroom.

Timberlake is not a kiss-ass. Selling more than 13 million records has earned him a lot of rope, and he knows that. He relishes battles with his label, Jive, about single-release choices ("SexyBack" was his call. The label, he says, was "scared shitless"), dictates tour demands (no more than four shows a week), and claims he generally doesn't give a shit what anyone else thinks.

"I tried so hard to be an R&B artist [on his first solo album, Justified] and it was the pop album of the year, and I was like, 'Fuck. That's the last thing I wanted,'" Timberlake says, taking a swig from another can of cream soda. "But I was like, 'So everyone considers me a pop artist? Well, fuck it. I'm going to do whatever I want to do.'"

But moonwalking the line between manchild and hipster mascot is tough. On one hand, Timberlake beams when he recalls a recent article in the New York Times about punk fans who unexpectedly love him. On the other, he says he resents feeling like he owes indie rockers an apology for his candy-pop past. The internal battle is most evident when he talks about this year's Grammys. Weeks in advance of the telecast, he was asked to be the star of "My Grammy Moment," a cheesy, American Idol rip-off bit in which the winner of a contest got to perform onstage with him. Before the idea was fleshed out, Timberlake agreed. As the potentially disastrous plan hurtled to fruition, he ached to back out. He couldn't. "Because I'm the nice guy who follows through on the things he commits to," he says, a mock smile locked into place. "But I don't know if I'll be going through that sort of thing again. I feel like the Grammys used me for ratings. And look at it— they were up 18 percent."