The moves, the management, the money, the
magazine articles. What about the music?
Request gets to the heart of the matter.
"The Backstreet Boys were busy, so they booked us!" jokes 'N Sync's Chris Kirkpatrick on the set of Saturday Night Live.
The 'N Sync boys have just finished rehearsal. Now they're taping promos for their SNL appearance later this week. They're the musical guests, and Dawson's Creek heartthrob Joshua Jackson will host. It may seem like they've arrived at the epicenter of pop culture. Actually, it's just another appointment in a long list of appointments, engagements, and promotions.
On this particular Thursday in New York City, the group has been working since 5 a.m. The guys started with two early-morning radio appearances. Around noon, they drop by The Rosie O'Donnell Show for an impromptu performance. Next it's SNL rehearsals, a Request interview, and a photo shoot. It's a crazy schedule, but they take it all in stride and never pass up an opportunity for a little self-depreciating fun.
They can laugh
about it now, but it takes confidence to joke about the copycat reputation that
has shadowed the group from the beginning. 'N Sync may have followed the
Backstreet Boys into pop superstardom, but the group's held its own ground,
outlasting a host of pretenders who have risen in its wake. Spending time with
the band makes it clear that Justin, Lance, JC, Chris, and Joey have taken
control of their music, their careers, and their lives.
That wasn't easy, either. Contrary to public perception, 'N Sync is not a hand-picked group. The guys first came together in 1995 in the teen-talent hotbed of Orlando, Florida, where the presence of Universal Studios, Disney, and MGM creates a constant need for young talents who can sing, dance, ,and act. Chris was working the theme-park circuit when he decided to form a pop harmony vocal group and recruited Mickey Mouse Club alumni Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez, who'd been writing songs together since their time on the show.
With the three tenors in place, Chris invited displaced Brooklynite and fellow theme-park refugee Joey Fatone to assume the baritone role. The lineup was completed by bass man Lance Bass, a true Southern gentleman who was a last-minute recommendation from Justin's vocal coach.
The five rehearsed relentlessly to perfect their harmonic blend. Eventually, they joined the Trans Continental Group, whose other clients, the Backstreet Boys, were conquering the charts in Germany. When the Backstreet Boys' label changed its distribution deal in Germany, BMG asked Trans Continental whether the firm had a similar band on the books. In a case of right place, right time, 'N Sync was quickly drafted into foreign service. By 1996, the group was a hit in Germany, the Netherlands, Asia, and Canada. At the time, rock and roll still ruled in the United States, but when 'N Sync came home in 1998 and released its self-titled RCA debut, the first two singles--"I Want You Back" and "Tearin' Up My Heart"--found instant favor on American radio. More importantly, the group became an early staple on MTV's Total Request Live.
That's where the similarities between 'N Sync and its pop peers end. The guys' average good looks are not male-model material, but their playful style and tuneful brand of upbeat heartbreak is a welcome contrast to the cool, lovelorn balladry of other, more musclebound boy bands.
When 'N Sync does venture into ballad territory, the group does it in unusual style. The video for "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time On You" turns a puppy-love song into a valentine for motherhood. The "I Drive Myself Crazy" video, a zany Alice Cooper homage, has the boys writhing around in straitjackets as they recover from busted relationships in a sanitarium.
Although these lighthearted promotional activities help keep things fresh for the group, the guys approached their second RCA album with no real enthusiasm. Sensing they were being pressured to repeat the same formula, they had trouble getting excited about the album's worth of material they had prepared. None of the songs reflected the group's desired direction, and in the end, not one of them was used for No Strings Attached. "We were going through a bunch of funky stuff, and we just weren't feeling anything that we were doing," JC says.
When the word got out that 'N Sync was contemplating an exodus from BMG, Jive Records (home of R. Kelly and Britney Spears) stepped up with an offer, even though that meant the band would face a breach-of-contract lawsuit from BMG. Lance says, "The president came to us and said, 'If there's any way you can get out of this, we can help. But you can't wait two years and fight this lawsuit and not have an album out or you'll be lost.'"
When the dust settled, 'N Sync moved to Jive Records, and Jive renewed it distribution deal with BMG, a compromise that benefited all three parties and allowed 'N Sync to concentrate on making the music it wanted to.
photo shoot for Request, the guys finally get some quiet time to rest and
relax. Suffering from a touch of food poisoning, Chris really needs the break.
Justin is busy with numerous phone calls. Joey is content to chill as he waits
for his close-up-shot. Even after the day's exhausting schedule, they're
genuinely enthused that talk steers clear of girlfriend gossip to focus on the
making of No Strings Attached. They're proud of the album, which they
controlled from concept to production to cover art. On the cover, they're
depicted as pretty-boy pop puppets. Like their SNL skit about a fictional
boy band called 7 Degrees Celsius, it's an example of the band's
self-depreciating sense of humor.
No Strings represents a hard-won badge of independence for these five singers. They found working without label supervision a rewarding creative experience. "Making [No Strings] was totally different, because we got to create it from scratch," Lance says. "Half of it was written and produced by us, and we got to choose the rest of the writers and producers."
To their credit, the guys refused to make the album a chronicle of the band's recent chaos and legal woes. Justin says recording No Strings gave them a creative outlet for their frustration and energy. "We went through a lot of things in this past year, but I'm so glad this album came together, because it really took our mind off of all those business troubles," he says.
Rather than revisit any of the tracks they had started recording at RCA, 'N Sync started over. "When everything went down, we put everything behind us, including all that stuff," JC says. "We probably could've taken a few songs, but we just wanted to start fresh, start new. Once we had the slogan, 'no strings attached,' that's when everybody got going."
JC, a budding producer who's been working with pop trio Wild Orchid, clearly relishes his new creative role. He thinks 'N Sync needed to depart from the typical boy-band philosophy. "Everybody's doing ballads, and it's not to knock 'em, but you can only take so many after a while. You need a change of pace, because that's what makes a ballad special." Lance agrees: "The easiest thing to do is to add ballads, because you can get the adult-contemporary market just like that. But we wanted to get the older market in a new way and with our own style."
To do so, 'N Sync created a trademark-worthy sound the guys call dirty pop. "We took our sound and just made it a little more urban, a little more street," Chris says. "It's got some dirtier beats in it, but it's still got the pop hook."
Lance affirms that 'N Sync has grown edgier. The lyrics, sometimes dismissed as lightweight, still portray the guys as dejected protagonists brimming with romantic angst. "I think it's just what's going on with us right now. We're right at that age," JC says. "When they're older, people talk about being in love and things like that, but people our age are struggling with it--being young and being frustrated."
'N Sync may have a dirtier edge, but on No Strings' closing song, an a cappella number called "I Thought She Knew," the boys don't stray far from their days of innocence. Produced by Robin Wiley who was the MMC vocal coach during Justin and JC's tenure, the song is especially personal to the group. "She's the lady who wrote it, she's the lady who literally gave 'N Sync our sound," JC beams. He credits her with sharpening the group's musicianship. "We asked her, 'Will you help us work on our blend?' because you've really got to concentrate at it and it's good to have a nice ear on the outside listening in."
JC has the most writing credits on No Strings Attached, including "Digital Get-Down," the tune that defines dirty pop. "It's pretty wild," JC admits. "The first half is like a party and the second half is like a hookup between a guy and a girl. But it can be taken more than one way because the whole thing is about being on [the Internet]."
Fans will be relieved to find 'N Sync hasn't changed everything about its record-making process. Stockholm, Sweden-based pop producers Max Martin and Kristian Lundin (who shaped the band's breakthrough hit, "Tearin' Up My Heart," as well as hits for the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and Celine Dion) have returned to the 'N Sync camp for hits like "Bye Bye Bye" and "It's Gonna Be Me." Big ballad queenpin Diane Warren ("Music of My Heart") contributes "That's When I'll Stop Loving You." In a surprise move, the group even collaborates with '80s pop star Richard Marx on "This I Promise You."
After the boys submitted their finished tapes to Jive, the powers that be offered only two suggestions. R&B hero Teddy Riley of Guy and Blackstreet was brought in to revisit "Just Got Paid," a cover of one of his first hits. R&B tastemaker Kevin Sh'ekspere Briggs ("No Scrubs" and "Bills Bills Bills") wrote and produced a new track with the critic-baiting title "It Makes Me Ill."
Even though that song delayed the album's release for two weeks, it's become the group's favorite. Huge fans of hip-hop, the guys wanted to give their own work some of that edge. The topic of hip-hop makes the illin' Chris perk up. "You know, I love a lot of the good hip-hop tracks--Tribe, Beastie Boys, all that stuff. I've got turntables, so I like to play with anything and everything."
As the photo session winds down, an exhausted Justin offers his take on No Strings Attached. "I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but I really feel like we took some big steps, and that we're trying to change the sound of pop music in general," he says. "But it's not just about the album, it's about the band and the music and everything that comes with it, because you're proud to make it, you're proud to give it to them, you're proud to perform the songs on stage, and everything. In the end, it's all about the music."