On a fated summer’s afternoon in 1995, a fresh-faced 24-year-old Christopher Kirkpatrick met with boy band Svengali (and future jailbird) Lou Pearlman to exchange a few words about starting a pop group. Lou agreed to help little Chris out if he found some more vocalists on his own, and the plucky young man quickly enlisted the help of fellow popboy hopeful Joseph Fatone Jr.. After scouring through some audition tapes, the boys were compelled by a Mickey Mouse Club tape featuring the sweet freshface of one Justin Timberlake. The boys snagged Justin, Justin snagged fellow Clubber Joshua Scott Chasez, and then they all snagged some guy nobody cares about before he realized he was in a boy band and left and was replaced by one James Lance Bass. Inspired by a comment from Justin’s mom about how well their voices meshed together, the group (or Lou, maybe, probably) dubbed themselves “‘N Sync,” and the rest – as they say – is history.
Or – well, no! No. No it isn’t. Oh goodness I’m sorry.
The real story here is that ‘N Sync (or *NSYNC or NSync or however else you want to write it out) were conceived as another cookie-cutter late 90s Boy Band marketed in the United States as the primary competition to the Backstreet Boys. “In the United States” is the important part there – both groups were actually formed around the same time in the mid-90s and broke into Europe around that time as well – but because the Backstreets hit it big in America first, ‘N Sync were largely viewed as Johnny-come-latelys when their self-titled debut record was released in 1998. The first in a long line of Pearlman-coached assembly-line prettyboys designed to hustle the allowance money of suburban 11-year-old girls across the globe.
Was this a fair assumption?? Well, uh, yeah. Sure.
But let’s ignore crass commercial concerns for a moment – all teen pop, at its very core, is designed for mass commercial appeal. It goes without saying. The truth is that ‘N Sync, despite what your dad told you when you were 12 (and every rockist record store obsessive when you were 17), were different from the Backstreet Boys – and most other boy bands, for that matter.
How were they different?? Well, aah. To be fair a lot of ‘N Sync’s real distinguishing characteristics wouldn’t flourish until around the turn of the millennium and aren’t really worth discussing just yet. Maybe when we hit up No Strings Attached. But by ’98 there already was one thing that set them apart – in the eyes of the public (and Jive Records suits, I assume), this was ‘N Sync:
It’s ironic that Chris Kirkpatrick and Joey Fatone were the originating members of ‘N Sync, considering how quickly they became the two members that nobody gave a right shit about (with the exception of “THE FAT ONE LOL” jokes at the expense of poor Joey). No, ‘N Sync was really only about the boy-toy power duo that was Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez. Nobody else.
How was this fair? Why were THEY chosen? What wanton act of record-label favoritism pushed these two hunkfaced dumbo nobodies to the forefront while the other guys sat around in the background??
I mean, beyond the fact that they were the best singers. And the most interesting personality-wise. And the best looking.
And the least dad-like.
A LTITLE BIT ABOUT JUSTIN AND JC SINGING-WISE
OK. I could go on and on about Justin Timberlake’s eventual ascent into pop-culture idolatry here, but you know all about that I’m sure. So let’s talk about singing. In terms of sheer vocal prowess, teenage JT was never a powerhouse singer, but what he lacked in pipes he made up for with an excess of verve and gritty naivete. Not the best singer ever, but loads of personality. Like a better Nick Carter. You remembered his voice after you popped your CD tray open and threw on Eagle Eye Cherry or whatever else folks listened to back then.
But if you’d like Sean’s Two Cents, the real vocal talent in ‘N Sync was one hunkamanaic JC Chasez.
For my money, JC had the best and most distinctive voice of any boy band in the late 90s, mostly due to just how gosh-darned sweet and likable it was. It’s an inviting voice. JC managed to sound like a nice sweet buddy without being boring, which when paired with Justin’s cocksure snarl made for a combination that small girls all over the world could not hope to resist. These two dudes are almost single-handedly responsible for ‘N Sync’s massive success.
Oh, but it wasn’t always this way. Check out early single “Together Again” (not included on ‘N Sync) and marvel at the wonder of Chris and Joey actually getting a verse each:
But even here, you can tell those poor boys don’t stand a chance. Heck, Joey can’t even get through his verse before his perfectly-pleasant-but-almost-embarrassingly-middle-of-the-road voice gets railroaded by JC’s God-powered teen yelps. By the time ‘N Sync was released, Justin and JC were singing pretty much everything – maybe Chris would grab a verse here and there, and Lance would pitch in a goofy low-voiced part for variety’s sake, but every lead vocal fell on those two top dudes. The rest of ’em became backup singers.
But in 1998, did it really matter? ‘N Sync, despite some distinctive vocals, was pretty standard mid-90s teen pop fare. In fact, it’s so naggingly similar to the first Backstreet Boys album that it’s no wonder critics and parents alike thought this stuff was assembly line pap. It hits the exact same late-90s pop notes, the exact same necessary motions.
Let’s discuss these similarities??
THE MAX MARTIN SINGLES
Just like The Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync owes a lot of their early success to a couple of solid singles co-written/produced by King of Boy Bands Max Martin. While I’m not sure if they’re quite as strong as those early BSB hits, they’re still a few notches above most bland boy band pablum from around that time (and they’re both definitely better than “We’ve Got It Goin’ On”). Kind of dated production-wise, but each with a tinge of patented Martin dramatics and a couple of typically big shiny hooks. Even when his heart wasn’t in it, Martin knew how to write some fucking hit singles.
Sweet Max wouldn’t spend too much time with the Syncs in the future – he could never betray his real loves, the Backstreet Boys – but he would throw them a few more tracks here and there, including possibly the finest single they would release. But that is for another time.
MID NINETIES JOCK JAMMY “WHOOMP THERE IT IS” DERIVATIVES
What would a mid-90s boy band record be without these? “Here We Go” stands tall in the “self-mythologizing get-on-the-basketball-court-and-jam-with-us-white-boys party anthem” category, sharing space with the likes of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “S Club Party” (this was a strangely popular trend). “Giddy Up” and “You Got It” go the same route with less interesting results, and “I Need Love” is almost embarrassingly (yet adorably) dated 90s dance pop.
None of this does much to establish personality. You’re not going to remember these songs after hearing them once. Can you even tell who’s singing??
THE LASER-GUIDED SCHMALTZ CRUSH
Oh, and who could I forget the schmaltz. “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You,” despite having one of the great ridiculous boy band song titles, is right up there for me with “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” in terms of sheer sap-happy sweetness. Its chorus hook isn’t nearly as God-like, but it’s nice nonetheless and brings back plenty of sweet 6th grade memories. And has an appropriately tear-jerking music video.
“For The Girl Who Has Everything” is also on here and why would any American care. Save it for the Germans, boys!!
SINGLE THAT DOES NOT FIT INTO ANY PARTICULAR CATEGORY BUT I WOULD LIKE TO TALK ABOUT IT PLEASE THANK YOU
“I Drive Myself Crazy” has always stuck out as a favorite of mine, and for the life of me I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly pleasant song, but not necessarily one of their best. Maybe it’s because of Chris K.’s only notable solo vocal on the opening verse, or JC’s impassioned “WHYYYYY didn’t I know it??” in the bridge. But honestly I think it’s just because I like that god-damned music video so much. It’s funny! It takes the title of the song literally, to hilarious and heart-warming effect! Joey has a Superman cape!!
What fun. What fun. There’s another difference for you – while the Backstreet Boys were typically pretty morose and self-serious in their videos, the Syncs were a bunch of goofballs.
(Fun fact: I once found a list online of “The Worst Music Videos Of All Time,” and “I Drive Myself Crazy” was near the top. I almost emailed the author of the article to complain. Because really now.)
COVERS OF… UA.. AH…. WAIT WHAT? YACHT ROCK??
OK here’s where things get weird. Here’s where I need help. Is there anybody out there who could enlighten me as to why this group of young modern hip-hopping 90s boys decided to cover mom-approved soft rock mainstays “Everything I Own” and “Sailing”? Sure, the Backstreet Boys covered “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss” on their first record, but that was PM Dawn. That was firmly in their R&B wheelhouse. But fucking Bread and Christopher Cross??
What happened here? Was Lou Pearlman a fan? Was Justin trying to make his mom proud? Was some record exec looking to unload some dusty CD copies of Baby I’m-a Want You on some unsuspecting teenage girls?? I need to know, because I know for certain that no teenager in the mid-90s wanted anything to do with this parent-approved garbage. This isn’t teen pop – this is anti-teen pop, I tells ya!!
But it doesn’t end there. On their first international CD, these boys decided to Dad It Up Summore with an a-capella rendition of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling”:
I just… I need an answer. Please email email@example.com with answers as to why these songs are on this record. Or I will die alone tonight and it will be all because of you.
It’s OK everyone. This is just the beginning. ‘N Sync doesn’t make much of a case for male-vocaled teen pop as anything but middle school fodder, but this would soon change. Not unlike the Backstreet Boys, their sophomore record would put them on a distinctly different path, and they would thankfully leave behind bland basketball anthems and baffling old person covers forever. But until then, we have each other.