This is a learning experience for me. Digital Get Down, that is. Every new review I write, I learn something new. Forgive me if I’ve said this before. I’m still learning.
Here’s the lesson I learned this week: my trepidation in reviewing the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium a few weeks back? Thinking it was The Biggest Boy Band Album Ever (TBBBAE) and that it was all downhill from then on? Wrong. Unfounded. Bullhickey. Bzzzzzt.
While we’re at it, I would like to submit a formal apology for the following excerpt from that review:
“Boy Band History after Millennium is mostly just malaise, earth-tones and soul-crushing anonymity. And what’s more fun than that??”
Oh ho hoho. You know what’s more fun than that, mid-February Sean Rose? Mid-March Sean Rose pointing out that you are wrong and a God-fucked dummyhead. That’s right. It’s almost spring where I’m at, doggo! I got sweet sunlight and I am in the right. You think Millennium was the Biggest Boy Band Album Ever? You do? Is the snow sucking the brain out of your ears too hard for you to notice ‘N Sync’s butt-crushing megahit No Strings Attached waiting right around the corner??
Gosh dangit, you tit-witted tinyman. Get a haircut already.
Right. No Strings Attached. Let’s talk context for a second.
We remember ‘N Sync’s first album, right? Sure we do. While it was a big fat hit almost immediately upon its release in late ’98 and swiftly established the group as the premier rival to kings among men the Backstreet Boys, it was a record that was perfectly content to tow the line and follow the formula of pretty much every late-90s teen pop record that came before it (most notably, the Backstreet Boys’ first record in America). You had your Swedish-written pop singles, your jock jams, your corny ballads, your inexplicable covers of 70s mom-rock. Standard stuff.
Oh sure, they had the sweet voices of Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez in their corner, and those Max Martin-written singles were pretty snazzy, and that video for “I Drive Myself Crazy” had every American convulsing on the rug with hearty laughter. But despite all that, ‘N Sync did not do much to distinguish themselves early on, and accusations of them being a Backstreet Boys clone were fair game.
And then, you know, you have Millennium, the first significant boy band megahit of the late 90s. The first blockbuster. The Giant. Millennium was crafted as the all-things-to-everyone prototypical Boy Band Record, designed to storm the charts and take no prisoners. It was an act of pure dominance, and I don’t think there was too much for ‘N Sync to do outside of keeping a low profile and taking their licks. Millennium made 1999 the year of the Backstreet Boys, and no other boy band could even hope to compete.
I was almost gearing up to call 1999 an “off-year” for ‘N Sync, but that’s not really the truth at all. Boy bands in general were still a hot property, and they kept busy. But if we’re talking about singles and singles alone, well – what is there to say? There were a couple of big hits leftover from ‘N Sync, but they dried up halfway through the year. And after Millennium saw release, the boys decided to stick to movie soundtracks, with their biggest of that summer being the super-schmaltz Gloria Estefan duet “Music Of My Heart”:
…and later in the fall, a contribution to the Pokemon: The First Movie soundtrack with the super-duper-schmaltz of “Somewhere, Someday”:
Oh, and they also did sang a song about jungles or something with Phil Collins, somewhere in there:
This was all during Backstreetmania, mind. “I Want It That Way.” “Larger Than Life.” The Backstreet Boys had the biggest and brightest hits of their career, while ‘N Sync had a couple of leftover singles and a bunch of corny movie ballads. How could they even hope to compete??
Ok, again, I’m making this sound like ‘N Sync were falling off the radar or something in 1999. They weren’t. I was alive in 1999 and they were fucking everywhere (or at least it seemed like they were, thanks to my obsessive sister). But Millennium had set the standard, and I don’t think many insiders expected the Syncboys to rise up to the challenge. Bunch of goofy blonde BSB wannabes – what are they gonna do? Record their own “I Want It That Way”?? I’d like to see them try!! Pshaah!!
Well, no. Not quite.
TWO THINGS THAT ‘N SYNC DID BEFORE THE RELEASE OF NO STRINGS ATTACHED THAT WERE IMPORTANT THINGS THAT THEY DID
In the year and a half or so leading up to the release of No Strings Attached in mid-2000, ‘N Sync did two important things:
1) They ditched this dude:
Yes, that is the one and only Lou Pearlman, creepnotoad boy band impresario. After the band set a precedent in teen-pop independence by suing him and Trans Continental for illicit business practices, they signed with Jive Records and never looked back. As far as I can remember, the Backstreet Boys and many other acts were still the property of Lou at this point, so a boy band actually taking the reigns and suing the fuck out of the Boy Band King himself was a pretty big deal at the time.
2) They, erm, recorded No Strings Attached.
See, the reality is that ‘N Sync’s run of schmaltzy ballad hits were a feint. A con job. A guy with a sheet over his head shouting “BOO!” before running up a flight of stairs and falling down. Because while the Backstreet Boys were kicking every American in their collective groin with each Millennium single that saw release, ‘N Sync were consolidating their power deep, deep underground in a Jive Records bunker, crafting the one true Biggest Boy Band Album Ever.
But No Strings Attached was not a Millennium clone. No sir. With their newfound independence, I believe ‘N Sync were itching to one-up the competition on their own terms – not with standard lockstep songcraft and sweetheart ballads, but with SEXY DANCEO FUNKMOTRON SOULLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL
UNF UNF UNF UNF UHUH UHUH HAHA
NO STRINGS ATTACHED: BRINGIN DA NOISE (AND LOTS OF MONEY FOR RICH WHITE OLD PEOPLE)
So. No Strings Attached was a lot of things, but here’s one thing it wasn’t: a critical success. Critical reception to the record upon its release was more than a little lukewarm. Entertainment Weekly gave it like a C- or something. Who cares.
But that shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody. Boy band records are not made for five-star reviews. No Strings Attached is less recognized now for its musical merit and more for its chart-demolishing sales records. A cursory glance at the album’s Wikipedia page reveals a lot: one little blurb under “Criticisms,” and a fucking novel under “Sales and chart performance.” And for good reason – the record sold a whopping 2.42 million units in America upon its first week of release, setting a record that is still unmatched today. An Entertainment Weekly writer memorably referred to it as “perhaps the greatest mass spending of allowances in history.”
I’d prefer to not turn this review into a treatise on the rise of digital media and the slow demise of the music industry starting at the turn of the millennium. Pre-9/11 et cetera et cetera yah blah pooey. We can talk about all that later. I will just quickly point out that No Strings Attached was riding high at the end of the CD era, at a time when in-store album sales still really, truly meant something. This is a record that is, to this very day, viewed as THE high point in the existence of the record industry. I imagine so many down-and-out record executives must still cry into their throw pillows embroidered with Joey Fatone’s face every time they look at the plummeting stats of music sales since No Strings Attached‘s release.
So, in the wake of its massive sales reputation, can we even talk about the actual music on No Strings Attached??
Well, um. Yes.
THE FIRST TWO SINGLES
This is always a convenient place to start, isn’t it?
So right off the bat, No Strings Attached steals a move from Millennium (and, err, pretty much every other pop release of the time) by starting the record off with its two big, big singles. A straight up one-two power pop punch. While Millennium has its big-deal singles “Larger Than Life” and “I Want It That Way” right at the start, No Strings Attached matches it beat for beat with “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me.”
A couple of things to note. One, both of these tracks were written and produced with members of the Cheiron Studios team, the same Swedish dudes behind most of the Backstreet Boys’ hits and countless other teen pop acts of the time. These are also the only two tracks these guys worked on – they’re benched for the rest of the album, which is kind of a marvel given their ubiquity in the teen pop market of the time. But they still get the two biggest singles on the album, and, well, possibly the two best songs of ‘N Sync’s career.
Oh yes. Yes. I could blabber on about the indomitable hooky power of “Bye Bye Bye” all night. I mean, it came out months before No Strings Attached saw release and might be the primary reason so many teenage girls were driven into a frenzy to buy the actual record. Gosh, who could blame them?? But I need to talk about the real star of the show here, and that would be “It’s Gonna Be Me.”
Oh you know what I’m going to say. The guy who wrote this one? The head honcho himself. Our King. The shark tamer. Mr. Max Martin himself.
I know. I know I have a Max Martin bias here, but listen – this guy has only one fucking song on this record and it’s easily the best track ‘N Sync ever recorded. Like a fucking thief in the night, this guy!
I mean, it already says a lot when the guy primarily known as the writer of every great Backstreet Boys hit turns around and hands ‘N Sync a song that might be better than all of them. I cannot imagine a bigger “fuck YOUUU” to the Backstreet Boys than their primary rival snatching their best songwriter away from them for an even bigger hit. Gosh, that must have hurt Howie’s heart. Poor Howie.
But what’s even better is that “It’s Gonna Be Me” is not a song the Backstreet Boys could have pulled off. It’s wiry, aggressive, almost high-strung. Check out Justin’s weird beat-boxing before every verse. Those pops. That rising, heart-rending Max Martin chorus. You can tell that this was a track written for ‘N Sync, and not just for a boy band. As much as I love BSB, almost anybody could have sang “I Want It That Way.” But what would “It’s Gonna Be Me” be without Justin and JC??
Their only number one hit. And a music video that rivals “I Drive Myself Crazy,” if you can believe it! ‘N Sync gettin’ roped by Barbie dolls!!
THE FUNKY NEW JACK DANCEHOUSE (AND THE FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHT, ‘SPECIALLY WHEN WE RIP IT IN HALF)
So here’s where things start to change.
You know how Millennium followed up its first two major tracks with the come-down moodiness of “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely”? You’d think ‘N Sync would want to pull the same move after the high-wire power of “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Nope. From the moment the ridiculous superfunk of “Space Cowboy (Yippy-Yi-Yay)” kicks in, it becomes plainly obvious that the Syncboys are not interested in “taking a breather.” No siree. They’re here to funk your shoes off!!
See, this is why No Strings Attached pushed ‘N Sync ahead of the Backstreet Boys, once and for all – its unabashed embrace of modern R&B and its willingness to stray, ever so slightly, from standard soft boy band formula. With the exception of the a-capella closer “I Thought She Knew,” No Strings Attached has only two ballads. Fucking two. Every other track dabbles in jittery goofball funk, neo-New Jack Swing and smooth R&B, delivered with utmost commitment and sincerity. ‘N Sync kept up with the trends, dudes. They wanted to be fly. Funky fresh. And they damn near pulled it off, too!!
A lot of the aforementioned goofball funk can be pinned on one JC Chasez, who lands a songwriting credit on some of the best (and silliest) songs on here, including the bizarre circa-2000 cybersex anthem “Digital Get Down” (featuring – I shit you not – dial-up modem sound effects) and the over-the-top party anthem “Bringin’ Da Noise” which is kind of like “Here We Go” on steroids. But he also landed the energetic title track, which is in the running for my favorite ‘N Sync album-only cut (although, to be fair, there are not many other candidates).
And, then, you know, there’s Justin. Oh sweet Justin. While JC has more songwriting credits and the two share lead vocal duties like usual, No Strings Attached offers the first couple of glimpses into his eventual solo stardom. Please note his lead vocal on the TLC-esque “It Makes Me Ill,” an introduction to his cocky R&B-flavored snarling. Also please doubly note the smooth-as-a-butt “I’ll Be Good For You,” which features Justin’s first songwriting credit on an ‘N Sync record and sounds like a dry run for Justified:
Oh gawrsh is that smooth. And not in a boring Christopher Cross way! These boys, they’re learning. It warms my old heart.
…BUT OKAY LET’S GET THE BALLADS OUT OF THE WAY
Listen. I think this blog is making it look like I hate ballads. I don’t! I don’t hate ballads. I just dislike awkward, over-produced, manipulative ballads that are shoved into the middle of a hott funky dance record and ruin the whole party. The whole thing!!
Whatever. “This I Promise You” is okay. It just sounds more in line with their 1999 string of ballads and doesn’t really fit the vibe of No Strings Attached. This is a record that is all about energy and forward momentum, and “This I Promise You” immediately sucks all of that out. But it was a big fucking hit, so what do I know?
But I will say this. Even if the Diane Warren-penned “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You” feels similarly out of place, the fact that it swells into an 80s-style power ballad by its finale – replete with hot rockin’ guitar solo – is a ballsy and wonderful move that I never expected from an ‘N Sync record. Kudos, you beautiful idiot boys. Kudos.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
I mean, this is it, guys. Without getting too hyperbolic, No Strings Attached was the record that signaled the end of the boy band era. It was a right-hand lead to the Backstreet Boys that I don’t think they saw coming, a blow they would never recover from. It was the real boy band blockbuster, the high water mark, the biggest teen pop record of its time.
But I mean – it doesn’t really sound that way, to me. Sure, it’s two big singles are big and catchy and great, but it doesn’t feel like it was designed to take over the world the same way that Millennium clearly was. But I think that’s a positive sign, as far as ‘N Sync themselves were concerned. In its committed strangeness and deepened R&B production, No Strings Attached was the first boy band album from that time that sounded like the group themselves had some real input, like they were really making the music they wanted to make. And it deservedly transformed ‘N Sync from a bunch of softy BSB also-rans into America’s pre-eminent modern boy band.
At least for, like, a year or so.
Well, gosh. I guess NOW my fears are founded, right?? The two Biggest Boy Band Albums Ever, In The Bag. Should I shut the blog down?? Is this it?? Or will my mid-April self discover an even bigger record to mock my mid-March self with??
Gosh! I’m tired.