‘N Sync – Celebrity (2001)

Okay. Friends. We’ve been on this Boy Band Train for a long time now, have we not? We’ve seen it all. The highs, the lows, the cornrows. It’s a journey we have taken together, arms around shoulders, eyes forward to a better tomorrow. Three Backstreet albums, three *NSYNC albums. An entire Pop Saga beginning, now ending.

Wow. We did it! You, me, America. The World.

So I think now we are qualified to answer the eternal question: who won the Great Boy Band Battle? Street or Sync? Who escaped the tussle, bloodied and broken, with the Golden Teen Pop Ticket secured firmly in their gnarled, scarred fingers?

Well. In the name of pure objectivity, I will present the answer with raw, unquestionable data, gathered by America’s finest Post-Millennial Pop Music Scientists. Here is the truth.

Hold my hand.

Is that clear enough? Hm. Maybe not. Here’s another one:

Wait no. I’m not – this isn’t enough. Let me try again-

No. Nah. Fuck it ONE MORE GO

There we go!

Yes, *NSYNC were the winners in the Great Boy Band War. It is empirical, legal fact. You cannot argue with me on this. It is written in the stars.

Shhhh shh. Sh. I know. Calm down. This shouldn’t be a shock, sweet friend. No Strings Attached made it plain. Plainer than the plainest plain bagel.* There was no way the Backstreets were going to recover from that Earth-sized hammerblow, and they didn’t. Oh, how they didn’t. Instead they burned out famously with the duller-than-dogs Black & Blue and faded into endless night. Haggard forgotten Pop Ghosts, drifting away silent and sad. By Celebrity‘s release, the war was long over. Black & Blue was the Backstreet’s public burial, audible for the world to hear. Celebrity was Justin Timberlake’s dance on their grave.

So there. There. Let’s consider the matter settled, shall we? I know some folks still aren’t sure which group won, so many years after the fact. This included myself, for a while! But sit down and listen to all of these records, chronologically, back and forth. Backstreet, Sync, Backstreet, Sync. You will hear the answer. Trust me!

But hey. Buds. This review is not about the Backstreet Boys, and this will be the last time I mention them. This review is about *NSYNC, their final record, and the Apex of the Millennial Boy Band.

So. Outside of whatever “boy band war” we’ve dreamed up here, we should all be proud of *NSYNC. I know I am! Their first record was so by-the-books dull that it was hard to imagine them becoming anything more than another boy band bargain bin tragedy, but their goofball New Jack gambit No Strings Attached set them on the path to Teen Pop Totality. Which they deserved! *NSYNC succeeded for good, okay reasons. They quickly scrubbed away the dull thuddy schmaltz pop that muddied up their early sound and reinvented themselves as The Hunky Millennial Fashionistas, dipping and diving into funk and R&B and Eurodance with swan-like grace and ease. It was magnificent to behold. Yes, this includes Joey.

~Joey.~

So *NSYNC were, without question, at the top of the heap. Wigged-out Head Of The Class super successful. Perhaps it was inevitable that it couldn’t last. That God-killing success might wear them out. That the most popular boys in the group might want to pursue solo careers. That the least popular boys in the group might have been sick of being kicked around for so long. That they would burn out instead of fading away.

Spoiler alert for you. Celebrity, their 2001 follow up to No Strings, is (as of this writing) the last *NSYNC album ever released. The real end of the story. After Celebrity‘s release the Sinks had another solid year of touring before slinking into dreaded inactivitiy. By the end of ’02, Justin released his first solo record, Lance lost his shot at becoming a spaceman, and the group went on “hiatus.” Teen pop was dying. Boy bands were over. They were over.

I am getting this out of the way now because I think we all know this story. Right? We all know this was the end. I want to try and avoid framing Celebrity as the last will and testament of the Biggest Boy Band Ever because that isn’t what it is, really. Or at least it doesn’t sound that way. I am certain that *NSYNC did not view Celebrity as their “last” record in any way shape or form. 2001 was still a big year for teen pop, after all. If these boys had any misgivings about the future of their careers, it is not audible on Celebrity.

I want to throw all that stuff out ’cause Celebrity is quality work, and I want to focus on that quality. Unlike those boring ol’ fuddy duddies the Backstreet Boys (last time I will mention them, I promise), *NSYNC did not let their sudden whirlwind fame infect their brains and churn out a formulaic retread of No Strings Attached. Nope! These smart hunks knocked their buff, well-groomed brains together and thought “Hey! Let’s make a record better than the last one we made! Let’s grow as musicians, and perhaps as human beings as well!” Wow! Can you imagine that.

Now, there’s one big blunt dumb obvious reason for this musical growth. We all remember that educational graphic from my first *NSYNC review, don’t we? Of course we do. It’s – wait. No? You don’t? Ah.

Ah. Oh no, no. No, it’s ok. It’s – it’s fine. Fine.

Um, well yeah. Here it is again.

I guess.

Yes, we remember now. It is no secret that, while never said outright by anyone in the group or the group’s management, Mr. Justin Timberlake and Mr. JC Chasez were *NSYNC’s two lead dudes. They were the best singers, the most charismatic personalities, and the hunkiest hunks. Lance, Chris, and Joey were backup singers. Well all know this. This is how it worked.

But Celebrity takes Justin and JC’s leadership roles in *NSYNC a full step further. Because not only are they the only two solo voices heard on the record, they’re also two of Celebrity‘s primary songwriters – and, notably, the only members of *NSYNC to have any songwriting credit on the album.

And! Not! Only! That! But out of Celebrity‘s 13 tracks, only three of them are solely written by outside songwriters. One, two, three, that’s it! The remaining ten are all feature a credit from Justin and/or JC, with their own selected songwriting and producing partners. There is no other way I can say it: by asserting themselves as both the lead singers AND songwriters on Celebrity, Justin and JC effectively became *NSYNC. There is no other conclusion that can be made.

Why did Lance, Chris and Joey just sit by and let this happen? Were they frozen with jealously? Intimidated? Lazy? Not handsome enough? Or could they just not write songs at all, not even a little bit? I don’t know. The world may never know. Because the world will never bother to find out. And neither will I.

Now I know what you might be thinking. Timberlake and Chasez, the Lennon and McCartney of the boy band world? Timberlake/Chasez, hunky boy band collaborators? An unstoppable Hunkpop Duo in the making??

Ah, well. Not really, no. In fact, there’s only one track on Celebrity featuring a writing credit from both of them, and I suspect Timberlake didn’t have much to do with it. Everything else is either only Justin or JC, with their own separate teams of collborators.

Hmmmmm. Hm! Oooooh.

Oh gosh, the speculation. Goodness me. You think they were working against each other? Trying to see who could out-glitz the other? Who could lay down the hottest, hunkiest, teenage-girl-destroyingest beats? You think they worked in separate studios? Or maybe separate rooms in the same studio? Or NO – maybe separate corners in the same room! Recording different songs at the exact same time. Never taking their eyes off each other. Scowling. Smirking. Singing in each other’s faces. Trying to drown the other one out. Goddamnit, there can only be one! Only one True Boy Band Hero!!

But no. No. No matter how much angry, subtlely sexual Justin/JC fanfiction I write in my head, I don’t get the impression that they were bitter rivals. They sing on each other’s songs, after all! They were buds. They were fine.

Nevertheless, I feel the best way to review Celebrity would be to break its tracks down by songwriter. While Justin and JC aren’t shockingly different as artists, I think it’s only fair to give you an impression of what each hunk brought to the table in America’s True Autonomous Boy Band.

(For those of you who don’t feel like pulling up the songwriting credits, an easy way of figuring out who wrote which song on Celebrity is hearing whoever sings the first verse. That’s it! That easy.)

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way, shall we?

JUSTIN

Gosh. Maybe it should not have been a surprise to anybody that Mr. Timberlake became the big solo star to rise out of the boy band murk. The dude fuckin’ pulls his weight here, with a whopping six cowritten tracks to JC’s four. Not sure if Jive just put more of Justin’s songs on the record, or if the dude just wrote way more fuckin’ songs than JC. Both are probable! I like to imagine the latter. He was the prolific one.

I am not sure what brought this on! On No Strings JC had four co-written tracks and Justin only had one. And it was some dull ballad, to boot! I guess the sudden waves of intense, adoring famefuel must have empowered him. Something awakened inside young Timberman. The Namek Elder Guru put his hand on his head and unleashed his latent talent, increasing his Songwriting Power Level to a stunning 260,000.

Yes, yes. That is exactly what happened.

Justin’s dominance on Celebrity is the subject of some controversy, as Jive notoriously picked only Justin tracks to be released as the record’s singles. Not a single JC track made the cut. Rumor has it that Jive was banking on Justin to become *NSYNC’s solo star, which spurred him to kick-start his solo career, which in turn effectively melted *NSYNC at its very core. Likely true? Likely true.

So yeah, our discussion of Justin’s tracks will double as a discussion of Celebrity‘s singles. They are also, very likely, the only tracks on the record you are familiar with. Were Jive correct in their blatant Timberlake-centric favoritism? Were Justin’s songs that much better than JC’s??

Well, maybe a little.

For one thing, Justin co-wrote what might be the best single in Boy Band History, and perhaps – forgive my hyperbole – the One True Masterpiece of *NSYNC’s catalogue: “Pop.”

I don’t know who is primarily responsible for “Pop.” Timberlake wrote it with Mr. Wade Robson, who pops up on a few other tracks here, along with famed electronic producer BT. What I do know is that “Pop” is one big glorious fucked-up mess of a record. It is stunning.

“Pop” is what you might call a “meta” boy band record, likely the only one in existence. I am not sure if you recall, but around the time of “Pop”‘s release boy bands were not, how we say, beloved by critics. Or even the public at large! In fact, quite the opposite! They were viewed as faceless, talentless hunks on a good day, and the greatest scourge in the history of Pop Music as we know it on a bad day. They were typically help up as an example of everying that was wrong, wrong, wrong about modern pop. Shocking, I know, but true!

The glory of “Pop” is not just that it recognizes these criticisms in the first place, but that it responds to them not by trying to “legitimize” their sound, but by wantonly indulging in every ridiculous, over-the-top pop music production trick *NSYNC could possibly cram into the span of four minutes. Instead of appealing to their critics, Timberlake seeks to destroy them, to drown them in waves and waves of pure unfiltered modern pop until they die. Until they all die!!

Record scratches. Blippy corny funk bass. Thuddy beats. 8-bit chippy blips. Clipped stuttering vocal samples. Distorted “rawk” guitar solos. Epic synths. A thirty-second long Timberlake beatbox coda. There’s so much! And it just keeps happening! Jittering and moving and squawking and happening. Listen to the way Timberlake bites extra hard on the word “ice” when he sings “the ICE around my neck!” Yeah, he’s calling his necklace “ice.” Yeah, he can do that. Fuck you, Owen Glieberman!!

It is a painful sensory overload, and all the better for it. “Pop” is perhaps the one true Total Victory for boy bands everywhere, the most successful critic counterrattack in teen pop’s history. Whereas most hunk groups were content to sit idly by and let the fuddy duddies bring them down, Mr. Justin Timberlake fought back. And he won. He won!

Justin Timberlake, the Conquering Hero of Boy Bands all over the world. They should have been kissing his feet. They still should be.

In fact, “Pop”‘s only real flaw is that it is the very first track on Celebrity. Raising expectations awfully high, boyos. How do you follow up the glitzy Millenial teen pop equivalent of “Good Vibrations”? A track that feels like the be-all-end-all of pop music itself? How do you do it??

Well. Mr. Justin gets along pretty well by contributing Celebrity‘s two other Big Hit Singles: “Gone” and “Girlfriend.”

“Gone” is another good step forward. Another anomaly. It is what could be called a “ballad” but is more of a document of loneliness, a track that emphasizes downtrodden reflection over obvious sappy “come back to me, baby” emotion. It’s the polar opposite of “Pop” – instead of an overstuffed sensory overload, “Gone” is quiet and slow, coming close to actual silence near the end of each verse. Strings flow gracefully in and out, staying and leaving right when they need to. Justin’s lead vocals are restrained and pained, waiting ’til the end of the song to rise to a fever pitch. The boys’ backup vocals are almost a ghostly, invisible presence. It’s *NSYNC’s eeriest and most tasteful production.

“Girlfriend,” on the other hand, is another story. It’s the most Timeberlakeish Timberlake track on here. In fact, I would go far enough to say that “Girlfriend” is just a Timberlake solo track under the *NSYNC name.

I mean, it is! It’s a Justified track released a year too early. The vaguely Latin guitars, the whispered intro coos, the high-pitched Michael Jackson yelps? Oh, and y’know, the Neptunes producing. That might be a tip-off, too. The only thing discerning “Girlfriend” from any Justified track is the fact that JC takes the second verse. So if you’ve ever pined to hear a Timberlake solo track featuring Mr. JC Chasez, now’s your chance!!

So it’s an *NSYNC song in name only. So it was the last single they released in early 2002, effectively ending the group full stop. It is still an effective piece of work, and a confident introduction to one of the more prominent solo pop stars of the 2000s. Justin had the personality in *NSYNC, you see. He didn’t have JC’s sweet handsome golden vocals, but he had verve and spirit and flash and ambition. He was the charmer. He was the one that made ya laugh. He was more than just some boy band dude. He had another path. His fate was written in the stars.

Justin’s three non-single tracks aren’t as huge or memorable as the singles, but they’re not bad. Title track “Celebrity” is an aggressive, paranoid R&B take on the fleeting nature of mass fame. “See Right Through You” is a deep dancefloor groover featuring what has to be the first and last instance of a boy band saying “pissed off,” which has to be worth something. And “Something Like You” is a corny generic harmonica-driven ballad that would have fit right in on their 1998 debut, which is a little disconcerting considering the breadth of maturity Celebrity displays almost everywhere else. It’s unmemorable and harmless, but the fact that it shares album space with “Gone” is strange. It’s a boy band ballad delivered more out of album-filling obligation than anything else.

But y’know, Justin’s overall contributions to Celebrity are still monumental. Big, catchy, mature, complex singles that raise the stakes for his teen pop brethren. Dang, this is almost a Justin Timberlake solo record, isn’t it? It might as well be! What could Mr. JC Chasez hope to contribute??

JC

Aw. Our poor little man, JC. The man with The Best Voice in the group. The big friendly belter. Your warmest friend. C’mon, we all love JC, don’t we? We do! I know Justin gets all the attention nowadays, but man. JC was a sweet presence. He needed to be there. When Justin got too sexy or nasally or hoarse, JC would jump in with his Hot God vocals and bring it on home. We all wish we could have our own JCs by our sides, keeping us honest.

Creatively, JC’s contributions to Celebrity are not a far sight different than Justin’s. The two were always on a similar page creatively, and the seamlessness of Celebrity is a testament to that. But, y’know, JC didn’t have the ambition or personality of one Mr. Timberlake. He was overwhelmed here. Compared to Justin’s epic singles, JC’s tracks are a little smaller by comparison, a pleasing but inessential middleground. Solid, well-produced, well-sung non-singles that don’t do a whole lot. Unfabulous. Standard.

The odds were against Mr. Chasez. He only had four tracks on the record, and sadly, two of them make the same generic mistakes as Justin’s filler tracks. “Up Against The Wall” is another agressive dancefloor track, and while I kind of admire its punch, it’s a bit silly. “Mirror mirror on the wall / who’s the cutest one of all? / She’s underneath the disco ball! / Disco ball! Disco ball!” Hoo boy.

And “Selfish” is another dull boy band ballad. Another one. Another “This I Promise You.” Another “Sailing.” Another Richard Marx fluffer. Sheesh, one of these is too much, guys! There is zero effort here! You guys can toss these out in your sleep. It’s 2001. You have grown way past pap like this. And you’ve shown it, several times over! On this album!! Cut it out, stupids. Don’t make me grab your cheeks and mush your dumb handsome faces up. Don’t make me do it!

I’ve done it before!!

Thankfully, Mr. Chasez makes up for that troublesome twosome with two of the best tracks in *NSYNC’s short history. “The Game Is Over” is a glitchy get-down dancer in the same vein as No String Attached‘s “Digital Get Down,” and while it’s nearly as silly it is still a real improvement. Why? Four words: Pac-Man sound effects. Pac-Man sound effects everywhere! Bubbling under the track all the time. And the goofy warbly Pac-Man death sound plays every time the title pops up at the end of each chorus. Every single time. It’s phenomenal. It is a work of genius.

Would I like “The Game Is Over” nearly as much without that Pac-Man game playing constantly in the background? Why would you even ask that question. What’s the point. The Pac-Man sounds are there and we should all feel better, as humans.

If you think I’m giving JC a free pass on “The Game Is Over” out of its sheer silliness alone, you might be right. But that is not the case for “The Two Of Us,” my favorite *NSYNC song.

Gosh, what a sweet little song. Gosh, what a good way to write a boy band love song without making it a lockstep maudlin ballad. “The Two Of Us” is a rare commodity in the teen pop world in that it is a casual, simple, laid-back lover’s tune. It percolates with intimate warmth and affection but eschews standard dullardy with a skippy dance beat and those weird twirling carousel keys. It’s subtle! Subtle without being boring. Doesn’t sound like it’s trying too hard. A gem.

I wish all of JC’s songs were like this! I wish all songs were like this. Those other JC Celebrity tracks sound too much like he’s following Justin. “The Two Of Us” doesn’t sound like Justin. This is JC. Sweet, aw-shucks likable JC in all his boy-next-door happiness. It’s not huge and fabulous enough to be a single, but it is maybe the one perfect example of *NSYNC’s admirable leap in maturity over their three years as a popular music group. It is proof that teen pop can be mature.

A fun game you can play. Listen to “The Two Of Us” and then listen to “This I Promise You” again. Or “God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You.” Or “I’ll Never Break Your Heart.” Or “I Do (Cherish You).” Or “I’ll Be Your Everything (Go Go Gadget Remix).” Which one of these songs actually sounds like it is being sung to somebody the singer loves? Like, honestly truly loves with all of his heart? The answer is obvious. It should be obvious.

I love this song a lot. It makes me a better and happier person. Do you know how hard it is to write a song in the teen pop genre that feels intimate? Intimate and loving?

Fuck, JC. You fuckin’ idiot. You deserve a medal.

THE OTHER SONGWRITERS

So yes, we see that Celebrity is a showcase for Justin and JC’s newfound songwriting prowess. But let us not forget that we’ve got three whole tracks written by outside songwriters! Written by some familiar names, if you’ve been following Digital Get Down since the good ‘ol days of January 2012.

What do I mean by “familiar names”? Haha, well. Come on, guys. Take a guess.

AAAAAAAH

Yes indeed, Swedish Pop God Max Martin returns with his trusty sidekick Rami to produce and write “Tell Me Tell Me Baby,” a Eurotrash powergroove that sounds like an angrier, less catchy “It’s Gonna Be Me.” While it’s a solid piece of work, I would not call it Max’s finest achievement. In fact, in a shocking development, he actually gets one-upped on Celebrity by his fellow Cheiron Studios cronies with “Just Don’t Tell Me That,” another solid boy band grinder written by Kristian Lundin, Jake Schulze and Andreas Carlsson. Which makes Celebrity possibly the only boy band record where Martin’s presence is almost entirely marginalized. I never thought I’d see the day!

This is how far *NSYNC had grown by 2001. The fact that they would enlist songwriters from the top hitmaking teen pop studio of its time, have them only write two songs, and bury them near the end of the record without releasing either of them as singles? Woo. It was a gusty move, but one they were talented enough to pull off. Because their own songs were better!

Can you imagine any other boy band attempting that? Can you imagine if the Backstreet Boys had ditched “Shape Of My Heart” and released “The Answer To Our Life” as a single instead?? Oh goodness, they would’ve flopped so hard. Hard and fast. But *NSYNC could do it. Heck, they probably didn’t even need those two Cheiron songs. I imagine they only took them ’cause they thought it would be fun to step into those “Bye Bye Bye” dance moves again. Just for a lark.

And then there’s the final track, “Do Your Thing.” A track that raises two important questions: who the fuck is James Moss, and how did he write one of the secret best songs on the record?

This keeps happening. Surprise great final teen pop tracks. Hanson, B*Witched, and now these guys. “Do Your Thing” is a cute little ode to a subject the boys of *NSYNC understand better than anybody: being true to yourself and ignoring the haters, man. Pursuing your life goals and making your dreams come true. ’cause nobody else is gonna do it for you, fucko! Listen to the message of these wise twentysomething hunks! You have no excuses. Justin Timberlake is not letting you off the hook here.

But, y’know, it’s got the same sweet vibe as “The Two Of Us.” It’s cute. And it features what might be the definitive *NSYNC mantra: “Are you doin’ your thing and doin’ it well? / Are they lookin’ at your hate and sayin’ ‘oooh'”?

Goddamnit. Look yourself in the mirror tonight and ask yourself that question. I know I have.

BOTTOM LINE:

Wow. So that’s all of Celebrity, man. Which means that’s all of *NSYNC. The end of America’s Most Fabulous And Ambitious Male Pop Group. That’s it.

But hey. Hey. Chin up there, little boys. Celebrity is a more than respectable way to bow out of the pop music race. While it doesn’t represent the genre at the peak of its glory the way Millennium and No Strings Attached did, I can confidently say that it is the finest boy band record of its time.

I had ideas of what I wanted Celebrity to be, in my head. I freely admit this. After the glamour blitzkreig of “Pop” I was hoping the rest of the record would follow suit, with *NSYNC tearing themselves apart in a drugged-out auto-destructive glitzhaze. Which is why hearing boring lame ballads and Cherion Studios throwaways kind of hurt me, at first.

But man, they’re still a boy band. What would a boy band be without the Swedish dance and the corny love croons? Celebrity functions both as a tidy 49-minute summation of everything a boy band is, and everything that makes one good. It’s also, I would wager, a solid argument for *NSYNC’s general excellence as a pop group in general. If their first two records bordered on teen pop trifle, Celebrity does not. These guys bowed out by grabbing hold of their music and making something good. A good way to go!

So yes, that is the end. But we’re hardly done with the Story of the Sinks just yet. Because by the end of 2002, that handy-dandy face graphic had changed one more time…

UH OHHHHHHH

*I can’t believe I kept this sentence in the review

(P.S.: The follow video is *NSYNC’s appearance at the 2001 VMAs. You kind of have to watch it.)

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