The emancipation of N’Sync

The emancipation of N’Sync

In We’re No. 1The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. This installment looks at N’Sync’s No Strings Attached, which went to No. 1 on April 8, 2000, where it stayed for eight consecutive weeks.

In June, a We’re No. 1 entry on Backstreet Boys’ Millennium covered the salient (and salacious) aspects of the boy band’s rivalry with N’Sync—from the influence of MTV’s daily countdown show TRL and the clusters of Internet-based fandom to the nascent file-sharing phenomenon and the album sales wars between the two groups. N’Sync’s second proper studio album, 2000’s No Strings Attached, won the latter competition handily: The album sold a staggering 2.4 million copies in one week (more than 1 million of those were on the first day it was on sale), smashing the previous record set by Millennium

For the quintet—Justin Timberlake (the baby-faced blond), JC Chasez (the brunette heartthrob), Lance Bass (the unthreatening crush object), Chris Kirkpatrick (the alternative pinup), and Joey Fatone (the cuddly, slightly awkward outcast)—this milestone was significant. Besides being a commercial triumph, the success of No Strings Attached represented a major victory for N’Sync’s business interests. Prior to the record’s release, the group had left its former label, Trans Continental Records, and signed with teen-pop haven Jive Records, drawing the ire of (and a $150 million lawsuit from) plaintiffs including boy band Svengali Lou Pearlman, who founded Trans Continental. The court battle almost immediately turned nasty—Pearlman and his team sulked to MTV News that “it is absurd to think that now that the members of N’Sync have been made rich and famous, they can just turn their backs on Mr. Pearlman and Trans Continental and go someplace else”—and N’Sync ultimately countersued. Both sides eventually settled out of court in December 1999, which paved the way for the late-winter 2000 release of No Strings Attached.

The members of N’Sync freely admitted that the album’s title and music referred to their emancipation, and stressed in interviews that they weren’t mere “puppets,” despite their hottie boy-band status. Their indignation at having their talent undermined was understandable: Both Chasez and Timberlake were cast members on The Mickey Mouse Club, while Kirkpatrick and Fatone worked at Universal Studios, and Bass was a competitive show-choir veteran. This experience meant the group members could sing live and dance well (at the same time!), a skill combination lacking in other boy bands. 

During performances circa No Strings Attached, the group emphasized its free status. Live and video versions of “It’s Gonna Be Me” find the group busting out of doll packaging and transforming into real human beings, while other live footage from that era uses pointed children’s songs—specifically, the Pinocchio tune “I’ve Got No Strings” and the nursery rhyme “Pop Goes The Weasel”—to preface tunes. In the video for “Bye Bye Bye,” meanwhile, the band members play marionettes that are performing on a stage decorated with a plate that says “Libertas” (Latin for “liberty”). When the group is cut loose from its strings by the video’s devious female puppetmaster, it survives perilous situation after perilous situation. The message is clear: It is more than capable of holding its own as an independent entity.

But more than being a reaction to its former handlers, No Strings Attached is N’Sync taking control of its creative destiny. JC Chasez has four co-writing credits on the record, compared to one for Justin Timberlake, and with a few exceptions (the Jock Jam-caliber “Bringin’ Da Noise,” the techno-fried title track), the band distances itself from the blocky Europop and schlocky slow jams that brought it fame. The group recorded songs that highlighted its vocal strengths—including an album-ending a cappella song, “I Thought She Knew,” and a heartfelt R&B ballad penned by Richard Marx, “This I Promise You.” Another slow jam, “I’ll Be Good For You,” borrows elements from a timeless Teddy Pendergrass song, “Believe In Love.” 

Yet No Strings Attached also doesn’t overdo it with dentist-office tunes; the record’s music is whimsical and fun, and isn’t afraid to be absolutely ridiculous. The cybersex ode “Digital Get Down” boasts vocoder-augmented vocals and a drum ’n’ bass bridge, while the equally bizarre “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)”—which also appeared in the 2000 Clint Eastwood flick Space Cowboys—is a futuristic synth gallop with a jaw-droppingly clunky opening shot: “Here it comes, millennium / And everybody’s talking ’bout Jerusalem.” Other ambitious gambits fared better. Swedish songwriting powerhouses Kristian Lundin, Andreas Carlsson, and Max Martin merged their primary-color production and beat-heavy effects with funk flashes, orchestral stabs and hip-hop grooves on mega-hits “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me.” In fact, hip-hop is a prominent influence throughout. The team behind TLC’s “No Scrubs”—Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs and Real Housewives Of Atlanta cast member Kandi Burruss—produced the heartsick stutter-step “It Makes Me Ill”; Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes adds a fierce spoken-word bridge on “Space Cowboy”; and Teddy Riley himself produced a jazzed-up cover of the New Jack Swing staple “Just Got Paid.” 

The modern sheen of this music ultimately helped N’Sync differentiate itself from the Backstreet Boys. While Timberlake downplayed competition between the two acts in an interview after the album’s record-breaking sales week (“I don’t think we ever felt like we were in their shadow. We have our own thing going on.”), it’s hard not to see No Strings Attached as a response to Millennium. While the latter had the unstoppable “I Want It That Way” and “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely,” the former sounds younger and riskier. Even if it were a subconscious move, N’Sync’s No Strings Attached emancipation put the group on a bolder creative path, and established its members as adventurous pop shapeshifters. 

In this way, N’Sync had the advantage over Backstreet Boys. The latter’s next album, 2000’s Black & Blue, musically felt less forward-thinking; in fact, it felt more at home on mellower adult-contemporary stations or in front of a slightly older audience. N’Sync, meanwhile, maintained a youthful edge and thirst for innovation on its final album, 2001’s Celebrity. The Technicolor single “Pop” featured production work from BT and beatboxing from Timberlake, while “Girlfriend” had an appropriately sizzling Neptunes production. This spirit of experimentation and collaboration carried over into post-N’Sync efforts, from Timberlake’s nuclear-hot solo career to Chasez’s underrated 2004 solo effort, Schizophrenic

N’Sync is hardly the first boy band to rebel against its Dr. Frankenstein; groups such as The Monkees and New Kids On The Block wrestled creative control away from their advisors once they experienced success. But No Strings Attached was the most successful stab at mainstream relevance and a redefinition of the parameters of what a boy band could be. Ultimately, this leap of faith paid off: N’Sync stayed at the forefront of the teenpop revolution up until its breakup—and the group’s willingness to collaborate across genres and production styles created quirky, irresistible pop that still holds up today.

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