On the Couch With 'N SYNC: The Untold Story!
Inside 'N SYNC
The moves, the management, the
money, the magazine articles. What about the music? Request gets to the heart of
"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 from 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 in stride
and never pass up an opportunity for a little self-deprecating 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 lasting
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
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
the foreign service. By 1996,
the group was a hit in Germany, the
Netherlands, Asia, and Canada. At the time, rock 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 theses 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 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
When the dust settled, 'N SYNC moved to Jive
Records, and Jive renewed its distribution deal with BMG, a compromise that
benefited all three parties and allowed 'N SYNC to concentrate on making the
music it wanted to.
During the 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-deprecating 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 difference, 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 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 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," beams JC. 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 Getdown," 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
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 80's 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
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."
Just the Facts-
Degrees of separation: Both 'N SYNC and Mya
worked with Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes and She'kspere on their latest
Something Fishy: Lance Bass (pronounced like the fish) sings
bass and now lives in a fish bowl with his 'N SYNC mates.
That's Me in the Corner: Chris used to
perform solo acoustic renditions of REM and Pearl Jam songs in coffeehouses.
WWJD?: After becoming a huge hit in Europe, the band waited
almost two years to get American distribution for the record that has sold more
than 10 million copies.
Anybody's Best Guest- 'N SYNC's rock-solid
harmonizing makes the boys the guest vocalists of choice for a wide range of
artists. The popsters effortlessly cross genre lines into country (on Alabama's
version of "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You") and
R&B (with Blaque, proteges of Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes). Their
versatility even has landed them on movie soundtracks: They sang scat with Phil
Collins for Disney's Tarzan, and collaborated with
Gloria Estefan on the Oscar-nominated
"Music of My Heart."