According to McGill University professor Daniel J. Levitin, musical taste solidifies at the age at 14. (This would explain a lot in my case.) He states: “Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.”
I’m going to spend the next few sentences respectfully disagreeing with Professor Levitin, simply because this happened earlier for me — and many other media-stuffed children at the turn of the century. At the age of six, one particular musical identity was thrust upon young minds so clearly and definitively; it was pop propaganda. In the year 2000, you were either a Backstreet Boy or you were undoubtedly, irreversibly *NSYNC, and there was really no way to escape the binary. The big brands enforced it — McDonald’s sold an *NSYNC live videocassette and CD combo, while Burger King sold their own VHS/CD wares for the Backstreet Boys. Nickelodeon Magazine ran a cover story on the former, while the Disney Channel ran their exclusive live footage of the latter. Much like the duality of choices thrown at us in post-Y2K panic for nearly everything — it was either PlayStation or Nintendo 64, Disney World or Universal Studios, etc. — this boy band rivalry proved to be more formidable than anything at 14.
Never mind this intense, media-fueled spat was confirmed as simply a hype machine, it was easy to pit these well-groomed quintets against each other. Their debuts were both eponymous — although the Backstreet Boys reissued and resequenced their 1996 self-titled record in the States a year after. Both were managed by the same venture, Trans Continental, and traded signatures with its primary operator Lou Pearlman — in the midst of a developing $300 million Ponzi scheme, but we’ll return to that in a bit. Their landmark LPs, Backstreet Boys’ Millennium and *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached toppled previous first-week sales records and placed both acts as some of the best-selling boy bands in history. In the case of the latter release — issued almost a year after Millennium — its first-week sales of 2.4 million units doubled Millennium‘s 1.14 million, with several shoppers buying multiple copies to help unseat the group’s labelmates. The sales war was clear, a constant battle to beat one another at their own game.
If Millennium is the call, No Strings Attached is the response: both records, each containing a dozen internationally-produced tracks, led with a pair of their biggest singles. And if Millennium‘s “Larger Than Life” — teen pop’s most shameless, capital-C crescendo — wasn’t gigantic enough, “Bye Bye Bye” forced the listener into heightened stakes, replacing a Backstreet love-letter-to-fans with breakup melodrama that’s bolstered by orchestral stabs and a panting, frantic backbeat. Sure, “It’s Gonna Be Me” seems like the smartass, selfish answer to “It’s Gotta Be You” — even though their piano licks kick around in the same lower octaves — and “Bringin’ Da Noise” seems like a winking parody of Millennium‘s unapologetic party anthems. Whether or not these inclusions are the result of a shared label identity (both records share the Jive Records logo, a first for *NSYNC) remains to be seen. Even if the final tracklisting did reflect an executive desire to relaunch Millennium, NSYNC’s largely set out to break free from their restraints, both legally and artistically.
First, the legal: *NSYNC was Lou Pearlman’s first attempt to duplicate his success with the Backstreet Boys, which in turn was inspired by a flight he brokered for previous moneymakers New Kids on the Block. (Suddenly the name Trans Continental Records seems to take off, along with the 83 other companies sharing that brand name. All of them was proven wildly lucrative, and equally fraudulent.) The boys’ debut record was released via RCA Records in a joint venture with Trans Continental, and *NSYNC sued Pearlman for orchestrating the “most glaring, overt and callous example of artist exploitation that the music industry has seen in a long time.” The Pearlman camp countersued, yet his second pet project won the right to leave in the middle of their contract and start earning back their share of over $7 million. (The Backstreet Boys would also take Pearlman to court and to compact disc, titling their fourth record Black & Blue. They would be champion of that fight. Pearlman would later serve 300 months in prison — one month for each thieved million — but die before his sentence concluded at the age of 62.)
And with the case closed, we move to the music: No Strings Attached, despite its cozy home at Jive and on TRL alongside their contemporaries, sought to retool, not repeat a former legacy. Millennium was the Wonder Bread answer to Eurodance, soft rock crossovers into dance pop and white-boy funk — tracks you’d bring home so often to Mom that the record’s closer “The Perfect Fan” was in fact dedicated to the guys’ moms. (God also makes an appearance, because the Boys know they’re mere mortals.). A record bookended by odes to different types of “fans” seems sugary and flimsy when placed next to the relationship kiss-offs chronicled on No Strings. That record concludes with “I Thought She Knew,” an a capella cut that does away with the pomp and circumstance of every track before to show off the group’s core competencies: staying soulful, siren-like, and helplessly pining after the one who got away. That’s where *NSYNC sports a little more depth — the Backstreet Boys show their steadfast appreciation for their fame from beginning to end, while *NSYNC goes from being self-assured to self-pitying in 30 minutes. That’s not to say the emotional theater on display here isn’t colored in one masculine palette — the title track and the following “Digital Get Down” are bombastic and sexed-up energetic — but there’s a little more wounding visible here, a little more helplessness. (Even the album art places them on marionette wires, suspended in limp formation presided over by the clown of my childhood nightmares. Seriously.)
This openness is easier to spot in the album’s ballads, sparkled with natural devotion to romantic subjects. Both “This I Promise You” and “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You” are so straightforward and unflinching in their mission statements; a listener can almost hear Justin Timberlake’s honeyed vocals without pressing play on either. Taking cues from R&B and soul might be the only clean transition this group made into adult contemporary — their cover of Johnny Kemp’s “Just Got Paid” even matches the original’s sauntering groove — and that’s without sinking completely into pillowy textures like their clean-cut rivals. After all, “I’ll Be Good for You” lifts elements from R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass’ 1993 cut “Believe in Love,” like its clattering percussion and sensual rhythm, to create a smooth, albeit paler love song. While *NSYNC spent the time after this record prepping their co-writes for 2001’s Celebrity — their final release — No Strings Attached is a scholar of form and structure that rises past the squeaky-clean threshold guarded by the Boys. And perhaps that’s the main benefit of being later to the game.