When I was in sixth grade, my parents decided the female teen idols that were sweeping the charts — specifically Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears — were too sultry and suggestive for my young ears. This censorship would have made most pre-teen boys become obsessed with them, but I was a good, obedient kid. I happily listened to the copy of No Strings Attached they bought for me.
I quite enjoyed the album, and defiantly proclaimed myself a fan of the band as I entered — and eventually exited — adolescence. In high school, making fun of my taste for finely crafted boy band pop was a popular pastime for my friends.
I still take no shame in spinning any of ‘N Sync’s (or related acts’) pop albums. The quintet’s debut album from 1997 remains their most troublesome outing, though. It sounds like exactly what the band’s original reputation was: Backstreet Boy knockoffs trying to make a splash and sell a few million records.
But what’s also obvious from that debut is that ‘N Sync was a step ahead of their boy band peers — along with most artists singing pop at the time — in performing heart-melting ballads. “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You” was possibly the best romantic pop ballad since “I Swear” in 1994. “Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)” isn’t quite as much of a home run, but it’s the second best track on the album.
Fortunately, the band and its producers fleshed out ‘N Sync’s identity with No Strings Attached, their excellent second album, giving them a snappier sound and stronger set of songs. Of course, Justin Timberlake’s emerging star power helped, too.
Lead single “Bye Bye Bye” is probably the most fondly-remembered track by the band. It’s definitely a great pop track, and the Max Martin-produced “It’s Gonna Be Me” is not far behind it. Most of the other upbeat album tracks are good fun, too: “Digital Get Down” foreshadowed the sexting phenomenon, “Bringin’ Da Noise” is a great party jam, and “It Makes Me Ill” has always been a personal favorite. Good pop polish all around.
But, again, it’s the ballads that really bowl you over. “This I Promise You” might rank in my top ten pop ballads ever: from Chasez and Timberlake’s swoon-inducing vocals, to the heart-tugging production, to the wedding vow lyrics, to the almost spiritual choruses, it’s an inspired pop track.
The other ballads leave an impression, too. The a capella “I Thought She Knew,” a first-class broken heart ballad, is only a few microns behind “This I Promise You” as my favorite-ever ‘N Sync track. “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You” has a similar sound and lyrics to “This I Promise You” but is another standout.
Above: One of ‘N Sync’s first major performances in America
Timberlake doesn’t have the best raw voice among the five (that’d be JC Chasez), but No Strings Attached is JT’s coming out party. You can feel his charisma taking over the album’s best tracks, and he gets his first writing credit (the Michael Jackson-esque “I’ll Be Good For You”).
By the time Celebrity rolled out a year later, ‘N Sync was basically a JT vehicle, with JC Chasez playing Scottie Pippen and the other three serving as incredible set of backup vocalists. Timberlake co-wrote seven of the thirteen tracks, while Chasez is credited on four.
The band further polished and diversified its sound on their third outing, almost entirely ditched their patriarch producer Max Martin, and emerged with one of the finest pop albums of the past fifteen years. It’s great not just because the tracks are consistently evocative and catchy, but because it’s such a confident statement. It feels like there’s an identity here: everything exhibits a strong intuition for what connects, what makes good pop.
Compare this to Backstreet Boys’ increasingly defensive albums from the same time — Black and Blue basically tries to mimic No Strings Attached. It’s impressive what ‘N Sync pulled off: under the leadership of Timberlake and Chasez, they not only escaped Backstreet Boys’ shadow, but flipped the role.
Celebrity’s a success from end to end. The ballads are again highlights: “Something Like You” fills the “This I Promise You” and “A Little More Time On You” role as the album’s banner love ballad, this time with Stevie Wonder’s harmonica helping out. “Selfish” is a strong runner up in the same style. Breakup song “Gone” shines as a super-slow heart-tugger.
But what sets Celebrity apart from its predecessors is how well the upbeat numbers keep up with the ballads. “Pop” is a spirited manifesto for teen pop, and the Neptunes-produced “Girlfriend” may be the band’s best-ever non-ballad. Martin’s lone appearance as producer in “Tell Me, Tell Me… Baby” is another highlight, as are the ridiculously hooky “Just Don’t Tell Me That” and the video game-inspired “The Game Is Over.” Really, you can’t do wrong with any track here (except lame closer “Do Your Thing”).
Given Timberlake’s emergence, it’s little surprise the band split in spite of Celebrity’s explosive sales numbers. The band is still officially on “hiatus” but some time around 2006, the notion of an ‘N Sync reunion changed from something that the pop world actually anticipated to a nostalgic cash-grab.
Timberlake and Chasez went on to try their luck as solo artist. Chasez’s solo career began and ended with 2003’s underappreciated Schizophrenic, but to say Timberlake rose to the challenge of escaping ‘N Sync is an understatement.
Timberlake’s Justified dropped in 2002 on the heels of a few explosive singles, particularly the epochal “Cry Me a River.” Justified is a memorable statement of Justin’s ambition and desire to be his generation’s Michael Jackson circa 1980. Certainly the charisma is there, and the best songs live up to the ambition. But Justified is bugged with the same problems that Timberlake would never shake: it’s bloated and indulgent, overlong and missing a bit of the intuition for pop immediacy that Celebrity had in spades. Timberlake’s attempts to be sexy are awkward — he’s no Prince.
Still, high points like “Cry Me a River” and “Rock Your Body” make for some of the best pop tracks of the era. It’s safe to say that the face of pop from 2002-2007 was defined in large part from the fallout of Justified, starting with the way it derailed Britney Spears’ run as America’s sweetheart and catalyzed her head-shaving, Federline-infused fall.
Then there was The Wardrobe Malfunction, which — as Grant astutely pointed out in his Everything Music entry — people often forget was more Timberlake’s doing (“I’ll have you naked by the end of this song”) than Janet Jackson’s. It affected TV more than radio pop, but America seemed at once more prudish and more perverse over the next couple years — the squeaky clean “Since U Been Gone” shared the charts with blowjob paean “Candy Shop.”
Timberlake’s musical evolution continued towards the raunchy end of the spectrum. The funky FutureSex/LoveSounds, which we had to wait four years for, is Timberlake’s attempt to go full-on Prince sex machine. A few of the tracks stand out — “SexyBack” is a classic — but for every compelling hook or stylistic twist, there is a song that runs twice as long as it should. It’s at once a great, unforgettable album and something I can never listen to cover to cover.
Around this time, Timberlake started pursuing an acting career, which took a long time to take off, but built steam towards the end of the decade. In 2010, JT delivered an Oscar-worthy performance as Sean Parker in The Social Network, which was the point most people stopped using the word “aspiring” in regards to him as an actor.
Finally, in 2013, JT returned to music with two quick albums in succession, The 20/20 Experience parts 1 and 2. I pulled it up on Spotify just now, and my eyes bugged out at the song lengths — only two of the 21 tracks are shorter than five minutes. I guess he never learns — his overlong-song bugaboo remains. I’ve decided to give it a pass for now. Maybe some day. “Mirrors” and “Suit and Tie” are all over the radio, and they’re both great, but both are best in four minutes, not eight.
Regardless, I’m thankful for Timberlake’s continued presence in the pop culture universe as something more than “remember ‘N Sync?” Both he and the boy band he fronted have provided me with dozens of great pop tracks and a handful of true classics.