The Week In Pop

*NSYNC Nailed The Boy Band Blueprint With No Strings Attached

*NSYNC didn’t just break the first-week sales record, they obliterated it. When the superstar boy band’s second album No Strings Attached dropped on March 21, 2000 — 20 years ago this Saturday — it sold 2.4 million copies in its first week. *NSYNC’s peers and rivals the Backstreet Boys had set the record the previous year, moving 1.3 million copies of their own sophomore effort, Millennium. But in the 10 months since BSB’s big splash, the teen-pop arms race had escalated significantly. Momentum that had been building throughout the late ’90s was reaching its apex, and *NSYNC were there to capitalize on it with tabloid appeal and some of the most impeccable pop songs of the TRL era.

*NSYNC themselves had experienced explosive growth in the two years since their self-titled debut finally saw US release in 1998, nearly a year after it dropped in Europe. ‘N Sync spawned a bunch of pop radio hits including the dance-pop tracks “I Want You Back” and “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and ballads like “Thinking Of You (I Drive Myself Crazy),” tracks that leveraged not only the burgeoning hormones of teenage listeners but the hookups and heartbreaks that resulted from those hormones. Throughout 1999, as BSB took center stage with Millennium, *NSYNC continued to get bigger, too, scoring their first Hot 100 top-10 single with “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You” and then climbing all the way to #2 with the Gloria Estefan collab “Music Of My Heart.” Boy bands were still an easy punchline for much of the population — and as a dorky teenage boy trying to prove my masculine bona fides, I certainly made a sport of scoffing at them — but it was clear even grownups were starting to pay attention to *NSYNC.

Behind the scenes, the group’s messy legal battle with former manager Lou Pearlman — the svengali who also once managed BSB and went on to die in prison in 2016 — was settled just in time to put out No Strings Attached on Jive Records, the hip-hop bastion that had refashioned itself as the defining label of Y2K teen-pop. (Britney Spears, BSB, and Aaron Carter were also on Jive’s roster.) Cutting ties with Pearlman also provided a handy narrative for the new album: These boys were nobody’s puppets, a metaphor they hammered home by dangling like marionettes on the cover art and in the “Bye Bye Bye” video. Furthermore, *NSYNC found themselves at the center of the teenage celebrity gossip complex thanks to Justin Timberlake’s romance with Spears, the only pop artist bigger than the moment’s two reigning boy bands. So when “Bye Bye Bye” dropped just days into the new millennium, it was immediately clear 2000 would be *NSYNC’s year.

Globally speaking, other boy bands may have since surpassed the scope of *NSYNC circa No Strings Attached. Maybe One Direction, or especially BTS, has built up a larger, more feverish audience around the world. It’s hard to compare this moment, when streaming has supplanted sales and fan culture plays out across decentralized social media networks, with the relative monoculture of two decades ago. But as someone whose high school years overlapped with *NSYNC and BSB’s imperial reign, no such groups ever loomed larger in America. To be a teenager at the turn of the millennium was to be inundated with boy bands and pop princesses, and *NSYNC were among the most dominant of them all. The sales record was one way to measure that dominance. Their pervasive presence on Total Request Live is another.

*NSYNC were deeply ingrained within the TRL universe. According to the endlessly informative ATRL archive, they were the show’s first musical guest, performing “Tearin’ Up My Heart” in 1998. On consecutive days in April 1999 their “I Drive Myself Crazy” video set the record for highest percentage of votes online (38%) and over the phone at 1-800-DIAL-MTV (42%) on the way to spending a record 26 straight days atop the countdown. By the end of their run, NSYNC had tallied 11 #1 videos on TRL, second only to Spears’ 15, and one better than the Backstreet Boys’ 10.

MTV broadcasts didn’t contribute to the Billboard charts the way YouTube plays do now, but this exposure was a huge deal. It’s hard to understate what a boom time the music industry enjoyed circa Y2K, and to what extent TRL fueled that boom. The newly launched Napster would eventually eat into CD sales, which topped out in 2000 at 942.5 million in the United States. (By comparison, last year’s US total was 46.5 million.) But first, Carson Daly and friends inspired America’s teens to funnel their allowance money into some new blockbuster album every couple weeks.

MTV had been a sales driver for the music industry since its launch two decades prior, but TRL — a fan-voted video countdown and talk show that aired after school from MTV’s studios overlooking Times Square — became ground zero for America’s adolescent culture war, a war I paid close attention to as a burgeoning music fan trying to carve out my identity. Maybe kids cooler than me were off discovering punk or learning all the faces on the Soundbombing II cover, but I spent most of freshman and sophomore year excitedly tuning in to see who’d top the countdown, hoping Limp Bizkit would do better than 98 Degrees, and low-key enjoying Christina Aguilera at least as much as I enjoyed Korn. Part of the way I played out my identity as a teenage rocker was rooting against the likes of *NSYNC on TRL.

Throughout Bill Clinton’s second term, squeaky-clean teen-pop and filth-encrusted nu-metal had ascended in parallel, each one a flourishing industry with its own taxonomy of stars. Meanwhile, Eminem was helping rap cross over into suburbia to an unprecedented extent, while Blink-182 was bringing pop-punk even further into the mainstream than Green Day had. On TRL, these separate musical ecosystems intersected and did battle. Writing for Stereogum a few years ago, MTV’s Dave Holmes called it “the last great monocultural mish-mosh… before it all broke off into niches and subgenres and everyone having their own radio station right in their pocket.” In some ways that culture-clash popularity contest prefaced today’s charts, which are able to track the long-tail popularity of songs and albums through streaming better than one-time CD sales ever could.

On TRL, that was often measured in retired videos. The show adjusted its standards for retirement a few times; at first they removed videos after 65 days on the countdown, then after 50, and eventually after 40. Whatever the standard, in order to be retired, your video had to have staying power. Eight of *NSYNC’s clips reached that point over the years, fourth most among all artists. That total includes their videos for their three gargantuan hits off No Strings Attached, “Bye Bye Bye,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “This I Promise You.” Of those, only “It’s Gonna Be Me” made it to #1 on the Hot 100 — “Bye Bye Bye” topped out at #4, while “This I Promise You” topped out at #5. That’s stunning information for many millennials like me because each of those *NSYNC songs spent weeks at #1 on TRL. (A similar whiplash is incurred by learning BSB’s signature song “I Want It That Way” topped out at #6 on the Hot 100.)

Two decades removed from the teen idol ecosystem of that moment, it’s clear those No Strings Attached hits deserved to be massive on the strength of pop songcraft and performance. The throbbing, hiccuping “Bye Bye Bye” boasted one of the most memorable hooks of the teen-pop era, vocal arrangements that made expert use of the quintet’s harmonizing abilities, and a beat that incites involuntary bouncing whether or not you know the choreography — that, and you can practically taste the group’s disgust with Pearlman. Annoying meme notwithstanding, “It’s Gonna Be Me” is even better, with a groove that pops just as hard and a cascading chorus crafted by Max Martin himself. Twenty years later, the thing just sparkles.

Whereas those songs were both products of the Swedish song machine, the slow jam “This I Promise You” was penned and produced by the late ’80s and early ’90s balladeer Richard Marx. The man knew a thing or two about soft-rock tearjerkers, and he put that knowledge to good use on “This I Promise You,” particularly on the massive bridge. What it does have in common with the more upbeat No Strings Attached hits is that it gives each *NSYNC member a chance to shine. Timberlake’s high-strung tenor stands out now due to nearly two decades of solo hits, but the heartier JC Chasez was just a formidable a lead vocalist, and they all brought pure singing ability to the table. Founding members Chris Kirkpatrick and Joey Fatone, who assembled the group with Pearlman, did well to put this combination of voices together.

The singles were the only three songs I initially remembered from No Strings Attached, but revisiting the album recently, I was surprised at how many of its songs had wormed their way into my memory back in high school. I was also surprised at how many of them could have been singles had *NSYNC and Jive opted to keep milking the album rather than moving on to Celebrity the following year. Even corny novelty tracks like “Space Cowboy (Yippee-Ki-Yay)” — featuring a rap verse from the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes! — are better than most boy bands’ best singles. Free from the stigmas of my adolescence, the album self-evidently slaps.

“Space Cowboy” was one of several songs on No Strings Attached that saw Chasez getting involved with the writing and producing. He also contributed to a trio of remarkably solid songs on the album’s second half. Sandwiched between the resoundingly punchy title track and the would-be jock jam “Bringin’ The Noise,” “Digital Get Down” boasts surprising use of Auto-Tune as a stylistic effect, and even more surprising early references to cybersex, dial-up modem sounds, and a passable Timbaland pastiche that eventually morphs into some lightweight drum-n-bass. Timberlake tried his hand with writing and producing as well, teaming with Kevin “K-Toonz” Antunes on the smooth Teddy Pendergrass-sampling deep cut “I’ll Be Good For You.”

Elsewhere, *NSYNC turned to New Jack Swing maestro Teddy Riley for the ebullient “Just Got Paid” and pop-R&B hit-maker Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs for “It Makes Me Ill” — perhaps a facsimile of tracks he made for Destiny’s Child like “Bills, Bills, Bills,” but one that makes excellent use of synth squiggles and spring-loaded drum programming. The softer tracks work well, too, although Diane Warren’s “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You” is easily outshined by Robin Wiley’s Boyz II Men-like a cappella closer “I Thought She Knew,” on which Lance Bass’ low-end vocals finally get a chance to shine through. It’s just a damn good pop album — no FutureSex/LoveSounds, maybe, but miles better than the actual children’s music Timberlake is making these days. It’s hard to think of an album that does the boy-band formula better.

*NSYNC would never saturate pop culture again the way they did on No Strings Attached. The following year’s more mature and exploratory Celebrity was no flop — its 1.8 million in first-week sales were second only to No Strings Attached at the time, all three singles made it to the top 20, and their TRL hegemony remained unshaken — but the teen-pop moment seemed to be passing. Pop culture was ready for a reset after 9/11. Timberlake and Chasez had solo careers to pursue. For a while, not only were *NSYNC cheesy, sappy music for my little sister, they were passé. Even now, it feels like Timberlake would be debasing himself by participating in a reunion tour. Yet as someone who sifts through a lot of factory-produced pop music every week, who understands so much of what passes for authenticity is prefabricated in its own way, I now have a lot of affection for No Strings Attached. *NSYNC’s pinnacle deserves the same respect afforded to the album that eventually broke its first-week sales record, Adele’s 25: It’s not a pioneering work of genius, but if you can appreciate a finely crafted pop song, there’s a lot to enjoy.

CHART WATCH

Lil Uzi Vert has his second straight #1 album. Eternal Atake, Uzi’s long-awaited follow-up to 2017’s chart-topping Luv Is Rage 2, debuts at #1 with 288,000 equivalent album units. Only about 9,000 of those constitute actual sales. As Billboard reports, the album accrued 278,000 streaming equivalent albums, which translates to a whopping 400 million on-demand track streams — the fourth biggest streaming week ever, and the largest since foundational Uzi influence Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter V debuted with 433 million in October 2018.

I’ll be curious to see how the deluxe version of Eternal Atake, which is really just a completely different album titled LUV Vs. The World 2, will affect the project’s placement on next week’s chart. Billboard’s Keith Caulfield writes, “All versions of the album will be combined together for tracking and charting purposes.” So don’t be surprised if Uzi holds on to the #1 spot again next week — especially since, as Billboard points out, a lot of kids will be streaming even more music since schools are closed due to COVID-19. OK, one more Uzi tidbit from Billboard’s report: With Eternal Atake supplanting Lil Baby’s My Turn at #1, it’s the first time one Lil artist has replaced another atop the Billboard 200.

Back to this week’s chart: Jhené Aiko’s Chilombo debuts at #2 with 152,000 units and 38,000 in sales, career bests in chart ranking and weekly units. After Bad Bunny at #3 and Lil Baby at #4 comes the first top-10 release from K-pop group NCT 127. Entering at #5, NCT #127: Neo-Zone, The 2nd Album put up 87,000 units and an impressive 83,000 in sales, a figure boosted by various merch and concert ticket bundles. After Roddy Ricch, Post Malone, BTS, and Justin Bieber, Megan Thee Stallion rounds out the top 10 with a #10 debut for Suga via 41,000 units.

Over on the Hot 100, Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” is #1 for an astonishing 10th straight week. It’s not really that good, you guys! Hopefully Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” up to a new #2 peak, can dethrone it next week. That song’s ascent bumps Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good” down to #3. Also reaching a new peak at #4 is the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” followed by Post Malone’s “Circles” at #5. Skipping past #6 for a moment, Arizona Zervas’ “Roxanne” is at #7.

Per Billboard, Lil Uzi Vert becomes only the fourth artist to debut three songs in the top 10 simultaneously following Drake, Lil Wayne, and J. Cole. For Uzi it’s “Baby Pluto” at #6, “Lo Mein” at #8, and “Silly Watch” at #9. Those three songs double Uzi’s career total for top-10 hits following the recent “Futsal Shuffle 2020,” 2017’s “XO Tour Llif3,” and his guest turn on Migos’ “Bad And Boujee.” Speaking of Migos, rounding out the top 10 is Justin Bieber’s Quavo collab “Intentions.”

POP FIVE

Anderson .Paak & Justin Timberlake – “Don’t Slack”
I’d like to believe .Paak and Timberlake could create something truly great together if removed from the context of a children’s movie. But like the SZA collab before it, this just isn’t hitting with the oomph you’d hope for from Andy and JT going retro soul.

Ava Max – “Kings & Queens”
Someone was bound to capitalize on the popularity of calling people “king” and “queen” on social media. Ava Max is that person, and damn did she do it well. “Kings & Queens” is a legit dancefloor jam that suggests her career is going to extend well beyond the “Sweet But Psycho” half-life.

Tones And I – “Bad Child” & “Can’t Be Happy All The Time”
Now, will Tones And I last beyond the “Dance Monkey” hype cycle? I’m less certain about that. These songs don’t have the same infectiously grating power, but I could see them doing well on streaming services, popping up in movie trailers, etc.


OneRepublic – “Didn’t I”
Every time the “Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I” chorus kicks in, I just wish I was listening to “I Want You To Want Me” instead.

Ellie Goulding – “Worry About Me” (Feat. blackbear)
Our fearless leader Scott Lapatine, who stans Ellie Goulding, is now forced to like blackbear by association. Sad!

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Ariana Grande shared coronavirus advice: “I keep hearing from a surprising amount of people statements like ‘this isn’t a big deal’ / ‘we’ll be fine’ … ‘we still have to go about our lives,'” she wrote. “It is incredibly dangerous and selfish to take this situation that lightly.” [Twitter]
  • Lady Gaga told her fans “the kindest/healthiest thing we can do is self-quarantine and not hang out with people over 65 and in large groups.” [Instagram]
  • In other Gaga news, she’s publishing Channel Kindness: Stories Of Kindness And Community, a book compiling inspirational stories written by young people. [Amazon]
  • Hayley Williams released a Caroline Polachek remix of “Simmer.” [YouTube]
  • Billie Eilish presented an anti-body shaming video at her tour kickoff in Miami. [BBC]
  • Eminem released a Cole Bennett-directed video for his Juice WRLD collaboration “Godzilla.” [YouTube]
  • Niall Horan did a Carpool Karaoke. [YouTube]
  • Also on Corden, Horan did a hot wings sketch (but not Hot Ones). [YouTube]
  • Calvin Harris released two more Love Regenerator tracks. [DJ Mag]
  • Katy Perry sang “Never Worn White” live for the first time on the Australian TV show The Project. [Facebook]
  • Halsey shared a video endorsing Bernie Sanders. [YouTube]
  • Justin Timberlake, SZA, and Anderson .Paak promoted Trolls World Tour on Ellen. [Ellen]
  • Lewis Capaldi has previewed a YouTube special in which he will cover the #1 song when he was born, Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun” featuring Noel Gallagher. [YouTube]

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