The Number Ones

July 29, 2000

The Number Ones: *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Here’s something weird: Right around 2000, when teen-pop was at its peak, teen-pop artists didn’t often reach #1. The TRL-driven pop explosion of the Y2K era just didn’t make that deep of an impression on the Billboard Hot 100. The Backstreet Boys never reached #1. Britney Spears topped the Hot 100 with “Baby One More Time,” her landmark debut single, but it took her almost a decade to return to the apex. And *NSYNC, the one act probably most responsible for the last gold-rush boom that the music business ever experienced, only topped the Hot 100 a single time.

The summer of 2000 was the moment when that TRL wave crested, when the bright and shiny teen-pop kids basically dominated all of popular culture. A year earlier, the Backstreet Boys had released their sophomore album Millennium, which sold more than a million copies in its first week — a number that Backstreet would come close to doubling when they released Black & Blue in November 2000. In May 2000, Britney Spears released her own second album Oops!… I Did It Again, and that one moved 1.4 million copies in its first week.

But the biggest record-release day of the new century was March 21, 2000. That’s when *NSYNC followed their preposterously successful debut album with the even bigger No Strings Attached, which moved an absolutely absurd 2.4 million copies in its first seven days on sale. Nobody had ever sold two million records in a week before. It would be a long time before anybody repeated that trick. (Adele was the one who finally broke *NSYNC’s record more than 15 years later. She’ll eventually appear in this column.)

The numbers don’t tell half the story. Wherever they went, those big-three teen-pop acts generated waves of hysteria that seemed totally unprecedented. The press would compare it to Beatlemania, but for those of us who hadn’t been alive in 1964, the whole phenomenon seemed altogether alien. Every day, mobs of kids would descend upon Times Square to screech and howl and bay at the MTV cameras, and those teenagers were probably just hoping that a member of *NSYNC or Backstreet might pay a visit to the TRL studio that day, that they’d deign to wave out the window. Even New Kids On The Block, the obvious antecedent for both Backstreet and *NSYNC, hadn’t caused mass-culture freakouts on anything like that level. So why didn’t *NSYNC and Backstreet land at #1 at least a handful of times?

There’s no single answer to that question. Part of it was just the way record labels did things in the late ’90s. The Hot 100 would’ve done a better job reflecting the popularity of those singles if the labels had released those singles to the public, but the labels stood to make more money if kids bought the *NSYNC and Backstreet albums instead. At the same time, outside the realm of top-40 radio, *NSYNC and Backstreet honestly didn’t get that much airplay at the time. As much as kids loved those two boy bands, adults hated them, and they made a big show out of hating them. (Maybe that’s why Christina Aguilera, putting her vocal chops front-and-center, generally did better on the Hot 100. People didn’t performatively hate on Christina in quite the same way.) Without a ton of radio support, a group like *NSYNC could only go so far. Even after he left the group and went solo, *NSYNC leader Justin Timberlake would have to effectively rebrand himself as a grown-up pop star before he started racking up chart-toppers of his own.

So “It’s Gonna Be Me,” the second single from *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached, remains the only time this column will get to grapple with the peak of that teen-pop era. That’s too bad, honestly. At the time, it was fashionable for anyone who wasn’t a pre-teen girl to snarl about the popularity of those boy bands. But the boy bands and Britney made immortal earworms, records that would hold up a whole lot better than shit-ass lite-grunge snoozers like Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want.” The Hot 100 has never been a perfect tool for measuring the popular tastes of any era, and it truly failed to accurately reflect that teen-pop moment. So it goes. But if you had to pick one song to represent that giddy blast of screaming excitement, you could do a whole lot worse than “It’s Gonna Be Me.”

The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were both the creations of one evil man. Lou Pearlman was a con man from Queens — yes, another one. Pearlman’s cousin Art Garfunkel has been in this column a few times, but Pearlman himself wasn’t drawn to the music business during his younger years. Instead, Pearlman got his start when he convinced the founders of Jordache Jeans to underwrite the blimp business that he was trying to build. Soon, Pearlman started renting out private jets. One day, Maurice Starr chartered one of Pearlman’s jets for the New Kids On The Block, the boy band that he was managing. Pearlman was fascinated. He went to a New Kids show, and then he found out about all the money that the New Kids were generating in merch sales. Pearlman figured that he should start a New Kids of his own.

Lou Pearlman had moved his blimp business to Orlando in the early ’90s, and Orlando was packed with hungry young entertainers. In 1992, Pearlman placed an ad for aspiring boy-band singers in the Orlando Sentinel. The initial auditions weren’t promising, but Pearlman eventually found five good-looking kids, and he called them the Backstreet Boys. (Backstreet Market was an Orlando flea market where teenagers would hang out.) The Backstreet Boys would practice in Pearlman’s blimp hangars, and they made their onstage debut at Sea World in 1993.

Two years after that first show, Lou Pearlman negotiated a deal for the Backstreet Boys at Jive Records. At the time, Jive, still an independent label, was mostly known for rap and R&B acts. Jive execs knew that Pearlman would freely spend on his project, and they knew the Boys could sing. Pearlman paid to send the Backstreet Boys to Sweden, where they recorded with Denniz Pop, the producer and songwriter who’d had huge success with Ace Of Base and who’d established a pop songwriting factory at his Cheiron Studios. The group recorded most of their self-titled 1996 debut in Stockholm with Denniz Pop and his protege Max Martin.

Denniz Pop and Max Martin co-wrote and co-produced the Backstreet Boys’ debut single “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” doing their best to imitate uptempo American R&B swing. The song found a lukewarm reception the US, where it peaked at #69. But the Backstreet Boys were instantly huge in Europe; in the UK, for instance, that song made it to #3. The Backstreet Boys relentlessly toured Europe for a couple of years, and they recorded versions of their hits in French and Spanish for those markets.

The Backstreet Boys eventually took off in Canada after a Montreal station started playing the French version of “We’ve Got It Goin’ On.” In 1996, the New York radio station Z-100 rebranded as straight-up pop, and its programmers decided that Backstreet fit the bill. Other stations around the US followed suit. In the summer of 1997, Backstreet made it to #2 in the US with “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart),” a ballad that Max Martin had co-written and co-produced. That song is still Backstreet’s highest-charting Hot 100 single. (It’s a 7.)

While Lou Pearlman was waiting around for the Backstreet Boys to take off in the US, he decided to start another boy band. Pearlman figured that Backstreet’s success was inevitable and that other people would come along to compete with them, so he figured he’d beat everyone to the punch. In 1995, Chris Kirkpatrick, a college student in Orlando, was working at Universal Studios, singing in an a cappella group called the Hollywood Hi Tones. Kirkpatrick wanted to start a singing group of his own, and somebody introduced him to Lou Pearlman. Pearlman thought it was a great idea, and he bankrolled Kirkpatrick as Kirkpatrick found a bunch of other young singers to join his group. Pearlman never told the Backstreet Boys that he was putting another group together, and they were shocked when they found out that their newest competitors — the act that was essentially ripping their whole style off — had the same management team as they did.

Chris Kirkpatrick was ultimately responsible for finding four more singers. A couple of those singers already had experience singing for screaming girls. Justin Timberlake, from Memphis, and JC Chasez, from Maryland, had been in the cast of Disney’s The New Mickey Mouse Club, alongside Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. The video of Timberlake and Chasez — along with their castmates Ryan Gosling and the never-got-famous Dale Godboldo — doing their best Jodeci is an absolute fucking trip. What a weird thing. (Jodeci’s 1993 single “Cry For You” peaked at #15.)

Disney cancelled The Mickey Mouse Club in 1994. For a while, JC Chasez also worked at Universal Studios; he played Dracula in something called Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue. Chasez also spent some time in Nashville with Justin Timberlake; the two of them wrote a few songs and recorded a few demos together. Chris Kirkpatrick found Justin Timberlake through a talent agency and offered him a spot in the new group. Timberlake agreed, and he also recommended Chasez for the group.

Joey Fatone, another singer that Kirkpatrick recruited, had been in Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue, too; he’d been the Wolfman. Bass singer Jason Galasso rounded out the group, and the young singers called themselves *NSYNC, using the last letter of the first name of all five members’ first names. But then Jason Galasso dropped out, and Timberlake found 16-year-old Mississippi native Lance Bass on a suggestion from his vocal coach. Lou Pearlman rented an Orlando house for the newly formed *NSYNC, and they gave their first performance at Disney World’s Pleasure Island in 1995.

With *NSYNC, Lou Pearlman followed the blueprint that he’d already established for the Backstreet Boys. *NSYNC signed with RCA, and they went to Stockholm to record their self-titled 1997 debut with Denniz Pop and his stable of Cheiron writers and producers. As with the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC blew up in Europe before America took notice. Germany, in particular, loved the group. RCA held off on releasing *NSYNC’s debut album in America for almost a year. The record didn’t come out in the US until 1998, when the Backstreet Boys had already proven how successful that kind of boy band could be.

Denniz Pop and Max Martin co-produced *NSYNC’s debut single “I Want You Back,” and that song eventually peaked at #13 in the US. *NSYNC’s self-titled album, driven partly by MTV’s new after-school countdown show Total Request Live, became a huge success in the US, going diamond within a couple of years. But the singles from *NSYNC didn’t exactly own the Hot 100. “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” the song that I remember best from that era, peaked at #59. (It was never commercially available as a single, which accounts for the low chart placement.) The only track from that album that made the top 10 was the drippy ballad “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You,” which peaked at #8. (It’s a 5.) *NSYNC actually charted twice with that song; they also recorded a different version with the country band Alabama, and that one peaked at #29.

For a while, *NSYNC’s biggest American chart success came from a random-ass soundtrack song. In 1999, the group teamed up with their fellow Floridian Gloria Estefan, an artist who’s been in this column a few times, for “Music Of My Heart,” a deeply boring Diane Warren/David Foster ballad that had the advantage of being a single that people could run out and buy. (“Music Of My Heart” peaked at #2. It’s a 3.) By that time, *NSYNC had also released a double platinum Christmas album, and they’d managed to detach themselves from both Lou Pearlman and RCA Records.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Lou Pearlman was robbing both the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC blind. Backstreet realized what was happening first, and they sued Pearlman for fraud in 1998, claiming that he’d kept most of their money and treated them as “indentured servants.” *NSYNC did the same thing soon after. The members of *NSYNC had been living on $35 per diems even after selling millions of records, and Pearlman had himself written into *NSYNC’s contracts as the sixth member of the group. In John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine, a fascinating look at this kind of commercial big-swing pop music, there’s a great anecdote about a Florida judge calling Pearlman’s lawyer out: “So you’re telling me that Mr. Pearlman is *NSYNC, and these guys over here, my daughter has a poster of on her wall, are not *NSYNC?”

Lou Pearlman eventually settled with both the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, and they came to a deal that gave the groups their independence even though Pearlman got a huge percentage of both groups’ earnings going forward. Pearlman tried putting together more pop groups, and he also used that money and his pop-star-adjacent status to fund the Ponzi scheme that he was running. Pearlman may have been doing worse than that; members of Pearlman-associated groups later accused Pearlman of sexual abuse. Pearlman was never tried for abuse, but his scams were a different story. Pearlman eventually fled the US and tried to live on the lam internationally. In 2007, the FBI found Pearlman in a tourist hotel in Bali, where a German tourist had recognized him. Pearlman was sentenced to 25 years in prison for a whole host of financial crimes. Pearlman died in prison in 2016. He was 62. You couldn’t invent a better music-business villain.

During the legal battle between Lou Pearlman and *NSYNC, RCA made the disastrous decision to side with Pearlman. During a whole lot of suits and countersuits, *NSYNC left RCA and signed with Jive. The label already had Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, and they were able to convince *NSYNC that they knew how to sell this kind of music. When *NSYNC signed, all three acts from the holy teen-pop trinity were under the same roof. Jive founder Clive Calder exploited this for all it was worth. Calder had a deal with BMG, RCA’s parent company, that he could sell Jive and its sister label Zomba to the bigger company for three times its annual income. In 2001, largely thanks to the sales of those three acts, Jive and Zomba recorded about $900 million in revenues. Calder exercised his option, and he sold his labels to BMG for $2.7 billion. In the process, Calder got out right before the downloading crash, and he made himself the richest person in the history of the music industry. He’s been living quietly in the Cayman Islands ever since.

*NSYNC started recording their No Strings Attached album when they weren’t attached to any label. The album title and the cover art, in which the group members play marionettes, was a reference to the fact that *NSYNC were no longer under Lou Pearlman’s control. The group liked working with the Cheiron Studios braintrust, and they wanted to keep that relationship going, but they didn’t want to keep making the same kind of frictionless pop that they’d made with their first album. Max Martin had taken over as head of Cheiron Studios after Denniz Pop died of stomach cancer in 1998, and he agreed to keep working with *NSYNC. The group led off No Strings Attached with “Bye Bye Bye,” a hammering anthem from the Cheiron team of Kristian Lundin, Jake Schulze, and Andreas Carlsson. The song peaked at #4. (It’s a 9.)

“It’s Gonna Be Me,” the second single from No Strings Attached, was another Cheiron Studios project. The main force behind the song was a Max Martin protege, the Palestinian-Swedish musican Rami Yacoub. Rami — he was credited under his first name only — had co-produced “Baby One More Time” with Martin, and he’d come up with the melody for “It’s Gonna Be Me,” whistling the tune at the dinner table one night. Rami produced the track after he finished writing the song with Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson. Carlsson, who worked on the lyrics, had a couple of surprising inspirations.

Carlsson later told Entertainment Weekly that the “I’m not like them” bit from “It’s Gonna Be Me” came from Joe Jackson’s 1982 single “Steppin’ Out.” (“Steppin’ Out is Joe Jackson’s highest-charting US single, and it peaked at #6. It’s a 7.) Carlsson also says that he got the idea for the chorus from “Him,” the 1980 hit from former Number Ones artist Rupert Holmes. (“Him” peaked at #6. It’s a 4.)

*NSYNC sing “It’s Gonna Be Me” from the perspective of a guy trying to convince a potential lover that he’s not like any of the people in their past. The narrator is singing that this other person is eventually going to move on and that he, the narrator, will be there waiting. There’s a whole lot of confidence in that sentiment, but the sentiment doesn’t honestly matter that much. You’re not supposed to think too hard about those “It’s Gonna Be Me” lyrics — which, after all, come from Swedish songwriters whose first language wasn’t English. Instead, those lyrics are simply a vehicle for *NSYNC to bring the full power of millennial pop dazzle.

Musically, “It’s Gonna Be Me” has nothing to do with the sophisticated early-’80s pop that Andreas Carlsson apparently loved so much. Instead, Rami, the Cheiron Studios producer with the firmest grasp on American R&B, went for some version of the hectic, panting beats favored by American producers like Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins. The “It’s Gonna Be Me” track stutters and shimmies convincingly, and I like how bright and busy and cluttered it is, with those syncopated drums and harpischords and bass-slaps nearly overwhelming the track. But “It’s Gonna Be Me” never really sounds like an R&B song, since the melody is so big and bold and obvious — so positively European.

There is so much ferocious swagger to all those teen-pop hits that came out of Cheiron Studios in those years. All those singles were deeply formulaic, but the formula worked so well. The melodies cut right through the air, and the tracks were so brutally entertaining, moving from hook to hook with mechanistic precision. “It’s Gonna Be Me” has that Swedish production-line magic all over it.

Like so many of the era’s teen-pop hits, “It’s Gonna Be Me” has this giant honking hook that obliterates everything around it. With all five *NSYNC members singing, that chorus hits like a bulldozer made entirely out of hardened cotton candy. The kids in *NSYNC work to sell that chorus. The distribution of “It’s Gonna Be Me” vocal parts shows the balance of power in the group. Justin Timberlake sings the first verse, JC Chasez takes the second, and then Timberlake returns for the bridge. The other three guys are strictly on backup duty. *NSYNC was not an egalitarian system, and the producers had strong ideas about who should be in front and who should play the background.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Rami says this of *NSYNC: “There are three strong singers in the group. But sometimes you record the bridge with two of them because you’re not really sure how it’s going to sound when the production is finished when you hear the song from beginning to end. So you always record more than you need, and then I can choose later.” I like the implication that two unidentified members of *NSYNC are not strong singers. In any case, Timberlake almost always ended up with the lead. It makes sense. Justin Timberlake wasn’t just a good singer; he was a star. He was the obvious frontman, the fresh-faced cutie-pie with the ramen-noodle hair. He was the one who happened to be dating Britney Spears when both of them were getting hugely famous. Timberlake always served as the center of attention. (On “It’s Gonna Be Me,” Timberlake is also credited with human beatboxing. That guy really loves beatboxing.)

Timberlake’s delivery on “It’s Gonna Be Me” launched a whole lot of memes. He later said that Max Martin told him to lean hard into his Memphis twang, though I’m not sure that’s really what happens on the song. I’ve never been to Memphis, but I don’t think people actually sound like that anywhere. Instead, I hear “It’s Gonna Be Me” as Justin Timberlake going into cartoonish exaggeration mode, hitting every syllable hard enough that his goofy-ass pronunciations would lodge in the brain of anyone who heard the song. Mission accomplished. These days, the “it’s gonna be May” thing shows up on Twitter whenever we reach the second half of April. (In recent years, the internet has attempted to express its antipathy towards Justin Timberlake by handing over the “it’s gonna be May” meme to Britney Spears. We’ll see if that sticks.)

In the “It’s Gonna Be Me” video, *NSYNC continue to riff on the idea of being puppets. Director Wayne Isham depicts them as dolls who come to life at night. Screaming Mad George, the Japanese-born makeup effects artist famous for his work on Big Trouble In Little China, Predator, and some of the better Nightmare On Elm Street sequels, does a scarily effective job making the members of *NSYNC look like shiny plastic versions of themselves. (Please allow me to recommend Screaming Mad George’s directorial debut, the ridiculous 1991 manga adaptation The Guyver — or at least the one scene where MC Striker, the freaky gremlin-looking alien voiced by Jimmie Walker, attempts to rap.)

Screaming Mad George is way better-known than most makeup artists, partly because he decided to call himself Screaming Mad George and partly because he’s a genius for making things look gross. That’s one of the things I like about the “It’s Gonna Be Me” video. The members of *NSYNC commit to the idea of looking unnatural and ugly-pretty. In the clip, the *NSYNC doll-men do choreographed dances, fight army guys, party with Barbies, and then turn into full-sized humans after some lady runs them across a UPC scanner. I’m sorry to report that the narrative doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But the feeling is there.

The “It’s Gonna Be Me” video works as pure fizzy pop spectacle. These guys were very, very serious about keeping the world entertained, and the little bits of showmanship — like the bit where everyone leans to the side as Timberlake yawps the word “babe” — remain stupidly delightful. A few years ago, I went on a family vacation to Disney World, and something clicked. It was like: Of course all the teen-pop acts came from Orlando. It’s a whole city dedicated to the idea that paying customers should never, ever be bored, even for a second. That eager spirit is on full display in the “It’s Gonna Be Me” video — and, for that matter, in the song itself.

No Strings Attached ultimately sold even more than *NSYNC’s debut, going platinum 11 times over. The group followed “It’s Gonna Be Me” with “This I Promise You,” a ballad written and produced by Richard Marx, a guy who’s been in this column a few times. (“This I Promise You” peaked at #5. It’s a 4.) *NSYNC toured extensively, played the Super Bowl Halftime Show, and generally went hard on their peak moment. Then they came back with one more album.

*NSYNC’s final LP, 2001’s Celebrity, found the group trying to branch out, getting even more self-conscious with the way they sang about themselves. Lead single “Pop,” recorded with dance producer BT, is a sort of defensive statement that pop music itself is a worthy enterprise. The song peaked at #19. Elsewhere on the LP, *NSYNC got deeper into R&B and rap. The album went quintuple platinum, but only one single made the top 10. (The Neptunes-produced Nelly collab “Girlfriend” peaked at #5. It’s a 7. Nelly and the Neptunes will eventually appear in this column, both together and separately.)

Celebrity wasn’t supposed to be *NSYNC’s last album. Even after Justin Timberlake went solo with 2002’s Justified, the other guys in the group kept thinking that he’d be back, and they turned down their own career opportunities. Eventually, though, it became clear that Timberlake wasn’t coming back. Timberlake will be in this column a whole lot of times, but the other *NSYNC guys will not. The only other *NSYNC member who even launched a solo career was JC Chasez. (Chasez’s highest-charting single, 2002’s fun pager-themed “Blowin’ Me Up (With Her Love),” peaked at #35.)

The teen-pop boom was pretty much over by the time that *NSYNC released Celebrity, anyway. Max Martin dissolved Cheiron Studios in 2000, and the members of the Cheiron braintrust went their separate ways. (Andreas Carlsson’s work will appear in this column again, and we’ll see Max Martin’s name so many more times.) Teen-pop fans learned how to download songs for free, and those dizzy record-sales numbers went down. Justin Timberlake reinvented himself as a blue-eyed soul star, and the other *NSYNC guys became actors or TV hosts. *NSYNC have reunited a few times — once when Timberlake won the Video Vanguard award at the 2013 VMAs, and then again, without Timberlake, to do a surprise performance with Ariana Grande when she headlined Coachella in 2019. (Grande will eventually appear in this column.) *NSYNC won’t be in this column again. But within the grand scheme of pop-music history, they were a big, big deal.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: The whole bit about Justin Timberlake pronouncing “It’s Gonna Be Me” as “it’s gonna be May” became a tiresome meme in the early ’10s. On April 30, 2014, Barack Obama — or whoever runs Obama’s Facebook page — got in on it, posting a picture of Obama and Timberlake at the White House with the obvious caption:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 2016, Fall Out Boy released their Demi Lovato collab “Irresistible,” and they parodied the “It’s Gonna Be Me” clip in their video for the song. “It’s Gonna Be Me” auteur Wayne Isham directed the clip, and Chris Kirkpatrick and Joey Fatone made cameos. Here’s the video:

(“Irresistible” peaked at #48. Fall Out Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4. Demi Lovato’s highest-charting single, 2017’s “Sorry Not Sorry,” peaked at #6. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On a 2019 episode of Lip Sync Battle, the Puerto Rican star Luis Fonsi, a guy who was once in a doo-wop group with Joey Fatone, put on a Justin Timberlake wig and did his best to recreate the full *NSYNC experience with his “It’s Gonna Be Me” performance. Here it is:

(Lip Sync Battle host LL Cool J’s two highest-charting singles, the 1995 Boyz II Men collab “Hey Lover” and the 1996 Total collab “Loungin’,” both peaked at #3. “Hey Lover” is a 4, and “Loungin’” is a 6. As a guest-rapper, LL will eventually appear in this column. In time, Luis Fonsi will also show up in this space.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: “It’s Gonna Be Me” soundtracked a super-powered bar-fight sequence on a 2020 episode of Supergirl. I’ve never watched that show, and I really hope it looks like that because the producers blew that whole week’s budget on the song. Here’s that scene:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the trailer for the 2022 Pixar movie Turning Red, which is set to “It’s Gonna Be Me”:

(One of the main engines of the Turning Red plot is the protagonist’s fandom of the fictional boy band 4*Town. The movie’s fake boy band songs come from the team of Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas. Their 4*Town song “Nobody Like U” peaked at #49. Billie Eilish will eventually appear in this column.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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