When the superstar pop vocal group ‘N Sync sat down to pick the songs for its upcoming album, the quintet found itself at odds with its record company.
The Florida-based group, which has sold more than 25 million records worldwide since debuting in 1997, wanted to rock the boat with “Celebrity,” which is due in stores July 24. But Jive Records executives worried that too much change might make fans disinclined to buy, buy, buy like they have in the past.
“They were like, ‘I don’t know. I don’t like that song. I don’t think you should go there. It’s too different,”‘ Lance Bass, the 22-year-old bass voice of ‘N Sync, recalls with a laugh. “And we’re like, ‘No, that’s what we want to do. We don’t want to do 10 ‘Bye, Bye, Byes’ or three ‘God Must Have Spents.’ That’s why every song on this album is different from each other. And they’re all… cool.”
The stakes for “Celebrity” are high. The group set a sales record with its last album, 2000’s “No Strings Attached,” which moved a whopping 2.4 million copies its first week out. But with some of its teen pop peers suffering flagging sales lately, ‘N Sync wants to temper expectations for a repeat.
“There’s gonna be huge competition with ‘No Strings Attached,’ definitely…. everyone’s gonna expect us to beat the record from last year,” Bass says. “But I’d rather not beat it and end it now so that the next time we release an album we don’t have to beat ‘Celebrity.’ Eventually, we’re going to have to sell less than we have.”
Credit Bass and his bandmates – Justin Timberlake, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone and JC Chasez – with a keen cultural awareness. A consensus is emerging that the teen-oriented pop scene that has dominated showbiz during the past four years has finally crested.
A recent cover story in Entertainment Weekly magazine proclaimed “The Teen Bust,” pointing to decreasing (though still platinum-plus) sales for Backstreet Boys, along with disappointing box-office returns and ratings for youth-targeted movies and TV shows as, evidence of a downward spiral.
‘N Sync, however, has so far managed to hold its own. Its new single, “Pop” – a track from “Celebrity” co-written by Timberlake – soared up the radio airplay charts and almost immediately became the No. 1 song on MTV’s “Total Request Live.” And in advance of “Celebrity,” a collection of material composed and produced mostly by ‘N Sync’s members, the band has been playing to sell-out crowds in stadiums since May.
“The one that’s got some issues is Backstreet Boys,” says one tour promoter. “‘N Sync has been fairly bullet-proof.”
Those are encouraging words for Bass and company, who credit an inventive spirit with bolstering their popularity.
“I think that keeps us separated from the rest of the pack,” Bass says. “We’re constantly thinking, ‘How can we progress?’ And… all the rest of the groups and people out there are looking at everybody else going, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do something similar to that because look how great it worked for them,’ and by the time they do it it’s already old news and we’re already two steps ahead.”
STEPPING FORWARD WITH “CELEBRITY”
Bass calls “Celebrity” another step forward for ‘N Sync. With staccato beats and herky-jerky rhythm – and its lyrical defense of pop music in general – “Pop” is a case in point.
“It’s not radio-friendly,” Bass says with pride. “There’s no songs like it. It doesn’t have a formula. It was scary to release it, actually.”
The rest of “Celebrity’s” 13 songs take ‘N Sync even further afield from the slick sounds of the group’s first two albums, he says. Contributors and guests run the gamut from techno favorite B.T. (Brian Transeau), who co-produced “Pop,” to R&B hit-maker Brian McKnight and longtime ‘N Sync collaborators Max Martin and Kristian Lunden. Stevie Wonder even plays harmonica on one track.
Bass says “dirty pop,” a phrase from “Pop,” is an apt description of what ‘N Sync was after, and he says the group also has embraced the new two-step blend of techno and R&B styles currently popular in Britain.
“Of course we have the big, epic ballads we always have, the huge movie soundtrack songs and ‘wedding’ songs. Then most of the songs on the album are the big, fun, dance (tunes),” he says. “The thing that we want to show with this new album is just a different sound.”
A BIG YEAR ALREADY
When it comes out, “Celebrity” will be the biggest project in an already eventful year for ‘N Sync. It started with a performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, where the group sang with Aerosmith, Timberlake’s girlfriend, Britney Spears, rapper Nelly and Mary J. Blige.
The quintet inducted Michael Jackson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and will take part in a pair of tribute concerts for the “King of Pop” this fall at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
A new series of Barbie dolls dressed as ‘N Sync fans has been issued, and the group has even survived that pinnacle of superstardom, the celebrity death rumor (a widely disseminated bogus report that Timberlake and Spears were killed in an auto accident).
But Bass acknowledges that such rumors are a modest price to pay for the success ‘N Sync has experienced – and hopes to maintain in the future.
“It’s way more relaxing now, definitely,” says Bass, who also produced and acted (with bandmate Fatone) in the forthcoming film “On the Line.”
“You go through a lot of crap the first four years of your career, and I think it’s harder on a group like us that’s definitely not respected at all at the beginning. You really have to fight the criticism and all the comparisons. So, yeah, we definitely had a long way to go, and we worked our butts off to get here.”
Gary Graff is a nationally syndicated journalist who covers the music scene from Detroit. He also is the supervising editor of the award-winning “MusicHound” album guide series.