'N Sync Steps Out

The boy band's Euro-Floridian beginnings are explored in their first Rolling Stone feature

'N Sync photographed in 1998 in the Netherlands.
Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty
November 12, 1998

The sound of young America is being made this afternoon inside an industrial park in Orlando, a short hop from the Wet 'n' Wild water park, Disney World and the other theme attractions of this famously unreal city. A sign on nearby property proclaims BUILD TO SUIT, and there is little doubt that the adorable empire being built right here suits millions of teens around the world and many more yet to come.

Three French girls, ages eighteen to twenty, who are stationed outside the building that houses Trans Continental Studios offer the only clue that this isn't just any corporate real estate that this sunny and slightly sterile spot is the center of the 'N Sync universe and, to some slightly mysterious extent, Backstreet Boys' universe, too. This morning these vacationing fans found the home of 'N Sync member Joey Fatone Jr. and followed him to work. Here they will stay the entire day, taking in this cultural hot spot as American tourists might the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. They do so despite the fact that Orlando is in the thick of. "love bug" season, which has left the entire parking area overrun by furiously mating mosquitoes.

Inside the recently bulk studio on this September day, the members of 'N Sync – Fatone, 22; Justin Timberlake, 17; JC Chasez, 21; Lance Bass, 19; and the grand old man of the group, Chris Kirkpatrick, 27 – are spending a rare day off the road, recording their upcoming Christmas album. Fittingly, glad tidings and good cheer are all around. The sparkling hallways are lined with photos of and gold- and platinum-record awards for 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys, as well as pictures of Aaron Carter, the ten-year-old brother of Backstreet Boys' resident blond, Nick Carter. The whole place smells just like teen spirit, and it smells pretty damn good.

'N Sync are hardly alone here at Trans Continental; also recording are members of the girl group Innosense, managed by Justin's mother, Lynn, who oversaw 'N Sync early on. Other hopefuls stopping by include members of the youthful white rap group Lyte Funkie Ones. Everyone warmly congratulates the 'N Sync guys for "blowin' up" on the charts. The 'N Syncsters themselves, although tired from recording vocals into the wee hours last night, are in good spirits – none more so than Justin, who's sitting in his beloved Mercedes van playing Jermaine Dupri's new album and telling anyone who'll listen about getting shiny rims put on his tires today. Still, amid this comfort and joy, there's plenty of work to do, including finishing a killer a cappella blue-eyed-soul version of "O Holy Night."

This curious scene unfolding in Orlando seems the polar opposite of Seattle's early-Nineties flannel-clad gloom and doom. Fed by the theme parks at which many teen-pop singers learn their chops, this area has become a breeding ground for young, goodlooking raw talent. 'N Sync's Justin and JC, for example, first met as cast members on the mid-Nineties Mickey Mouse Club for the Disney Channel, a show that also featured future Felicity star Keri Russell. Orlando – also the home to Matchbox 20 – has become hot in the record biz. "It's music without excuses," says Vincent Degiorgio, 'N Sync's A&R man at RCA, now home to both Innosense and local Miami bass-ers 95 South.

"Two and a half years ago, we were at the tail end of the grunge era," explains Steven Greenberg, the Mercury Records A&R man who signed Hanson, "and everyone doubted that a pure pop act could get on the radio. People forgot that most of the kids in America aren't particularly unhappy and would relate to music that said life can be good. Everyone was aiming at an audience college age and above and hoping that the music would trickle down. The younger audience had no choice but to listen to music that was created for a much older audience, while today there's music being created for a younger audience."

That music – made for teens by teens, in the case of Hanson (5.3 million sold) and Brandy (3.6 million sold), or for teens by people who dress like teens, in the case of the Spice Girls (9.8 million sold) – presently accounts for about ten percent of sales in the pop marketplace, with teens spending an annual $2,704,945,100 on music. There are 31 million teenagers in America, with an estimated $122 billion in disposable income.

Numbers like these have set off the usual record-industry feeding frenzy, and, as with any trend, there's a potential downside. "Some labels take a cynical view toward the teen market and think as long as you have a cute-boy act that has attractive pinups in magazines, that you can sell anything to young kids," says Greenberg. "Kids are far more sophisticated than labels give them credit for. The biggest threat to the teen market is that sort of cynicism."

The members of 'N Sync are anything but cynical. They know that their audience is in charge and make no excuses about being entertainers. "People say the grunge people didn't try to entertain," says JC during a break in recording. "Please. That was just as much of a trend as anything else. They were doing what Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler were doing, which was shaking their heads and running around being wild. They were entertainers; otherwise they would just have sat perfectly still and sang their song. This new generation is great. They want to have fun." In recent weeks, 'N Sync have been having lots of fun, making a dash up to Number Three on the Billboard album chart – a few spots ahead of the still redhot Backstreet Boys. The spark that ignited the 'N Sync fire couldn't have been more wholesome: an hour-long Disney Channel special during which they rode roller-coaster simulators, checked out the NFL Experience at Disney's Wide World of Sports and, oh, yeah, played music. Just a few days ago, their American debut album of pop-y R&B – featuring the current smash "Tearin' Up My Heart," "I Want You Back" (not the Jackson 5 song), and 'N Syncified covers of Bread's "Everything I Own" and Christopher Cross' "Sailing" – went double platinum.

'N Sync are happening in a major way, and even a non-teen male can see why – they can sing, they can dance, they're cute, and they have an almost archetypally accessible boy-next-door quality. Indeed, spending time with this fab five is like taking a sampling of young Caucasian male America after all the ugly, fucked-up ones have been helpfully filtered out for your protection.

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