'N Sync Steps Out

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

nsync, archive, n sync, Justin Timberlake, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Lance Bass, boy band
Michel Linssen/Redferns/Getty
'N Sync photographed in 1998 in the Netherlands.
By |

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.

That 'N-Sync'ing feeling is wholesome but not boring; one senses that these ambitious young pros are more interested in getting high on the Billboard charts than on anything else. They all wear bracelets with the letters WWJD on them, standing for What Would Jesus Do? (In comparison, New Kids on the Block were shock rockers who read Malcolm X, and one member even lectured a visiting journalist on how to get a blow job). They are notably well-behaved, amiable Everyguys who generally communicate in the standard gangsta-lite "Whazzup?" lingo so dominant among those who have grown up in the hip-hop era. Still, this is America, and even in malls there's room for some variety, so we get Joey's residual get-outta-here New Yawkisms and Lance's somewhat more refined, Southern-gentleman persona.

Their appeal is testified to in just about every letter being opened right now by Joey's parents in a nearby building – and about 1,500 new pieces of mail arrived today, including one from fourteen-year-old Leilani from Pomeroy, Washington, who tells the group that she likes volleyball, tennis, rollerblading and, of course, 'N Sync and that she hopes to be a toxicologist after she graduates from high school. The remarkable success story that has been built in Orlando – with a bit of old-school showbiz capitalism -has been put together by a fascinating, unlikely partnership between former New Kids road manager Johnny Wright; his wife, Donna Wright; and Louis Pearlman, a cousin of Art Garfunkel's and a colorful entrepreneur in his own right.

"Lou and I and Donna used to joke all the time that we were going to turn Orlando into the next Motown, but we were going to call it Snowtown – because we weren't doing it with R&B acts, we were doing it with pop acts," says Wright, the group's hands-on manager, taking a break in his impressive office, across the parking lot from the studio. "I guess you could say Backstreet Boys are the Temptations and 'N Sync are the Four Tops." If the goal was, as Wright says, to build "a mini-Motown," it's getting less mini by the minute.

This is all a long way from the days in the Eighties when Wright was a nineteen-year-old disc jockey on Cape Cod who played some of Maurice Starr's records. Starr called to tell Wright that he was running a talent show and that if Wright could come up with $1,500, he could get a piece of whoever won it. Wright couldn't come up with the dough, and the group that went on to win the contest was New Edition. So when Starr later called to see whether Wright would drive a van with his new group, called New Kids on the Block, around the Boston area, Wright jumped. "What was supposed to be three days ended up being four and a half years," he remembers. All the time he was road-managing New Kids, Wright was also studying the business from New Kids manager and former Motown executive Dick Scott. Then, in the post-Milli Vanilli era, New Kids fell apart amid allegations that they didn't, in fact, have the right stuff. "There was a witch hunt going on back then, and anybody who didn't write, produce and play instruments themselves was a target," Wright says. When New Kids took a break, Scott moved him over to work with the Europop act Snap!, with whom Wright learned the international market firsthand.

Tiring of the Boston snow, Wright headed to Orlando with Donna in the early Nineties. They kept hearing about Backstreet Boys, a five-member boy group in the New Kids tradition but having been there, done that, Wright wasn't interested. Fortunately, Donna – with whom Wright had run a teen-oriented nightclub on Cape Cod encouraged him to be more open-minded. She went to meet with Louis Pearlman, who had founded the group, and persuaded Johnny to check it out.

Louis Pearlman – who likes to refer to himself as Big Poppa around his acts – grew up listening to a cappella music. He picked up guitar at age eight and eventually played in his own horny rock-soul band, which got as far as opening for Donna Summer and Kool and the Gang, before giving up music to pursue his education. He attended Queens College (Jerry Seinfeld was a classmate), got an MBA, then started law school. Borrowing seed money from his uncle – Cousin Art's dad – Pearlman went into business in aviation, his second love. He began leasing used planes and before long was chartering luxury jets to the likes of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. His empire expanded when he got into the airship-advertising business – i.e., blimps. More recently, Pearlman became a restaurateur and the owner of that famous all-male flesh factory, Chippendales.

Still, Pearlman wasn't satisfied with only the edges of show-business profits. Opportunity knocked when the New Kids rented one of his planes. "I said to my cousin, 'How can they afford an airplane, these kids?'" Pearlman recalls. Garfunkel gave his cousin a sense of how much money the Kids were making. "I was on the wrong side of the coin," Pearlman says. "Artie told me, 'You're in business; you like music. You should do something like that.' So as a weekend goof we decided to do a little audition, and one thing led to another."

That was 1992, and that weekend goof eventually led to the formation of Backstreet Boys, a project that Pearlman says he spent nearly $3 million on before dollar one came back. That, of course, was many, many dollars ago. Now everywhere one looks around these parts, there's something else he owns – the travel agency that books the bands, the media company that puts them online, the new $6 million studio where they record.

First came lots of rejection. "We had so many record companies slamming the door in our face," says Wright. "I decided, let's Send them over to Europe and see if we can build a story for them over there." This would become part of the formula that would also serve 'N Sync so well – use easy-to-crack international markets as testing waters and as a singing-dancing-promoting boot camp. Unlike in America, European markets never tire of boy and girl pop acts, as evidenced by the massive success of Take That, the Spice Girls and others. Wright was confident that his American teens would stand out, since "a lot of these groups like that weren't singing, and we were taking a group that could really sing."

The strategy worked. It was while Wright was overseas with the Boys that Pearlman called him and asked whether he knew that there was another group from Orlando like Backstreet Boys. Wright initially thought he had no time to get involved with a new gang of five, but when the Boys' label, Jive, split with distributor BMG, Wright saw an opportunity in what he called the revenge factor. He called BMG, and before long a deal was in place for 'N Sync. Like Backstreet Boys, they worked largely with successful Europop producers and then reworked their album for U.S. consumption. 'N Sync formed somewhat more organically than their Backstreet brethren. A bubbly literature that tells their legend already exists in periodicals like Bop, Teen Machine and Tiger Beat. Having met up with Pearlman, Kirkpatrick – an Orlando college student who had grown up poor in Clarion, Pennsylvania – tried to put a group together, eventually hooking up with two former Mouseketeers. Timberlake, a kid from Tennessee who got the Mouse gig after losing on Star Search, and Chasez, a middleclass kid from suburban Maryland who had come to Orlando for national talent-show finals, had already headed to Nashville together to cut demos after the Mouse Club was canceled. At a local club, they ran into their acquaintance Fatone – a son of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, who had moved to Orlando years earlier with his father, a former singer himself, and his mother. A drama king at Doctor Phillips High School in Orlando, Fatone can be seen briefly in the 1993 film Matinee and possibly as a tyke extra in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America; around that time, he was also working in shows at the Universal and Disney theme parks. "I was a little too short to play Tigger and a little too tall to play Pluto," he reports.

Finding the right guy to sing bass and complete the vocal mix proved most difficult. Finally, through Timberlake's Nashville vocal coach, they found Lance Bass, who at first was too busy being class president at Mississippi's Clinton High School to take the offer seriously. Finally, the morning after his homecoming parade, Lance flew to Orlando, staying with the four members and Lance's mother. "It was like The Real World," says Bass. "Except we all got along."

From the first song they sang together – Lance believes it was the national anthem – something clicked. Everyone brought something to the 'N Sync party: Justin is, as JC points out, "the All-American guy" – the fair-haired, boyish sex symbol who sings the leads, along with JC – who is, according to Justin, "the serious music guy." Joey, true to his vaguely Baldwin-esque looks, is, according to all the other guys, "the group's playboy." As 'N Sync's leading heartthrob, Justin, complains, "Joey's a womanizer – he takes my women, whazzup with that?" Lance, meanwhile, is "Mister Businesshead," according to JC, while Justin says that Chris is "the crazy one, the loud one, the Psycho Spice."

Trouble in teen paradise started when 'N Sync hit it big in Germany and then kicked into high gear when they passed Backstreet Boys on the album charts in September. Wright alludes to bad feelings that he has created 'N Sync's success on the coattails of Backstreet Boys. "The ultimate goal was to do it not once but twice," says Wright. "With 'N Sync at Number Three in this country, I think we've done that. And, obviously, it's caused a problem."

In fact, in September, Backstreet Boys made the move to leave Wright's Backstreet Management, although there's still a year to run on their management contract. "Not to say too much – because we are in a legal situation right now – I was made an offer I could refuse," Wright explains – adding, "With all the success and everything that's going on, we should all be popping champagne and toasting the success that everybody has worked hard for over the last five years, but it's all mired by other things."

A spokeswoman for Backstreet Boys confirms that the group has "parted ways" with management and is now "pursuing other possible opportunities." Pearlman's relationship with the Boys continues, and Pearlman, Johnny Wright and Donna Wright all now have their own enterprises, with Donna Wright running the Latin-tinged Diva Productions.

Johnny Wright remains proud of the acts and the music: "We always get labeled by the critics as 'bubblegum' because they are catering primarily to a teen audience, but the fact is, the records are good. You want to tell me that 'As Long As You Love Me' and 'Quit Playing Games' aren't quality records? They are. 'I Want You Back' and 'Tearin' Up My Heart' are quality records. If Aerosmith or someone was singing those songs, they would get a lot more credibility."

For their part, the endlessly amiable 'N Sync guys have nothing bad to say about Backstreet Boys. Still, obvious comparisons grow tiring. "People try to make a feud out of everything," says Justin. "And we didn't even see it like that." Furthermore, 'N Sync do feel that they are musically distinct from the Boys, in part because of what Fatone calls 'N Sync's "more intricate harmonies."

According to Wright, they may also be the more cohesive outfit. "I don't want to say anything negative," says Wright, "but Backstreet Boys were put together as five guys who were on roads of their own, five individuals with five individual careers moving forward who are together. 'N Sync came to me as a group and kind of put themselves together. 'N Sync, they're always moving as a group. I have never seen them argue with each other, and that kind of scares me."

Now that 'N Sync have a pop mania to contend with, they've had time to consider their responsibility to all those little girls going crazy for them. "We just want to make sure everybody is safe," says JC. "As long as nobody is hurting themselves, there's no harm, no foul. I camped out for tickets, like, when Hammer was a big record of the day. We would camp out for six hours to get those tickets, and those are bonding experiences. It was our little way to have an adventure. It's not like we could go to Africa and go on safari, but it was fun to be with your friends and do something a littie crazy."

For the record, the 'N Sync guys do have personal lives – as Kirkpatrick points out, "I'm twenty-seven years old; I'm allowed to date!" JC confirms that the group is "very hormonal," but he says it is morally grounded – don't forget the What Would Jesus Do? bracelets – and that none of them would ever date a studio intern, which puts these teen dreams one up on the president. Still, this begs the question of exactly how in sync with 'N Sync the girls want to get. Are they screaming because they dig the tunes and the dancing, or are they thinking about making out with their lab five? "No, I just think they're in it for the ride," says JC after pondering the issue. "They want to have a good time, and when they go to the show, we just want to entertain the heck out of them."

This story is from the November 12th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 799: November 12, 1998