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.
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