Picture this: a bunch of guys sitting around talking about girls. Just a normal guys-talking-about-dream-women sort of convo, one man dropping the name of some god-dess, and the others cheering in response. Beyoncé Knowles, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Lucy Liu all get their props. But we're in Orlando, Florida, in a recording studio, tinkering with a song called "Girlfriend," for an album called Celebrity by a quintet called 'N Sync; so these guys talking goddesses are young and paid with the style, fame and looks to actually nab one of these goddesses, which changes the dynamic of the conversation from abstract dreaming to abstract planning.
There's a valley of knobs and red, green and yellow dots of light, a bank of speakers, a recordable CD on which someone has written "'NSucks" and a slew of Aeron chairs, but the whole room is probably smaller than your bedroom if you live with your parents. To the right is producer Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes – who has worked with Jay-Z, Mystikal and Ol' Dirty Bastard – leaning back in a white Polo shirt with a pink Ralph Lauren logo. To Williams' left sits Chris Kirkpatrick of 'N Sync. His hair is maroon and spiky, and he wears baggy orange Abercrombie and Fitch cargo shorts and Air Jordans. And next to Chris is Justin Timberlake, sporting paint-splattered jeans, a plain white T-shirt, a big diamond stud in each ear, a Top Gun-ish crew cut and blue-tinted sunglasses resting at the base of his neck. (Lance Bass and JC Chasez will show up in a few hours to contribute their vocals, and Joey Fatone will come in tomorrow.) Justin's dinner, a small Denny's chicken-fried steak with runny cheese eggs and something resembling mashed potatoes, is waiting nearby. He's restless, driven, polite and pleasant – especially pleasant, positive and encouraging when coaching Chris on his vocals. He's not a goody-goody, though he calls his mom his best friend. "There's nothing in this world that I've done that my mother does not know about," he says. He spontaneously launches into songs by Bill Withers or Missy Elliott, or paeans to his grandmother's cooking. "Once you've had my grandmother's peach cobbler, you are saved!" Imagine one of those highly energized kids who go to church camp, then add a healthy dose of hip-hop flavoring.
You probably already know that Justin is dating one of the goddesses (Britney Something-or-other). That explains why he's been pretty quiet through most of the goddess praising, up until now. "I think my girl is fine," he says without arrogance, just pride, a blond goatee barely visible against his manila-colored skin. "I scored. What can I say? The thing is, so many girls you meet in this business are so into themselves, and Britney is not. She's as down-home as she was before she got into this. That's the best thing about her. I got the cream of the crop, man!" No one argues with that.
Half an hour later, slicing through a near-empty Orlando highway at seventy miles an hour in his blood-red Plymouth Prowler with the top down and the setting sun painting the sky with brilliant orange and pink, Justin continues gushing about his sweetheart. "When we get together, that's just my girl, and I love her, and that's it. I don't think about what everybody's thinkin' about. She makes me happy. She's like salvation." Being a good friend to her is important to him. "All she has is me. I'm the only one in her life she wants to talk to about stuff. If I have a problem, I have four guys I can talk to, and I can go directly to them. She has to call me on the phone, and it's hard." He's helping her move from bubblegum to more rockish stuff. "I'm givin' her some ideas." You just know that someday they'll do a song together. "The timing has to be right for both of us," he says. "I want it to be somethin' new that they haven't heard us do, that they didn't think we could do. I feel like we still have artistic growth to show, and maybe after that, then I'll think about it. It definitely would be a spectacle. It would be huge."
All those still wondering if the coupling of America's two cutest teen-pop idols is some sort of publicity stunt, please see Lance Bass: "I think it's the coolest relationship ever," he says. "They're so perfect for each other, It's scary. They were girlfriend and boyfriend at ten or eleven, and it was his first kiss, her first kiss. They don't have hardly any time together, but that's what keeps it kinda fresh. You see those types of things and say, 'Oh, that's so fake, they probably hate each other.' But, no, it's real. Kind of gives love a hope."
Together, these two lovebirds are responsible for the sales of some 40 million copies of five records, according to SoundScan – roughly, that's one CD for every man, woman and child in California and Massachusetts. Add the other two teen-pop titans – the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera – and the number jumps to 76 million, or more than a quarter of the U.S. population.
'N Sync are top dogs in the world of teen pop. Their last album, No Strings Attached, set a sales record for most copies sold in a single week: 2.4 million, 1.1 million of which were sold the first day the album was released. And in a business where most acts make the majority of their money from live performances, not record sales (which, surprise, make money for the label, not the artist), their concerts pull down the biggest paychecks: an average gross of $2.5 million a night for their current PopOdyssey stadium tour (for which they'll play forty-four dates, wrapping up in August in EI Paso). They are riding high, and they are enjoying it. "We've always been the redheaded stepchild," Lance says, "the underdog in everything we've done, and to finally feel we're on top is very emotional."
But they are also at a crossroads. Since 1997, when the Backstreet Boys first broke big, teen-pop acts have ruled the land. 'N Sync were started in the wake of the Backstreet Boys by the same manager as BSB, and, just as the Backstreet Boys did, they broke their contract when they felt they were getting ripped off. "I hate when people take advantage of us," says Lance. "That's when I really go off the deep end. That's when I get to yell. It's like one of those demon things comes out of me." With No Strings Attached they pulled themselves out the Backstreet Boys' shadow. But now other shadows are looming: Much is being made of the return of rock, of bands such as Staind, Tool and Weezer, who are neither teen nor pop. And with 'N Sync's audience growing up, the biggest shadow they must contend with is their own.
"I went to our label and said, 'Can we release, like, 2.3 albums so it won't break the record?' "Lance says. "If we don't break it this time, it'll be so nice because the next album won't be a competition. If we break it this time, then it's gonna start all over again."
"You think that this album we're out to break our record?" Chris says. "No. We're out to have another great album. That's our goal. We don't determine album sales; people do. We determine how good the record is."
On Celebrity, 'N Sync try to push their boundaries beyond what you'd expect from a boy band. The lead single, "Pop," sounds little like 'N Sync's past stuff, and little like anything on the airwaves right now. Justin co-wrote the song with the group's choreographer, Wade Robson, then enlisted twenty-eight-year-old techno producer BT, who has worked with Madonna, Tori Amos and Seal. The idea was to create a song that echoed BT's "Hip-hop Phenomenon," from the U.K. version of his album Movement in Still Life. "I'm like, 'If you seriously wanna do something experimental, I'm down to do that,' "BT recalls. "'But you guys have to let me treat your vocals so irreverently, it's not even funny.' And they're like, 'No problem.'"
BT wanted to do "a frackle-stutter-edited Michael Jackson" track. But the song took on another life when one day he heard Justin beatboxing under his breath. "I'm like, 'Dude, that's dope. You gotta go in there and do that!'" says BT. "He's like, 'No, I never put that on our tracks.' I'm like, 'I don't give a shit, dude! Get your ass in there.' So we took a pair of broken headphones and used 'em as a mike, and I recorded four tracks of him beatboxing." BT took the track and did about 1,200 edits, "like, Max Headroom-style frackle-stutter edits" and buried them within the track. When Justin and JC came by his place, he played them the song, then soloed the track of Justin beat-boxing. JC flipped out. So did Justin. "He was like, 'Oh, my God! You have to make a mix for my car of this track with the beatboxing at the end.'" Justin fell in love with the mix, and even though it was made just for his personal use, he submitted it to the label, and that's the mix of "Pop" that you hear now.
That sort of experimentation is why 'N Sync feel that Celebrity – featuring co-production by the Neptunes, R&B star Brian McKnight and Rodney Jerkins (as well as Swedish teen-pop architect Max Martin) – shows them as more mature, more musically diverse, and more themselves. But freedom's Siamese twin is responsibility. 'N Sync are no longer employees; they're owners who must accept any potential blame. Rejecting Celebrity means rejecting them. "We totally took control of this," Lance says. "It's written and produced mainly by us." Eighty percent of the album was written by the guys – up from fifty percent of No Strings. "It's not like, 'Oh, Max Martin didn't write us a good song this time.' It's us."
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