The heavyweight champions of pop experiment with 'Celebrity,' on which they take their destiny into their own hands
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."
Two weeks later, on a hot Monday in Los Angeles, 'N Sync are on a back lot at Sony Studios, waiting to shoot the video for "Pop." They're sprawled out around a plain rectangular table, each man doing his own thing. Justin, 20, the Southern boy with a bunch of black in him, is with the black bodyguards, wearing a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt, watching Spike Lee's concert film The Original Kings of Comedy on a portable DVD player. Lance, 22 – the supernice, humble, patient guy who's so pretty he almost looks like a girl, and who never, ever stops smiling – is playing backgammon for the first time with a buddy. JC, 24 – the shy, pensive one – is quietly observing the game with his beautiful green-eyed girlfriend, Bobbie Thomas, leaning on his shoulder. JC is a few notches below mellow offstage. He's the one with the greatest distance between his onstage and offstage personae, the one most likely to meander right past you so silently you wouldn't even notice him. (He's also a Picasso fan, which is interesting because his strong, squared-off nose seems a touch too large for his face, as if he's a Picasso figure.) Chris, 29 – the very bowlegged, sarcastic, irreverent jokester – is taking in the scene with a Handycam. Chris is a real football-, hockey-, drinking- and motor-cycle-loving guy's guy. "I'm like a bunch of college guys got together and said, 'Let's make a dude, a crazy dude,'" he says. "And they made me." Staring into the viewfinder of his Handycam, Chris spies a shapely dancer who's showing off the zipper running horizontally across her derriere. "You know," Chris says, "if you fart, you can just open that up, and the gaseous fumes can fly out." Everyone laughs, especially Joey, 24, seated inches away from Chris, with a shapely dancer at each shoulder as if he were a young Hugh Hefner. He's a relaxed guy at ease with himself, but also a giant wild boy with a rambunctious electricity bubbling constantly beneath his skin, as if he's about to make a party break out anytime, anywhere. The dancer with the zippered ass opens the zipper to reveal a thin vision of her ass cleavage. Joey's eyes grow large. "She could sit on my lap anytime!" he says.
The others focus on Joey. "You know he's feeling better," Justin says.
"He got all those girls around him," JC says. "He don't feel nothing."
They're happy just to see him happy. Two days ago in New Orleans, the guys suffered what may have been the scariest moment of their career when, during a rehearsal, a platform under the stage released at the wrong time and sent 300 pounds of pressure springing up at Joey. "As I picked my feet up," Joey says, "the whole thing releases, and the weight shot up and caught my knee and my calf between the stage and the platform. It was like, wham! I was trapped for a split second." Lance was the first to reach him. He asked if his leg was broken, and Joey said, "I don't think so, but it's burning." Lance lifted up his pant leg. "There was a hole," he says. "You could see the bone, you could see everything. So we applied pressure on it, and the fat was coming out, and it was not good. He can take pain good, but he was in pain. Oh, he screamed. It looked like a bullet went through his leg."
"He ended up going to the hospital," JC says, "and they cut a piece of his leg out and had to rinse the metal out because his leg was caught between two pieces of metal. I don't know how it didn't break. He's a tough kid."
"The good thing," Lance says matter-of-factly, "is he didn't go underneath the stage, because it would've lifted and, like, chopped his head off. He would've been dead. Oh, yeah. It would've decapitated him totally."
All this has made the group suddenly nervous about their show. "This is the most dangerous stage ever for a tour," Lance says. "All the crew's wearing hard hats. There's so much flying, so much pyro. It's dangerous, and there's stairs [that come down from] the middle of the big [video] screen, and they've broken every time we got on them. It's pretty scary. I wasn't nervous till he got hurt. Now I am."
Joey limped slowly into work today with the help of a black cane, happy to show off his big round knee and the bruises and the four staples barely holding together an inch-long cut on the inside of his right calf. (These aren't Joey's first staples. "I got staples in my head 'cause I got hit with a sword when I was doin' a play," he says. "I also got stitches in my legs, my hands, my head.") He's got a Superman-emblem earring in his right ear, and today it's well earned.
In a dressing room, as Joey trims his goatee, JC leans against the wall, watching him. "I was so bummed yesterday without you," JC says. "It was so eerie. Chris was like, 'I don't wanna [shoot the video].' But we had to do it."
"I had so much time to rest it was weird," Joey says.
"Messed with your head?"
"If didn't jump, it woulda been OK. But if I walked out . . . "
"You woulda been dead."
"Right. I keep thinkin' about it over and over."
"You're so lucky."
"Lucky I got fat legs."
Lance says, "He's crippled for a while. We have six more rehearsals, and he'll never be able to do those." But just a few weeks later, Joey is onstage dancing. "He's in pain," JC says in New York, a day after the tour's New Jersey stop. "But Joey's got great showmanship. He knows how to cover his steps 'cause he's been onstage longer than any of us." Joey uses a little brace to help him and is pushing off on his left leg at times when the other guys are pushing off on their right. He's in pain during the show and the next day, too, but the show must go on.
This is the 'N Sync work ethic: 'N Sync get onstage on time every night, do their job with a smile. They offer a very safe star-fan relationship. Their music and videos are free of obscenity, their public personae are free of profanity. You get the sense that they'll never be arrested for anything. "If some twelve-year-old sees on the news that I got arrested for cocaine, that affects a lot of people," Lance says. "I remember when I was ten and I caught my sister drinking. It was so devastating to me." Now that Lance is of age, he prefers Jack and Coke but often volunteers to be the designated driver. "I can have water and feel like I'm getting drunk," he says.
Their wholesomeness, professionalism and origin as a puppetlike boy band lead many people to conclude that their personalities are like their image – that is, wack. An extra on the set of the "Pop" video told a friend, "I love their songs, but they themselves are retarded." Truth is, they're a little more complex than "retarded" suggests, even if they don't always show it in public. "I've gone to a Kid Rock show, and I've seen some of the crazy stuff," Joey says. "Our demographic pulls in a lot of younger kids and their moms. You know how boring it is backstage? We don't party backstage. We're never drinkin' before the show. We just warm up our voices and hang out."
"Our show doesn't allow us to do booze or anything like that," JC says, "because we wouldn't be able to execute it physically. So that's a bonus for us that we can't get mixed up in that junk." They prepare like pro athletes, restricting their backstage area to just group members an hour before showtime for vocal rehearsals and mental prep. After the show they act like pro athletes, too. "Before the band even hits the last note, we've already gone to the bus," Joey says. "Then I'll go to clubs, and that's where the crazy part is." (In New York, the China Club seems to be a group favorite, but there's always Mug Shots on First Avenue. "It's the coolest dive bar in New York," Lance says. "It's very small. One little bar, a pool table and the coolest people. They let me bartend. I'll bring my friends from Mississippi, and there'll be, like, fifty of us in there, and we'll just take over the place and be there till, like, six in the morning just having the best time.")
The guys are now unbelievably rich and famous and, except for twenty-year-old Justin, they are adults with all the world's opportunities and pleasures on a menu before them – guys with cool stuff, eccentric taste and famous friends. They wear pedestrian gear such as Abercrombie and Fitch, Kangol and Nike, as well as fashion-forward stuff like Dolce & Gabbana sneakers, Paul Smith shirts and designer-shredded hand-beaded jeans. Justin admits to "an addiction to cars and shoes" – he's got 450 pairs of boots and sneakers (not counting the ones he's given away), including every model of Air Jordans ever made. In addition to his Prowler, he has a Dodge Viper, an Audi TT, a Porsche 911, a BMW M Roadster, a Mercedes and a Cadillac Escalade with a DVD player, PlayStation 2 and TVs in the headrests. "I've macked that out," he says.
Joey has bought cars for his parents and both his siblings – Mom got a white Cadillac for Christmas. "He's not stingy," his sister Janine says. "We all have nice cars; we all live in houses. We're taken care of. He's good like that." But when Joey gives, he puts a little theater into it. One night the whole Fatone family went to Benihana for dinner, and as the meal ended the chef flipped a set of keys onto Janine's plate. "I'm like, 'All right, whose keys are these?'" she says. "Nobody answered me, and my heart started pounding." She ran to the parking lot and found a red PT Cruiser waiting for her.
Joey has a Star Wars-theme movie theater in his Orlando home. "Before you walk in, you put your hand on a plate, and the door hydraulically slides open," he says. "You walk in, the door closes behind you." Lance has three homes, one in Orlando, one in Mississippi – featuring a Dr. Seuss room – and one on the border of Florida and Alabama in a place called Floribama. "There's actually a bar there where half of it's in Florida, half in 'Bama," he says. "In Alabama, the bar closes an hour earlier, so everyone has to scoot to the Florida end of the bar." He's thinking of buying in Toronto and Los Angeles.
That's not to say they buy whatever they like. JC says, "I haven't done anything crazy with my money." Chris, who grew up in poverty and once spent a winter in a trailer with a hole in the side of it (he slept in his laundry to keep warm), continues to find his wealth strange. "It's absurd to have gone from totally poor to totally rich," he says. "It's beyond absurd. I wake up in my house in the middle of the night and go, 'Whose house is this?' I just wish I could go back and talk to that kid who was poor and wearing dirty clothes and say, 'Dude, I know you don't have a phone right now, you don't have a car, you've had to work since you were twelve just to make rent, but don't worry about it. Some day you're gonna spend as much on rims as you do on rent.'"
Chris bought his mom a home for Christmas last year, but he's not buying much more. "I have a financial adviser who won't let me do anything," he says. "He's so tight that if I go through the drive-through, he makes me call him if I wanna supersize."
There are new interests that have little or nothing to do with money. JC has become a fan of red wine. "I prefer merlots and cabernets," he says. "There's a difference between fruity-tasting wine and oak-tasting wine, and I don't like a lot of the sweet stuff. I like it more bitter." He's also into fine art, an admirer of photographers Peter Beard and Helmut Newton – he just bought Newton's 480-page, 66-pound, $2,500 book Sumo – as well as Picasso and Monet. "Monets remind me of my grandma," he says. "It reminds me of the stuff my grandma has in her house, so it kinda makes me feel comfortable."
He's begun painting. "I'm painting abstract stuff because I'm not skilled enough to do anything else," he says. "Sometimes I'll draw it out on paper first or sometimes I'll just play around and see what I like. You feel like you're five years old again." His paintings take an hour to three days to complete. "It helps me understand stuff sometimes."
Justin satiates his need to understand through his spirituality, reading Conversations With God and The Four Agreements and meditating regularly. "I sit on my bed, close my eyes, breathe deeply and get into a zone," he says. "You get oxygen, and you start to feel, like, dizzy, and you start to kinda drift away. You get that moment where you block everything out, and you just feel, and it takes you to a whole 'nother place. It's kinda like my conversation with God."
Many say Celebrity recalls the music of Michael Jackson's Dangerous. That's Justin's influence. He's taken the soul food he grew up eating to his musical heart. He learned to sing, he says, by listening to Brian McKnight, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Al Green and his idol, Michael Jackson. "The tonality of Justin's vocals and his rhythmic instincts for really percussive singing are very Michael Jackson," says BT. The bodyguards call him Youngblood because, says bodyguard Todd Dukes, "he's got a little soul to him." (It doesn't hurt that he's a good basketball player, loves greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, chicken and dressing, and corned beef and cabbage, and believes hot sauce makes everything taste better.) "Justin could've been raised in the black church," says Williams of the Neptunes. "To say that he's got soul is something you expect me to say, but it's true. He doesn't display it that much in this music 'cause this music doesn't call for it, but when it's time for his solo, shit, he might just do it."
Sometimes being in 'N Sync makes it hard to take advantage of the opportunities that being in 'N Sync brings. Joey would like to do a role on The Sopranos, but it could confuse his younger fans. "It's hard to do something like that," he says. "You don't wanna be goin', 'Effin' this and eff that,' and grabbin' your nuts, even though that would be the character. Adults might say, 'Oh I can't let him or her listen to 'N Sync anymore.' And that shouldn't be the case, but it is what it is."
Chris and Justin Planned to bring their motorcycles with them on tour, but management insisted they bring security along when they rode. And Chris says that cuts down the freedom of motorcycles and defeats the entire purpose. "But this whole thing defeats a lot of purposes," Chris says. "The whole business, the whole being known."
Still, their dreams are more accessible than ever. Chris has his clothing company, FuMan Skeeto. Justin is working on a mystery novel. Joey is compiling a home video of footage he shot in Germany years ago during the group's inception. And Lance has a film-production company called A Happy Place, which is in discussions with Meryl Streep for a Holocaust picture. This fall will see the release of On the Line, a Miramax romantic comedy Lance co-produced and stars in with Joey.
One day in Orlando in the recording studio, The Matrix was playing on the television set.
"Jada Pinkett's gonna be bad in Matrix 2," JC said.
"Aren't they filming 3 at the same time?" Lance said.
"Yeah. Man, I'd love to be in that!" JC said, just dreaming.
"How bad do you wanna be in that?" Lance said, seriously.
"No, I wanna be in Star Wars 3. The Jedi War! I'll wear prosthetics and everything!"
"I can make a call," Lance said. The bodyguards' nickname for him is Hollywood. "I know someone."
All the guys complain of not having much time for girls, but there are a few 'N Sync girlfriends right now. JC has Bobbie, his girlfriend of two years, and Joey has his girlfriend of eight years, Kelly Baldwin, whom, he says, he hopes to marry someday. In May they had a beautiful daughter named Brianna. Chris and Lance both have recently been through breakups. "It's weird when you break up with someone," Chris says. "I almost had a nervous breakdown today."
"I don't think anyone would like to be my girlfriend because of the attention level that you can't give," JC says. "We're married to our work, and it sucks for a girl to hear that she's second. It's a tough thing to say, but there's no way around it. I love my four best friends, and there's no way I'm gonna let them down."
There may not be much time for girls, but there's always time to think about them, especially for Joey. He's the one who wears T-shirts that say I DO NOT MASTURBATE on the front and LIAR on the back. The one who grabs his make up artist's ass, play-humps his publicist and winks at models in the front row as he dances. The one the bodyguards call Triple-X. "I think he was the ladies' man in high school," Lance says. "Always dating everybody. All the girls wanted a piece of him because they could get it. He wasn't very picky, I would say, back in high school. He isn't now."
Joey acknowledges his reputation – "I'm the more flirtatious one of the group," he says, but adds that he's faithful to his woman. "Any girl that I've ever encountered to hang out, it's nothing intimate, it's just to hang out and have a good time. From doing that, you get to learn about a lot of different people and different ways of life."
In the beginning, 'N Sync were completely under the control of their manager and their record label. "Our first album was pretty political," Chris says. "It was about satisfying a lot of different people 'cause we were puppets. We were doing what the record company thought sounded good or looked good, or sounded safe." They have since parted ways with both the manager and the label. For the last three years, 'N Sync have been determined to take control of 'N Sync. Now they're very involved in determining the minutiae of their sound and image. "No decision is made without our approval," JC says as he considers the look of tank tops to be sold on tour and whether certain images in the booklet that accompanies the album should be in color or black-and-white. "Everything has to come across our table."
They're a bit skittish about assigning leadership roles within the group, but it seems Justin and JC are heavily involved in shaping the music, Joey and Chris are best at coming up with ideas for the stage show, and Lance handles business and management. All this involvement in their music and their product makes them bristle at being called a boy band. "It's really almost like a bad slang to us," Chris says with a touch of bitterness. "When you say 'boy band,' you're grouping us into a bunch of groups that everybody thinks are very similar, and they're nothing like us. They may be five guys or four guys or other similarities here and there, but it's just one of those things. We've spent six years trying to get out of the shadow of being this boy-band thing."
Perhaps Celebrity, with all its experimentation and attempts to grow up their music, will finally rip them from that dreaded shadow. "I wanna be an artist," Justin says hopefully. "To me, this is our artistry. People have labeled us as not bein' artistic, but after this album I don't think we'll hear 'boy band' too much more. We're trying to grow musically. We're trying to take that step where no boy band has gone before."