The members of 'N Sync are at their very own Neverland Ranch: the 32,000-square-foot (and growing) lakeside Orlando home of their manager, Johnny Wright, which also serves as the headquarters for his company, the Wright Stuff. The living room is packed with arcade games ranging from Ms. Pac-Man to Mortal Kombat, an old-fashioned Coke machine, a pool table, foosball, two varieties of air hockey (with and without little plastic men) and a sound system bookended by six-foot speakers. Next door, a two-lane bowling alley is under construction in a wing that will also house a dance studio.
Teen-dream décor abounds: a Lucite banister lit from within, a seven-foot glass palm-tree trunk topped by a fern, a dining room dominated by a giant fish tank and a black monolithic running-water sculpture. Outdoors, a sand volleyball court awaits, along with a putting green (with sand trap), a boat and Jet Skis for lake-top frolicking, a basketball court, a tiki bar, a hot tub and a pool with a waterfall. The only thing missing is a ticket booth.
At the moment, though, these diversions are about as important to Lance Bass, Justin Timberlake, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone Jr. and JC Chasez as extra credit is to a graduating senior. The 'N Sync-ers – who range in age from nineteen to twenty-eight – are gathered in a loose semicircle to listen to final mixes of songs from their second album, No Strings Attached. Wright cues up "Space Cowboy," a fast-paced party track with a round-'em-up refrain that goes something like, "ya-ya-yippi, yippi-i, yippi-ay." As the beat kicks in, the band members begin to gesticulate as if onstage, seeming to work out their moves for the number. Chasez, who splits lead-vocal duties with Timber-lake, fibrillates head to toe as the song kicks into the first chorus. Timberlake, meanwhile, sits and sings his lines softly as he head-bobs along. Bass leans back in a chair, his finger moving up and down as if following a bouncing little white ball. Fatone hunches over, singing to the ground, while Kirkpatrick grooves along abstractly.
The song ends, and Wright breaks out gifts for his wonder boys: platinum and diamond 'N Sync pendants to commemorate the diamond status – 10 million sold – of 'N Sync, their debut. A few hoots erupt, and a discussion of the proper chain to hold such a piece ensues. Timberlake looks at his and stands up.
"We are diamond," he says mock-righteously. "Screw all of you. I'm done. Forget this boy-band thing."
For his sake, he'd better be kidding. His next batch of time off is scheduled for sometime in 2001.
'NSync are riding high. In the past year, they won an out-of-court royalties settlement with their former management company that left them rich. They also successfully jumped labels, gaining increased creative control over their second album along the way. But they're a hungry bunch. An eye-of-the-tiger-like desire to prove oneself emanates from each one of them.
"This album is really in your face," says Chasez. He speaks deliberately, punctuating his statements with sudden volume changes and jabbing hand gestures. He is friendly but focused, clearly somebody uneasy when aimless. "Nothing is sang passively; everything is chopped and punched. You can definitely hear a Michael Jackson influence in the way the words chop off – that's the way Michael delivers a line."
"There's a little more edge to this album, a little more grit," agrees Timberlake, whose laid-back Tennessee drawl and homeboy delivery belie an attentive, guarded persona. "We're pissed off now – that's what it is. We're angry white boys who didn't get our props. No, I'm kidding – I'm kidding."
He may not be. 'N Sync were pissed off enough to take legal action against Trans Continental Management, the Learjet/Chippendales dancers/boy-band empire of Orlando entrepreneur Lou Pearlman, who, like a pudgy Keebler elf, has churned out boy bands like so many Fudge Stripes Cookies. To date, he's brought the world the Backstreet Boys, LFO, C-Note and Phoenix Stone, and he's grossed more than $2 billion – enough to refinance a small nation. Convinced they weren't seeing their share of the profits, 'N Sync announced they were leaving Trans Con and RCA. Pearlman responded with a $150 million lawsuit; 'N Sync counter-sued for $25 million. The two parties settled out of court. Then the band left RCA, in spite of the fact that it owed the label one more album.
The group recorded much of No Strings without a record deal, making its own calls on producers and songwriters. "We hired the people we wanted to hire," Chasez says. "This is our record. The record company didn't send anyone to us. It was a sticky situation. A lot of creative people we approached didn't want to work with us. We didn't have a contract saying that any of these songs would make it on the album when we did get a new deal. So the people who worked with us were straight up about the music. And that was amazing."
"I think we really made history," says Timberlake. "You know, the only other group I can think of that jumped to another record company was Boston. And they did it, like, a long time ago. But that's the music business – I love the music, and I hate the business. I don't want this whole thing to seem dark, but we learned how people can take advantage of you."
Other bands have jumped labels besides Boston, but never mind – 'N Sync are now on Jive Records, home of the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears, and, according to Chasez, they're ready to boldly go where no boy pop has gone before. "What makes us special is that we sing love songs, but we throw people off guard because we're in your face. So many boy bands just sing about meeting the coolest girl, but to me, that's not the way to go, man. Tell a real story. Don't just be a dude in a club picking up chicks."
"There are a lot of digital, electrotype sounds on our new record," says Timberlake. "And, on the other hand, the ballads are so milky and deep. It's really incredible how we can go from that to that – you know what I mean?"
Checking the ingredients – five twentyish boys, canned pop beats, love songs – 'N Sync seem no different from Backstreet, 98 Degrees, 5ive and the rest. But they are. Though the boy-band haters out there would never admit it, 'N Sync tap into some of the same teen angst and psychosexual anxiety at the heart of much darker stuff, like teen horror movies and grunge. Their songs, like their labelmate Spears', aren't just sappy, lovelorn ballads, they're sappy, lovelorn ballads brimming with the pent-up tension of teenhood: the urgency of unfulfilled, misunderstood desires, burbling hormones and unbearable, overwhelming feelings. "I lay awake, I drive myself crazy," they sing sweetly, "wanting you the way that I do." And even worse: "It's tearin' up my heart when I'm with you/But when we are apart, I feel it, too." (They also cover Christopher Cross' megamellow Eighties hit "Sailing," lest you think they're totally heavy.)
In the video for "Drive Myself Crazy," the fellas croon in an insane asylum and, in one scene, Chasez coos desperately in a straitjacket. (Help him! Somebody help him!) Their new clip, for the aggro breakup song "Bye, Bye, Bye," is a mini action flick, featuring the members running atop a train and negotiating a high-speed car chase as they flee the video's villain - gorgeous Guess? model Kim Smith.
"We're running from her because we're stupid," says Chasez with a chuckle. "No, she's the villain. It's a shame that she's evil on the inside and good-looking on the outside. That's just the way it is – somebody can be beautiful on the outside, but if they're not right on the inside, you don't need it. But we did say to each other, 'Wait a minute, we're running, from her? We've got to change this concept.' "
"It was fun," says the seventeen-year-old Smith. "I had seen videos for 98 Degrees and all those people, and there's always girls rolling on the beach with them. Then I get there and the band is nowhere near me – they're just running away the whole time. I'm chasing them and laughing at them about breaking their hearts and controlling them." Help them! Somebody help them!
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