In the 2015 Backstreet Boys documentary Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, a single telling scene sums up the strange tension that arose between two of the biggest-selling boy bands of all time.
“It was almost like a betrayal,” Kevin Richardson recalled in the doc, looking back at the moment in 1995 when the Boys’ founder and label CEO Lou Pearlman showed Richardson a VHS recording of the newly formed ‘N Sync showcasing their abilities.
“When we started out, we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re a team. We’re gonna take over the world. There’s nobody like us,'” he continued. “Then you find out, ‘Well, actually there is somebody like you.'”
In the mid-Nineties, there was an absence of big-name pop groups marketed to teens. Eighties heartthrobs New Kids on the Block were rocked with post–Milli Vanilli lip-sync allegations, and even grunge was on the way out, as drug-fueled turmoil led to the loss of the genre’s biggest star.
But Pearlman, a man with a history of insurance fraud, was inspired by the NKOTB model. He placed an ad in the Orlando Sentinel for vocalists to form a pop group, leading to the founding of Backstreet Boys in 1993. Just as BSB began breaking internationally, however, Pearlman did something unexpected: He created his own boy band’s stiffest competition.
“[We] 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,” ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys manager Johnny Wright told Rolling Stone in 1998. Wright had once been NKOTB’s road manager and was brought on to work with Pearlman’s budding stars.
Popular on Rolling Stone
“I guess you could say Backstreet Boys are the Temptations and ‘N Sync are the Four Tops,” he elaborated.
Like BSB, ‘N Sync launched in Europe first. They began releasing singles in Germany in 1996 and became megastars across the continent seemingly overnight. It wasn’t until March of 1998 that the group officially dropped their self-titled debut album in the U.S. – a full year after it was released in European markets. They trimmed the original track list – which included an a cappella cover of Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” – but it’s still an album washed in the EuroDance sound favored by their camp of Swedish songwriters and producers.
Prior to ‘N Sync‘s 1998 release, Backstreet Boys had just cracked the code. While not yet the phenomenon they would become with 1999’s Millennium, they did make it to Number Four with their self-titled U.S. debut in January 1998. But the market was starting to make space for a second boy band: ‘N Sync’s U.S. debut would finally hit Number Two in October of that year, spurred on by an MTV concert special in July that sent singles like “I Want You Back” and “(God Must Have Spent) a Little More Time on You” rising up the charts.
“The ultimate goal was to do it not once but twice,” Wright said in 1998. “With ‘N Sync at Number Three in this country, I think we’ve done that. And, obviously, it’s caused a problem.”
Backstreet Boys ended up leaving Wright’s Backstreet Management that fall. During the following few years, both boy bands would end up entangled in lawsuits with Pearlman, claiming misrepresentation and fraud over their lack of earnings. While such legal battles would slow most artists down, by 2000, both groups were at the head of an international pop phenomenon.
While the two boy bands worked together to fight for the money that was stolen from them, the fans fueled a rivalry. Pearlman, whether accidentally or on purpose, created the Beatles vs. Stones of the new millennium as the groups raced to become bigger than one another.
“It’s not ‘N Sync itself but where ‘N Sync comes from that digs me, digs me, digs me – and gets me, still to this day,” Richardson told Rolling Stone in 2000, mirroring the same thing sentiment he would express in the doc. “I’d lost my father to cancer. So I looked at Lou like a father figure. But I was naïve, and he’s a liar. We’ll always remember him for helping us get started. But we’ll also remember him for screwing us blind and building another group behind our backs.”
‘N Sync felt less of that bitterness toward the Backstreet Boys. After all, they did follow their lead. “People try to make a feud out of everything,” Justin Timberlake told Rolling Stone in 1998. “And we didn’t see it like that.”
Still, the comparisons were never-ending. On a technical level, Backstreet Boys sold more albums, but ‘N Sync created a star even bigger than either boy band in Timberlake. The “rivalry” also bred more competition, leading to an unprecedented wave of more male vocal groups, like 98 Degrees and the reality-show–made O-Town. None made it as far and most were also fighting for money Pearlman stole from them.
Like all teen movements, the stars and fans grew up. ‘N Sync went on “hiatus” to pursue solo projects, and the Backstreet Boys saw the darker side of fame consume members like AJ McLean, who went to rehab in 2001. Timberlake’s solo career took off soon after, and the boy bands’ all-grown-up peers like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera – two artists also pitted against each other in a pop feud during that era – were eager to show off a less squeaky-clean side of their images.
Since the heyday of ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, teen-pop eras have come and gone every few years. The Jonas Brothers went fairly unchallenged as their female Disney counterparts grappled over Britney and Christina’s crowns. Later, One Direction would go head-to-head with the Wanted in a lopsided feud that was as much fan-created as band-perpetuated. More recently, a new crop of boy bands like Why Don’t We and PrettyMuch have filled the vacuum left by One Direction’s absence, but a rivalry has yet to fully materialize.
To this day, the ‘N Sync–Backstreet Boys rift continues to define the groups’ respective legacies. (Recently, the old rivalry was rekindled in decidedly jokey fashion when ‘N Sync’s Joey Fatone claimed that his group could “probably kick [Backstreet Boys’] ass” in basketball.) And while, back in the day, the artists might not have been thrilled by the competition, like all great celebrity beefs, it only helped to propel each group higher into the pop stratosphere.