The Backstreet Boys did it. One Direction did it. Fifth Harmony did it. Spice Girls have done it a couple times, and will do it again this year. Pop’s bestselling groups have toured — and even released music — without a key member. Judging by the response to ’N Sync’s surprise, Justin Timberlake-less reunion during Ariana Grande’s Coachella set, maybe it’s time for one of the world’s most famous (and best) boy bands of all time to do the same.
A reunion for ’N Sync has been teased for nearly 15 years. The group officially went on hiatus in 2002 following the successful Celebrity. That same year, Timberlake released his solo debut Justified, one of the new millennium’s most influential LPs. It immediately set him on a path towards massive solo success that would eventually lead to a reign as pop’s prince. Two years later, ’N Sync officially called it quits during a band meeting — according to Lance Bass’ memoir Out of Sync, this came at Timberlake’s insistence. What followed were a few years of spare appearances and some solo acting and music projects from the group, none of which measured up to the standards of success set by both the band and Timberlake.
Nearly a decade after what seemed to be their final public appearance together, ’N Sync joined forces for a brief reunion at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, where Timberlake was the recipient of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. In 2018, they made a another public appearance with the full, original line-up to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Unlike the expected narrative of long-disbanded groups, the quintet appears to have no ill will towards each other, and Timberlake even publicly congratulated his friends after their appearance as a quartet this past weekend.
For the most part, ’N Sync’s public and, apparently, private discussions about a tour have been mostly apathetic, though with an occasional optimistic bent. “We’re not opposed to anything,” JC Chasez told Ryan Seacrest last year, noting that they were not, at the time, thinking beyond their Walk of Fame induction. “We are always going to be open to anything, to any idea, as long as it’s a good idea. For us it’s got to be the right thing for the right reasons.”
Joey Fatone shared a similar sentiment earlier this year during an interview with Good Day New York, noting that nothing was being discussed at the moment, but a tour without Timberlake had been a talking point. He didn’t shut down the possibility: “I would say ‘Never say never.’”
Timberlake has remained famously mum about the end of the band as well as its future. He did, of course, set a precedent for how pop stars launched solo careers outside of their vocal groups by not only doing a full image revamp with Justified, but nearly erasing the memory of his boy band past entirely for the beginning of his solo career. Since the VMA reunion, his public stance has softened, sharing photos of non-event reunions with his old friends. He has also jumped fully back into his recording career after a period spent focusing on acting; his 2013 double-LP The 20/20 Experience came seven years after the landmark FutureSex/LoveSounds, and earlier this month he finally wrapped his world tour in support of his 2018 release Man of the Woods. Shying away from more stagetime with ‘N Sync seems to be a function of his own schedule more than anything else. According to a TMZ report, Timberlake only ditched out on Coachella because of how close it was to the end of his tour.
Given the clear demand for more from the group, the members shouldn’t have to wait until the timing works best for Timberlake. It’s a perfect moment for ’N Sync to get back together: not only does their Coachella appearance prove they can still dominate a stage with their vocal harmonies and memorable dance moves, but nostalgia for their era is running rampant. Songs like Charli XCX’s “1999” and Anne-Marie’s “2002” are prime examples of how much people are looking back to that golden era than ever before. Grande’s own sample of the group’s deep cut “It Makes Me Ill” on her hit “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” is further proof that the market is still working in ’N Sync’s favor. It would be a shame to pass up an opportunity like this one.
For over a decade, the lack of Timberlake’s star power has been the looming question. Is it still ’N Sync without their biggest breakout solo singer? The answer now is a tentative yes; boy bands function on the sum of all its parts pulling their weight, and it appears that the remaining four are up to the challenge. ’N Sync was notable for how collectively talented they were as dancers and singers. Timberlake shared lead soloist duties with Chasez, a star of equal talent and charm to Timberlake (though without the career to match). JT had the support of being in a still-beloved former power couple in his corner, and his response to its end helped catapult his single “Cry Me a River” to hit-making diss track status. Now, maybe a Timberlake-less tour would help give moments like Chris Kirkpatrick’s turn as lead singer on “Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)” a chance to shine.
Of course, the boy band-turned-man band should be selective if a tour as a foursome is what they pursue. Like Spice Girls will do without Victoria Beckham this summer, the dates should be limited — especially if it doesn’t come in tandem with new music. They could easily acquire special guests galore: their pop peers like BSB and Christina Aguilera would be fun inclusions, but it’s the pairing with Grande that proves a more thrilling route would be filling the fifth spot with the younger generation of pop stars who grew up obsessed with the boy band.
Even if they don’t set out on the road in the next couple years, ‘N Sync’s legacy is clearly being kept alive. The time for them to reunite could simply never recede; the Jonas Brothers, Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block are proof that it’s never too soon or too late to get the band back together for another go. The hurdle has long been proving that they’re worth their continued hype without their biggest breakout star, but stealing the show during pop’s current megastar headlining set at one of the year’s glossiest festivals should be all the proof they need.