During the late 90s, one question plagued lunchrooms and playgrounds across the nation: were you a fan of NSYNC or Backstreet Boys? While the Backstreet Boys came onto the scene first, NSYNC wasn’t far behind, creating a similar, yet different alternative for voracious pop fans. Created by Lou Pearlman, the Backstreet Boys’ original manager and perpetrator of one of the most famous Ponzi schemes in history, NSYNC was recruited in 1995. Just like the Backstreet Boys, their careers really got started over in Europe; as soon as they signed, they were whisked away to work on their first album with Denniz Pop and Max Martin in Sweden. When they immediately hit number one with their debut album in Germany, RCA signed Justin, JC, Joey, Lance, and Chris for an American deal. Unfortunately, while their first two singles saw moderate success on this side of the pond, the album was first met with mediocre sales.
Fortunately, Disney had their backs. The airing of their Disney Summer Concert in 1998 earned them legions of new fans, skyrocketing them to fame. Their third single, “Here We Go,” was prominently featured in the Disney Channel’s original Prince and the Pauper tale, Model Behavior–which also happened to star Justin Timberlake as a romantic lead. Eventually, their popularity grew to place NSYNC on the Billboard 200 Chart for one hundred weeks, the album peaking at #2. They were only kept from #1 due to a streak of blockbuster albums: Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Garth Brooks’ Double Life, and of course, Britney Spears’ …Baby One More Time.
Arguably, the strongest songs on NSYNC are the first two singles, both of which were originally intended for the Backstreet Boys. “I Want You Back” appeals to an ex about getting back together while showing off the boys’ vocal strengths. Second single “Tearin’ Up My Heart” is all about a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t relationship. It’s one of NSYNC’s best known songs, with good reason. It crackles with energy, vibrates with adolescent angst, and is undeniably catchy–the perfect pop cocktail. With this legacy, it’s hard to believe that it never hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Both “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “I Want You Back” established Justin and JC as the lead singers, mainly using the other three for harmonies and chorus work. While the others occasionally got lead moments, they were few and far between–something that never really changed throughout their whole NSYNC careers.
With third single “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You,” NSYNC was finally able to crack into the top ten of the Billboard chart. While the lyrics are still on the cheesy side, their harmonies are solid and the song flows in a lovely way. Ultimately, “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You” was the highest-charting song on this album and was later covered by both country band Alabama and rock outfit Boyce Avenue.
Thematically, NSYNC is fairy innocent, full of fluffy lyrics about all-encompassing crushes and teenage blues. Considering how young they were when it was recorded, it’s not surprising that the more mature content was saved for their follow-up No Strings Attached (“Digital Get Down,” anyone?) and final album Celebrity. Interestingly enough, two of the songs on NSYNC are covers from outside the pop realm. “Everything I Own,” originally by David Gates’ band Bread, is a slower song about giving up everything to spend more time with a lost loved one. Christopher Cross’ “Sailing,” a pretty song about the beauty of its titular subject, is one of the first examples of yacht rock. While the songs both show off the band’s harmonizing abilities, they feel rather out of place.
Some critics were unimpressed by the band, categorizing them as a Backstreet Boys-wannabe group, and considering the circumstances, it wasn’t surprising. The weak points are most prominent when examining the slower songs. Tracks like “I Just Wanna Be With You” and “For the Girl Who Has Everything” are soft messes of beige lyrics, featuring heavy whines from Justin and a myriad of vocal runs from JC. It’s boy bandery at its most cliched. NSYNC wouldn’t truly come into themselves until they broke away from Pearlman and released their record-breaking No Strings Attached.
Is NSYNC’s self-titled debut the best boy band album out there? Nope–barring the singles and covers, it’s a fairly beige album with generic boy band-isms. Is it even the best NSYNC album? Not really—that title belongs to No Strings Attached, the one that emphasizes independence and attitude. What’s the big deal about NSYNC then? While it isn’t the best pop album out there, NSYNC showed off their vocal abilities and established them as pop performers to watch, earning them a spot as the Backstreet Boys’ main competition in the American pop race. Of course, commercial success doesn’t hurt either–sales might have been slow to start, but NSYNC was eventually certified ten times platinum, helping to set them on the path to be the third bestselling boy band of all time.