The past two years saw no shortage of reclamation works about the recent past. Most have focused on the women celebrities maligned in the ‘90s, like the New York Times’ documentaries Framing Britney Spears and Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, FX’s Impeachment focused on Monica Lewinski, and Hulu’s Pam & Tommy focused on Pamela Anderson. The message these works are sending is: that we should be ashamed of how we treated these women.
While these reclamation narratives are cathartic, they’re also quite heavy, not to mention ranging in the degrees of success of their goals. Missing from the genre is some lighter fare about less loathsome parts of the time. And here I’m referring to ‘90s boy bands.
Enter Nicole Raposo, a mid-30s millennial and diehard *NSYNC fan. Raposo’s digital archive project, Riddle On Her Mind, delves into the boy band’s break-up at the height of their career. The title is a nod to one of *NSYNC’s deepest cuts, “Riddle,” and buys Raposo instant credibility with the group’s still active fan community, present company included.
Because musical groups, especially boy bands, come and go, with their break-ups often as memorable as their biggest hits, devoted fans have learned to savor the good times and move on. Not Raposo, a self-described bootleg archivist. She has spent the last two years trying to answer the questions: when, how, and why did *NSYNC break up?
The pop group’s break-up in the mid-2000s didn’t go down in history as particularly messy. There was no violence, addiction issues, or Yoko Ono-type figures to blame. And, other than a few jokes on SNL, there were no sly digs or public bickering among group members Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone, and JC Chasez.
Still, when *NSYNC was back in the spotlight in 2020 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their then record-breaking album No Strings Attached, the coverage quickly turned to why they called it quits. One widely circulated article from ET Canada made a case for a different story than the one commonly told—Timberlake’s solo ambitions broke up the band—and blamed Bass’s desire to go to space. Raposo read the article, and she didn’t buy it. (Though Bass did try to join a space mission.) But she realized that she didn’t know what had happened.
She’s not alone. For many *NSYNC fans, though we remember in painstaking detail every performance and interview the group gave during their reign from 1998 to 2002, our memory gets fuzzy about the end. It could be some sort of grief coping strategy, but it also could be that *NSYNC gave confusing information about their future at the time. In 2002, they said they were going on a hiatus for six months to pursue solo projects, and then they’d reunite and record their next album. That album never happened, and the hiatus has lasted twenty years and counting.
Raposo, a nonprofit grants manager by day, spends her nights and weekends logging enough hours to earn degrees in library science and investigative journalism to get to the bottom of the break-up. Every month, Raposo looks back at the corresponding month starting in 2001 and ending in 2004 and documents the news articles, gossip posts, web pages, and public statements from *NSYNC’s members and team to add another piece to the group’s break-up puzzle.
Raposo prioritizes research and saves her personal opinions for group chats and direct messages. “Everyone has opinions, and I wouldn’t be adding anything,” she said. “Riddle On Her Mind is heavy on the source material and meatier on receipts, on purpose.”
The graphics are immediately recognizable, closely referential to the source material, and take the viewer back to the time of AOL chatrooms and video countdowns on TRL. For example, Riddle On Her Mind’s entry for May 2001 shows an artificial chat window created with photo manipulation software that *NSYNC’s spokesperson Melinda Bell had with fans.
“Melinda_live” responds to a question by the user “CPAGal” about whether the group has signed solo contracts. The graphic is authentic enough, down to the web browser and chatbox, to warrant the disclaimer on the post.
Riddle on Her Mind is an apt title for the archive. *NSYNC fans know “Riddle” is the group’s least favorite song. It’s not a coincidence that Raposo’s project examines the least enjoyable part of the group’s history.
It’s an unusual way to pay homage to your favorite musical group, but it’s necessary given how things ended. Fans didn’t know 2001’s Celebrity would be the group’s last album or that an in memoriam Bee Gees tribute at the Grammys in 2003 would be their final televised performance.
Every year, the It’s Gonna Be May meme or significant anniversaries of *NSYNC’s record-bringing albums brings retrospective pieces about the group’s successes. But no articles ask what Riddle on Her Mind does: to clear away the clouds of nostalgia and re-examine the exact time when solo and break-up rumors first started to take flight.
When asked why she wanted to illuminate the darkest moments in *NSYNC history, Raposo cites her curiosity followed by a desire to give closure, but not for who you might think. She said, “I want fans to have closure, and my research has given me a good reason to believe the group members may need some closure too.”
Most fan projects still kicking almost 20 years later are focused on manifesting a reunion, but that isn’t Raposo’s intention. Ironically, Riddle On Her Mind may lead to one. Raposo explained, “When the reunion question comes up, each member has replied with some variation of ‘we haven’t talked about it yet, but we should.’ That makes me question if they have been avoiding the reunion talk because they have been avoiding the break-up talk.”
Raposo also sees the importance of being a Black woman curator and storyteller. “Black women certainly drive popular culture, but there is a pretty big gap in who is documenting, critiquing, and providing commentary on that culture,” she added.
Riddle on Her Mind is over halfway through its timeline, and Raposo may not stop at 2004 as planned. As the project gains more views, clicks, and followers, Raposo gets new information about the months she’s already covered and after her chosen timeline, which may lead to her expanding the project. Meanwhile, she’s inspiring other fans to re-examine the careers of their faves. A two-part YouTube series making the rounds discusses *NSYNC member JC Chasez’s solo career and credits Riddle On Her Mind as inspiration.
I look forward to the additional reclamation work about ‘90s-era celebrities. I also look forward to seeing that energy directed into the art that girls and young women were obsessed with in the recent past. Energy like the kind Raposo has put into Riddle On Her Mind. Hers is the work of reclamation, too.