The Future According To NSYNC: 20 Years Of 'No Strings Attached'
When the 20th century came to a close, the music industry was booming, lucrative in ways previously unimaginable. Sales were the best the business had ever seen, with new releases averaging $18.52 at the peak of the CD era. Young people's purchasing power was matched with a measure of political power in MTV's Total Request Live, an outlet to vote for their favorite artists and have their picks ritualistically blasted into their living rooms every afternoon after school. And on any given day, you could safely assume that one of a half-dozen teen pop artists was dominating the conversation.
In 1999, the Backstreet Boys' Millennium set an all-time record for first-week sales, with 1.13 million records moved. Britney Spears beat that figure the following spring, with 1.3 million copies of Oops!...I Did It Again in its first week. Those are impressive numbers, but they're nothing compared to NSYNC. When the boy band's sophomore LP, No Strings Attached, dropped on March 21, 2000, it sold 1.2 million units its first day. By the end of the week, that number had doubled to 2.4 million, a bar that no artist in any genre would clear for 15 years. And then, barely two years later, it was all over.
Twenty years removed, the popular narrative around No Strings Attached goes something like this: NSYNC burned bright and fast, one of the last artists to benefit so greatly from the industry bubble before its spectacular burst. As post-9/11 audiences embraced edgier sounds and internet accessibility collapsed the power of the industry establishment, not only were the teen idols of the moment nudged aside, but pop began to unravel as a category — its sounds becoming hybridized and democratized beyond recognition. NSYNC's de facto frontman, Justin Timberlake, seemed to sense the change in the air early; his 2002 solo debut, Justified, landed in a pop landscape that its super-producers The Neptunes had already begun to shape in their own image. As for boy bands, they would be off the radar until the boys of One Direction, almost the spiritual opposite of NSYNC, stumbled onto The X Factor a decade later.
No Strings Attached is so often invoked as a point on a fraught economic timeline that it's easy to forget you can listen to it, too. But when seen for its substance — its forward-thinking production, its genre-expanding collaborations, the videos and choreography that made it as much a visual presentation as an audio one — it tells a much more rewarding story than what the numbers show. In a time when most pop albums were stuffed with filler to pad out killer radio singles, No Strings Attached was overflowing with ambitious ideas and hinted at where pop music, and pop culture, were headed.
Before No Strings Attached, Timberlake, Chris Kirkpatrick, Lance Bass, Joey Fatone and JC Chasez were plenty famous, if not yet fully realized as the group they would become. (That's immediately apparent on the cover of their 1997 eponymous debut, in which Chasez gets the center slot rather than Timberlake.) Early singles "I Want You Back" and "Tearin' Up My Heart" were midtempo soft-pop with Ace of Base-style production — a signature of Swedish songwriter Max Martin — and only slightly funkier than the lovelorn inoffensiveness the Backstreet Boys were already churning out. The two groups sat alongside each other on Top 40 radio playlists, with little to distinguish them.
Some amount of confusion was inevitable. Both groups were made up of five boys, both were based in Orlando, both worked with the same writing team at Cheiron Studios in Stockholm, and both broke in Germany before making a dent in the United States. Behind the scenes, both groups were also spearheaded by the same puppet master, manager Lou Pearlman, to compete with one another. NSYNC's stateside breakthrough came courtesy of its would-be rivals: In 1998, the Backstreet Boys bailed out of a live concert filmed for the Disney Channel in order for member Brian Littrell to undergo heart surgery, so the new group filled in, exploding in popularity virtually overnight. But as NSYNC's profile grew, so did the members' awareness that Pearlman was scamming them out of their profit. In 1999, they began separating themselves from the man who had brought them together. He sued, the group settled, and the strings were cut — a not-so-subtle inspiration for the album that would follow.
On the phone from his home in Nashville, Chris Kirkpatrick recalls the months leading up to No Strings Attached. "The legacy to me is how afraid we were. We had great success with the first album. We are on the brink of what is pretty much every band's biggest record — their second record, their make-it-or-break-it moment," he says. "We'd just changed labels, we're going through the battle with Lou. .... There was a lot of pressure on that record to do at least as good as the first record. That was our hope. And when it came out, a giant weight was lifted off our shoulders. We couldn't believe the response."
Free from Pearlman, the group grew more confident in the studio, eager to collaborate with its producers on a new sound: an amalgamation of new jack swing revivalism, uptempo R&B and hip-hop worship. No Strings allowed the group to sonically divorce itself from the competition, through a prescient dedication to genres that would soon take the place of pop and rock atop the charts.
The sound of a new millennium, No Strings Attached begins with an ironic fake-out — a climbing string crescendo that bleeds into Justin Timberlake's nasal falsetto, his quickly ad-libbed "Hey, hey" bursting into the five-part harmony of "Bye Bye Bye." Instantly distinct from the first album's lovesick formula, the lead single's kiss-off message hit hard, trading pop pining for sexy self-assurance while maintaining a marketable level of boy band innocence. Put another way, it was still pop, but dirty pop.
"It wasn't a conscious decision to be edgier — it was a conscious decision to want to be uptempo," Kirkpatrick says. "I don't think we ever considered ourselves that ballad-heavy, even on the first record. We loved uptempo [songs], we loved dancing, we loved high-energy shows. It's hard to keep a high-energy show if you break it down and every other song is a ballad. For the most part, we kept it pretty pop, pretty dancey."
The production of "Bye Bye Bye" teeters on abrasive, its buzzy electronics adding texture to NSYNC's silky-smooth vocals, further distinguishing them from BSB's satiny doo-wop. The song is arranged around hard drums, the snare and kick placed loud in the mix as if ripe for a trap remix. Here and elsewhere, No Strings adopted tricks from funk, hip-hop, and dance music that NSYNC's peers hadn't explored. The album is littered with sharp, staccato "stabs" — a declarative note or chord that punctuates a musical phrase and builds anticipation for the next one — and syncopated rhythms of the kind favored by today's boy bands, particularly the Korean pop acts who hang their aesthetics on street style. (See: BTS, "Black Swan.")
"It was really straight melodies before that. We all loved American R&B and hip-hop; it's all we listened to. We wanted our stuff to sound like that," says songwriter Jake Schulze, speaking over the phone from Sweden. "Of course, it wasn't close. But in our world, it was really close."
An alumnus of Stockholm's Cheiron Studios, where many of the teen-pop hits of the Y2K era were recorded, Schulze was one of the co-writers and co-producers of "Bye Bye Bye." "We used different keyboards and mixed up different sounds. A friend of mine said, when he heard the mix for the first time, 'Oh, I could count to 75 stab sounds.' That was the start of the stabs." Schulze originally wrote the song with collaborators Kristian Lundin and Andreas Carlsson for the English boy band Five, who opted not to record it. NSYNC, too, was hesitant at first: Prior to landing on the lyrics "Don't wanna be a fool for you / Just another player in your game for two," the Cheiron team wrote raps to fill the song's chorus — which the band refused, perhaps aware that a different rapping white boy was filling plenty of space on TRL already.
But even if it lacked bars, NSYNC did have the pipes to realize pop songs with hip-hop's rhythms and sensibilities. Songwriters Kandi Burruss and She'kspere, part of the team behind TLC's "No Scrubs," contributed the No Strings track "It Makes Me Ill." (Years later, that song would form the basis of "break up with your girlfriend, i'm bored" by Ariana Grande, who brought out a Timberlake-less NSYNC to help sing it at her 2019 Coachella performance.) "Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)" features TLC's Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes herself. Long before features were a necessity for pop acts in a competitive music market, NSYNC had begun to mirror hip-hop by seeking out cross-genre collaborations — even linking with the original Latin crossover artist, Gloria Estefan, for "Music of My Heart" in late 1999.
"Nelly ... we did a song with Phil Collins ... we did a song with Stevie Wonder. We did a whole special with Tim McGraw," Kirkpatrick says. "We were always thinking, 'What's the next thing we can do?' — trying to make the whole gamut of music."
Even more than its sound, one thing set the group miles apart from the competition: its dancing. "The challenge for us was to not be a band that gets out there and does a couple step-touches, spins the mic stand and does the five-part harmonies," Kirkpatrick says. "[It was more like,] 'Let's do the five part harmonies and go balls-to-the-wall dancing.' " For that, they turned to star choreographer Darrin Dewitt Henson.
"I remember teaching Justin how to pop — which the world called 'popping and locking,' but it was popping — and how to do the glide, like Michael Jackson did," Henson recalls over the phone. By 2000, Henson had made his name as the moment's "it" choreographer, having worked with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jagged Edge during the current pop wave, as well as New Kids on the Block and Color Me Badd during the previous one. "I was very familiar with boy bands, but I gave NSYNC moves that no one else had. I knew early on, studying The Jackson 5, that you could sing, but unless you dance, you weren't going to be in control of the crowd."
Like "Thriller" or "Single Ladies," Henson's choreography for "Bye Bye Bye" included a few specific, easily imitated moves that became indelible parts of the song's identity: a swaggy three-part hand clap that he calls the "puppet hand," and a complementary set of fist pumps. The New York native says he drew on his Bronx b-boy roots for inspiration. "When you're tired of hearing somebody talk, we used to say, 'Stop talking s***,' and it was like the puppet hand. And the fist really is the Black Power fist — a source of power."
NSYNC's experiments with black art forms mostly tiptoed around any explicit discussion of race, though perhaps no more so than much of pop culture at the time. ("They had a harder sound," Schulze explains in language emblematic of the colorblind '90s. "They were more 'basketball' than 'girl-meets-boy and falls in love,' so it was a bit more edgy. They were the cool guys.") But Henson says he felt he could trust the group to treat the work respectfully. "They had an honest appetite for the people who came before them. If it was someone who I felt was going to bastardize it, I would have never done it," he says.
"We didn't look at it as black and white," he adds. "We were just boys."
Beyond a desire to contemporize its sound, NSYNC knew the value of diversifying its audience, and not only along the lines of genre. The single "This I Promise You," penned by '80s icon Richard Marx, ensured the album found its way to older audiences, too. "It would have never crossed my mind to write young," Marx says of the song two decades later. "It turns out that in no time that song became such a wedding song and such an anthem for couples. "This I Promise You" hit No. 1 on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart, where it spent 13 weeks. The goal of reaching as many listeners as possible explains how throwbacks like Marx's ballad and a cover of Johnny Kemp's new jack swing classic "Just Got Paid" wound up side by side with "Digital Get Down," a frankly hilarious ode to cybersex that pushed past the coded carnality by which the era's other boy bands abided. As a New York Times review that year put it: "It's the key to long-running pop sales; young fans rush out to buy the album immediately while older ones wait for it to sink in."
If No Strings Attached represented an industry peak, the crash that followed would be no less dramatic. As customers moved from $20 CDs to the free, not-quite-legal wares on peer-to-peer networks like Napster and LimeWire, there was a feeling that teen pop had also reached its apex. "We were ahead of the trend when we came out," Kirkpatrick says. "And then the trends caught up, because that's what trends do."
NSYNC went on to release a third album, 2001's Celebrity — which leaned even harder into R&B, firmly established Timberlake as the bandleader and pushed Chasez's powerful pop vocals to the periphery. A year after that, the group announced an indefinite hiatus, which tilted towards definite as Timberlake's solo career took off. In the years since, other boy bands of the era have reunited as man bands, working the nostalgia circuit or adjusting their new material to an audience who has aged with them. (The Backstreet Boys have released six albums since Millennium, slowly easing into soft pop rock.) But NSYNC, apart from a handful of one-off appearances, has remained a thing of the past.
And yet, the lane the group carved with No Strings Attached couldn't be more relevant to the pop market of today: a union of Swedish pop songcraft with R&B and hip-hop's flow and bounce; an eagerness to explore mature themes and styles; an understanding that dance and visual presentation can turn stars into icons. There is a reason "This I Promise You" has become a wedding staple, "Bye Bye Bye" has become a modern karaoke classic and "It's Gonna Be Me" has become a meme that appears, like clockwork, every April 30. The group etched its place in time with harmonies and production and moves that would stand the test of it.
"It's a thing that won't go away," Schulze says, reflecting on No Strings' legacy. "When you go, the day you leave the earth, you know that something happened. And then," he laughs, "it's bye bye bye."
Maria Sherman is a senior staff writer at Jezebel and the author of the book Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.