With their third album, No Strings Attached, ’N Sync is out to prove they’re nobody’s puppets
If the person now interviewing ’N Sync were a teenage girl, a CPR-certified paramedic would need to be on hand. Justin Timberlake is sitting inches to the right and Chris Kirkpatrick inches to the left. The rest of the band — Joey Fatone, Lance Bass and Joshua "JC" Chasez — are also gathered around a view–of–Central Park table for lunch at New York City’s Tavern on the Green. Of course, a teen-led Q&A with this Orlando-based singing group would be pointless. Any adolescent already knows Timberlake is a sneaker nut, Fatone collects Superman memorabilia, Chasez is a dog lover, and so on.
Other common knowledge in high school hallways: The group hit platinum status in the last millennium; now they’re diamond (more than 10 million CDs sold). Their 1998 debut, ’N Sync, was a virtual conveyor belt of hits — "Tearin’ Up My Heart," "I Want You Back" and "I Drive Myself Crazy." Even their ’98 Christmas CD was a million-plus seller. Now their March 21 release, No Strings Attached, is expected to trump both, led by the smash single "Bye Bye Bye." The song’s high-octane video has parked itself in the top half of MTV’s viewer-voted Top 10 countdown, Total Request Live, and the network doesn’t seem to be saying good-bye to it anytime soon. Regulation teen hysteria is expected with boy bands. But the particular frenzy over ’N Sync — and fellow boy phenoms the Backstreet Boys — is nothing less than a throwback to Beatlemania. "To girls, they’re like a guy in class," explains Johnny Wright, ’N Sync’s manager.
Or, perhaps, the class clowns. "Food fight with the caviar!" says Kirkpatrick, 28, leaning across the table. (Happily, no fish eggs actually fly.) The guys collectively summon the waiter to buy a glass of water for the woman at the next table. Between Tom Green impressions, Timberlake, 19, asks if he can do a shout-out to rap star Missy Elliott into the reporter’s tape recorder. Chasez, 23, Bass, 20, and Fatone, 23, tend to spontaneously burst into animated song ("Here she comes, just a-walkin’ down the street…"). Meanwhile, the restaurant’s manager safeguards their table, as he probably has for the string of presidents who have dined here. A sound bet: The heads of state were not dressed in cargo pants, Nikes, frayed fishermen’s hats, baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts. Attire is slightly different for the presidents of pop music. Some might say vice presidents, arguing that the top post belongs to the Backstreet Boys. In the teen world, the groups’ rivalry and soured business deals have been publicized to Monica-gate proportions. Having hit the music scene 10 months earlier than ’N Sync, the Boys consider themselves the vanguards of the pop universe.
"It’s frustrating on the creative side," Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson has said. "It’s like, ‘Find your own identity.’ " Truly, to most people past voting age, the two groups appear no different than, say, skim milk and 1 percent. Both feature five young men who harmonize on similar-sounding pop songs. Both specialize in elaborately choreographed dance mov es. And both were hatched in Orlando, with the same managerial team. But in this tale of two boy bands, many observers would say ’N Sync are as innocent as their tender ballads. "I got the group together," says Kirkpatrick, a Clarion, PA, native who moved to Orlando after high school to pursue a career in music and theater. In 1995, he was singing in a ’50s doo-wop group at Universal Studios and taking tourists’ photos (or, as he recalls, "annoying people") at Sea World. Then he met Lou Pearlman, an entrepreneur whose Trans Continental Companies then included Learjets, Chippendales dancers and the Backstreet Boys. "I knew that if Lou put money behind a group, he would make it big," says Kirkpatrick. "As far as his motives, I don’t know if he started [us] as competition for the Backstreet Boys. I can tell you my motives: I like to sing."
Through his agent, Kirkpatrick heard about Timberlake, a Memphis high school student and veteran of the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club (back at age 12) — as were Chasez (then 16) and future teen sensations Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and Felicity’s Keri Russell. "I was a little punk," Timberlake says of his Mouseketeer self. Recalls Spears, 19: "Me and Justin, we did duos together, and we would always eat lunch together in our dressing rooms. We were babies." For her part, Russell, 24, didn’t recognize Timberlake’s budding heartthrob status — especially "seeing that Justin came up to my chest," she says, giggling. "Actually, JC was my best friend." Though he was raised outside Baltimore, Chasez says of the MMC, "That’s where I grew up." So Kirkpatrick called Timberlake, who called Chasez. "And we both moved to Orlando," says Timberlake. "Then we found Joey hanging out at a nightclub [at Disney’s Pleasure Island]." At the time, Brooklyn-born Fatone, who’d moved to Orlando five years earlier, had been performing in Universal Studios’ "Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue." "But we knew we still weren’t complete," says Kirkpatrick, "because we needed a bass." Timberlake’s vocal coach suggested a boy named, coincidentally enough, Bass, a high school student in Clinton, MS, whom he’d spotted singing in a group that traveled throughout the state.
Moneyman Pearlman enlisted then-Backstreet Boys manager Wright to take on ’N Sync as well. The pair followed the Backstreet game plan: Record an album, tour in sugar-pop-friendly Europe, return and conquer the States. The plan worked — for both groups. Trouble was, the Boys never counted on a kid brother. "I understand to a point," Kirkpatrick says of the Backstreet Boys’ animosity, which led them to fire Wright. (The group turned their guns on Pearlman in May of 1998 for, they felt, taking more than a fair share of their earnings. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum that October, and the Boys split.) "But that had nothing to do with us," Kirkpatrick adds. "We have no malicious feelings toward any of them." By all appearances, ’N Sync tries to seek the softer side of show business. They’re devout Christians who pray before going onstage; they often trade WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets with fans. "I’ve probably gotten more than 200 of them," Bass says. "Then I’ll throw ’em out to the audience. I just think it’s a great message."
But the group was hit with a not-so-great message last summer when they tried to renegotiate a contract that allegedly gave Pearlman a large chunk of their profits. "Everyone goes into the music business with the understanding that if you become successful, there’s going to be a financial renegotiation," says Wright. But, says Chasez, "Pearlman wouldn’t budge." ’N Sync tried to leave him and RCA, their label, but Pearlman shot back with a $150 million lawsuit. The group countersued for $25 million. Settling out of court, ’N Sync walked in December. Though they eventually signed with Jive Records (ironically, the home of the Backstreet Boys), they recorded their symbolically named No Strings Attached without a label. The resulting CD is their grittiest to date, with electronic beats, a guest rapper (TLC’s Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez) — even a few risqué lyrics. The most provocative song, "Digital Get Down," could be interpreted as hailing the joys of cybersex.
Do they think the braces brigade in ’N Sync’s audiences will recognize the R-rated oomph? "For adults, [the lyrics] could be construed that way," says Timberlake. Even if they were, Fatone adds, "Think about the Spice Girls. The kids never knew what they were talking about." Timberlake grins. "I think it’s quite safe sex if you ask me," he says. "What’s the next question?" For Timberlake, any question would be preferable to one about his love life. He’s been linked in print to Spears roughly 14 million times; the latest tabloid scuttlebutt has them living together in a Hollywood mansion. For the record, the spokeswoman for both singers categorically denies the story. Says Timberlake, "I live with my mother [Lynn]" in Orlando. As for tabloid reports: "I’m not going to talk about it." Kirkpatrick notes, "If our target audience knew we had girlfriends, the appeal would be gone a little bit. But we don’t lie about it, either." So? Two have steady flames they’d rather not name — Kirkpatrick ("She works with me on a clothing-line side project") and Chasez ("She’s a college student in California"). Bass has been single since the end of his nine-month relationship with Boy Meets World star Danielle Fishel. Fatone dates "whenever I’m home, but it’s not 100 percent serious."
That’s understandable, with a three-month American tour kicking off May 9, then a movie starring all five to shoot this summer. "It’s going to be like American Pie, sort of," says Fatone. In fact, acting is already in the group’s repertoire. Just recently, Bass made his dramatic debut as Beverley Mitchell’s love interest on 7th Heaven, while Timberlake played a supermodel in ABC’s TV-movie Model Behavior. As for their current behavior at Tavern on the Green: Kirkpatrick is now arranging his caviar into tiny droppings behind the printed reindeer on his napkin. "You’re moronic, man," says Timberlake. "It was Joey’s idea," Kirkpatrick responds. It may sound gross, but a teen reporter would definitely save that napkin.