For a group with less charm than the A*Teens
and less talent than B*Witched
, similarly-starred boy band *Nsync fared surprisingly well in overcoming their (seemingly) insoluble weaknesses. When they first appeared on the dance-pop stage in 1998, they had all the looks, ability and sound of the cast-offs from American Idol
's 23rd season. Three of the singers never sang. Four of the singers couldn't dance. Five of the singers would be bested by Nanny McPhee in a beauty contest. And yet with then-seventeen year old crooner Justin Timberlake and J.C. 'Lurch' Chasez at the vocal helm, they pittered on the scene with the wonderfully horrible 'I Want You Back'. Equally captivating (read: airtime filler) singles followed, and the world was sated. Anticipating resignation to 'name that tune' challenges and 'I Love the 90s!' episodes just like the other derivative boy bands, Nsync went away for a few years and listeners expected moved on. Instead, pop blossomed. Britney Spears
, Christina Aguilera
and the Backstreet Boys
were selling records in unprecedented numbers. Bubblegum pop infiltrated the charts and refused to budge. The members of Nsync hung up their aprons and decided to give it another go.
Cutting the proverbial strings which bound them to crafty pop Svengali and manager Lou Pearlman, in early 2000 the group tried to distance themselves from the squeaky clean blend of tasteless europop and run-of-the-mill balladry which defined their debut album. This time around, they were going to be edgy
. They titled their sophomore release No Strings Attached
, naively reassuring their fans, their detractors, and perhaps most disconcertingly themselves, that they were no longer peons of the man, man. After soliciting approval for new haircuts, as consolation for being denied any genuine changes by the puppet masters the group so adamantly claimed to be rid of, the group was ready to roll.
No Strings Attached
was preceded by the single 'Bye Bye Bye', a parting anthem if there ever was one. The single was big, to be sure, and rocketed to the heaviest rotation on every radio station in America. The video, released at a time when Total Request Live
force-fed teenagers their next favourite group, was also unprecedentedly popular. But even though the single was infectious, and a standout in a time when infectious pop hits were the name of the game, the massive success of the album was unexpected. On its first day of release (March 21, 2000), the album sold over a million copies in the United States alone ' this sales figure cannot be understated. Within its first week, the sales total climbed to 2.41 million records, and the year came to a close the album was just a fraction short of staggering 10 million mark. At present, it is the 58th best selling album of all time
. How could this be possible, from a band who not two years before had recorded a song entitled 'Giddy Up'?
For one, No Strings Attached
does have a strong collection of songs. 'Bye Bye Bye' is likely permanently lodged in everyone's mental repository ' while it is no 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' or 'Thriller', the song is well composed, well performed, and catchy as anything. Courtesy of the Swedish hit factory responsibly for such late 90s monster hits as 'I Want it That Way' and should-have-been-a-monster-hit 'Born to Make You Happy', the song fit perfectly on the radio, because it sounded like every song on the radio. But unlike the meek, docile hits mentioned above, 'Bye Bye Bye' was forceful and dynamic. Just as catchy, but far more energetic. Similarly, follow-up single 'It's Gonna Be Me' was captivating in its menacing bent coupled with the oh-so-gaudy Barbie & Ken video. In fact, the more rotations these two singles receive, the better they seem (rather than grating, as many pop songs tend to do after a while). Though it has only been six years since they graced the airwaves, these singles have aged particularly well. The final single, the meandering 'This I Promise You', is one of the weakest ballads from the teen pop movement, despite being composed by master balladeer Richard Marx
. Though this song was a disappointing single release, it serves its place on the album, offering a refreshing break.
Importantly, unlike the average pop album from this time period, this album doesn't leave its singles to carry it. Though the album does drag toward the end (closing it with a bland a cappella song doesn't help matters much), for the most part No Strings Attached
is a strong, consistent record. 'Makes Me Ill' is a fantastic white-boy attempt at high-energy R&B, and while 'Space Cowboy' and 'Just Got Paid' are kitschy, they revel in their banality and light-heartedness and shouldn't be taken too seriously. 'Space Cowboy' features a rap from the late Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes, and offers a 'yippie-yi-yay' chorus which, while not artistically deep, is simple listening fare for the dense. And it also happens to be the basis for the Clint Eastwood masterpiece film Space Cowboys
. 'Just Got Paid' includes a rap by Justin Timberlake and Chris Kirkpatrick, but would have much been better served by' anything else, really. Still, it's all in good fun.
Title track 'No Strings Attached' and 'Digital Get Down' follow the forceful, lively style of 'Bye Bye Bye' and 'It's Gonna Be Me', and aid in carving out a distinct sound for the group, shifting from the torch-song direction the Backstreet Boys were headed toward.
'Bringin' Da Noise' is a useless stadium romp which might excite a sports crowd but does little to stimulate the musical mind. 'That's When I'll Stop Loving You' is a passable ballad, but it falls in the same disappointing category as fellow ballad 'This I Promise You'. Despite being composed by ballad genius Diane Warren ('Unbreak My Heart', 'I Turn to You', 'How Do I Live?', 'I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing' etc.), considering what she is capable of, the song is inadequate. 'I'll Be Good for You', Timberlake's only co-write on the album, gives a premonitory glance to the R&B and soul influences he would display more prominently on his solo release, but these influences don't gel very well with Nsync's style. 'I Thought She Knew' is a deflating ending, though it is quite a competently approached a cappella attempt. It also features the only main vocals by Chris and Joey Fatone. Lance Bass never gets the vocal spotlight. This is probably a good thing.
Unlike their rivals in the Backstreet Boys, Nsync never attempted to share vocal duties. Throughout this record, it is quite clear that Justin and JC Chasez are the frontmen. Both are excellent singers, and though JC can oversing and Justin has an odd tone (and that's not how you pronounce 'me', buddy), both are quite distinct and though boy bands were abundant during this time period, unless you're utterly unschooled in pop, I don't think you could mistake an Nsync song on the radio.
Though Justin and JC had notable writing prominence on No Strings Attached
's follow-up, 2001's Celebrity
, on this record their co-writes are few and far between. Justin only has one, JC only three. Musically, this record is very much someone else's show. It is unfortunate, because based on the writing Timberlake later displayed on Celebrity
he is clearly a capable composer. Still, it is best not to lament what could have been.
Is No Strings Attached
deserving of its place in the annals of pop music? Probably not. It has a few outstanding pop tracks, and little to no filler. It is enjoyable from start to finish, and Timberlake and Chasez show unbridled promise on this record which, in Timberlake's case, came to fruition soon enough. The pair are talented frontmen, but the rest of the group is just so bland and ordinary. Granted, this album is a vast improvement on their debut, and a necessary stepping stone for Celebrity
and, indirectly, Justified
, but it isn't amazing or awe-inspiring in the way that pop records can be. After listening to this group endlessly over the past six or seven years, it is clear that, though their records are not below-average or disappointing, Nsync are best remembered as a singles band. Get the greatest hits, follow Justin's career, and forget about all the rest. You won't be pained by listening to this record ('Makes Me Ill' and 'No Strings Attached' are fabulous), but there is better music to vest your energy in. Like B*Witched.