Welcome to our new series “Photos of the Time That…” The basic idea of the series is that once a week, every week, I’ll dig into Getty’s image bank to bring you some kind of wacky celebrity story from the early 2000s. This series will be lots of fun, while also being an incredibly cheap way to generate content. So please, join me as we take a journey back through time and space.
It was November 28, 2000: NSYNC was the coolest band on the planet, and MSN was fine but not very cool and trying to get cooler by partnering with NSYNC. Microsoft had penned a three-year deal with the group to plaster their platform with NSYNC-related imagery in an attempt to lure teenagers away from AOL—which was somehow the industry leader at the time—and get them to access the internet via MSN.
It seems insane now: evidence that internet culture at the turn of the millennium was an experimental free-for-all; that there were marketing gurus just throwing shit at walls, seeing what would stick. And at some point, apparently, there was someone at Microsoft who decided that what teenagers really wanted was an internet browser that also functioned as a chat room that was entirely branded in NSYNC.
Picture a browser coated in photos of Joey Fatone, with buttons that played snippets of NSYNC songs every time you clicked on them. Imagine a constant deluge of newsletters full of the hottest and latest NSYNC news choking up your inbox. Imagine all the exclusive videos and written interviews that lent powerful insights into the songwriting process of Timberlake/Chasez right there, at your fingertips.
Look at him. You can see Justin Timberlake was uncomfortable and a bit embarrassed to spend a Tuesday night (I looked it up) on a Los Angeles stage, holding up some nerdy computer disc. He probably wanted to go home and look at himself in the mirror, but instead he was doing this. Obliged by the money to stick it out and pose, because “NSYNC eventually could reap between $20 million and $30 million from the partnership,” according to CNN.
There’s lots of photos like this: just the guys from NSYNC looking kind of blank while the press conference goes on around them. Presumably someone off-frame was espousing the benefits of charging teenagers $21.95 a month for NSYNC-branded internet. This someone might have been NSYNC business manager Barry Klarberg, who also described the partnership as “a perfect fit between the No.1 band and the No. 1 computer company."
But my very favourite thing isn’t actually the photos. It’s the quotes from various kids on Microsoft’s press release. As an example, here’s one adorable but quite intense quote from a kid named Jordan Longert, aged 12:
“I’m all things NSYNC, so I know what’s cool and what’s not,” said Jordan, all-time NSYNC fan. “I’m so excited about the new NSYNC@MSN offer, I’ve already asked my parents if I can sign up. It will be so cool to get letters from the band as well as unseen photos and videos of my favorite group.”
Then Jordan goes on to talk about all the exclusive photos he’ll get via MSN: “I’ll probably use up all of the ink in our printer making copies.”
The author in charge of the press release also interviewed an older fan: a woman named Rebecca Ashcroft, 22, who was more willing to parrot some PR talking points on how the partnership was cool because it was “official.”
“If it’s something they are putting together, then you know it’s real,” she said. “You know they want other people to see it.”
This photo was from the end of the night. Minutes after a final grin and a pose with the disc, the supremely famous young men of NSYNC dismounted the stage at the L'ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills and slunk back to their cars for their 1.5-minute drives back home.
Sadly, the partnership between MSN and NSYNC wasn’t to last. Microsoft never actually came forward and admitted “it didn’t work,” but simply allowed the deal to lapse a year later. NSYNC then proved themselves to be a bunch of dogs by signing an almost identical deal with MSN’s arch-nemesis, AOL. They didn’t even seem embarrassed about it, as one article on ZDNet News gushed: “in joining forces with AOL, the boy band will gain access to a much larger captive audience: AOL, the world's largest online service, counts some 33 million subscribers.”
Really, this quote brings us full circle: back to marvelling at what a different universe this all took place in. A universe where NSYNC was cool, MSN was struggling, and the world's largest online service had just 33 million subscribers.