It was the question that waged wars among young girls across the globe: *NSYNC or Backstreet Boys? Whichever band you chose meant you were drawing your line in the sand. I don’t remember the exact moment I realized both fangroups weren’t created equal, I mean, one clearly had better taste than the other, right? In elementary school, my art teacher allowed the class to bring in music, with one caveat—no parental advisory stickers. To my dismay, someone brought in Backstreet Boys. When the chorus dropped, I couldn’t help but alter the lyrics loud enough for the entire class to hear, “Backstreet’s whack, alright!” It was the moment I knew I was an *NSYNC girl forever and, despite the similarities between both bands, they just weren’t the same.
Comprised of a college student, two Mickey Mouse Club alum, a theme park actor, and a high school senior, *NSYNC had a stellar lineup with an undeniable chemistry. The group’s music was the antithesis to the murky guitars from Nirvana and Pearl Jam, two bands that established grunge as the sound of the 90s just a few years prior to *NSYNC’s inception. Chris, Justin, JC, Joey, and Lance were the newest beneficiaries to the cash crop that was 90s pop. President Clinton’s 1996 Telecommunications Act merged media outlets, radio included, making it easier for record labels to control what their audience was consuming. With MTV’s core audience of children ages 6-15, bands were formed with a “for us, by us” tactic in mind. They had to look and sound like the teens they were targeting.
*NSYNC was as sweet as the “bubblegum pop” genre suggested, and their cookie cutter image fit the mold of what successful pop acts exuded with What Would Jesus Do? bracelets draped from their wrists and given out for free at their concerts. Their self-titled debut album turns 20 in 2018 and is a reminder that in ‘98, there wasn’t a boy band in the popsphere as talented as they were. * NSYNC is pop’s introductory course to genreless music. It was the watershed moment for five young men fighting for individuality buried within the industry’s formulaic standards. It was pop’s take on R&B, hip-hop, and even a little country that created a digestible album that encapsulated an era of frosted tips and unbuttoned silk blouses.
Right away, the boys of *NSYNC were hard to dislike. Coming off the heels of an era of alternative rock were five all-American boys who weren’t discovered in Los Angeles or New York, but a city most popular for retirement and family vacations. Their boy next door charm was sprinkled throughout their introduction to the world, which at times felt like they were guys you’d pass on the way to your locker. *NSYNC is filled with dance inspired productions and heavy ballads, which might cause you to skip a few tracks in today’s music landscape. But what the boys got right was their ability to bank on the feelings of teenagers who were spending over $2 billion on pop music. The album opener reeks of adolescence and exaggerated emotion steeped in cliches: “It’s tearing up my heart when I’m with you/But when we are apart I feel it too.” It’s ridiculously dramatic but that’s apart of its appeal, which makes sense considering it was co-written by pop songwriter Max Martin. The best parts of *NSYNC are when the band fused pop with the edge of R&B and hip-hop on songs like “Giddy Up” and “Here We Go”—a sound that made up a quarter of Billboard’s charts.
With the success of other pop acts like the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC was commercially pushing songs that fit teen pop’s mold like “I Want You Back” and “God Must Have Spent.” The outlier was “Here We Go,” a song filled with Boyz II Men inspired harmonies, a New Jack Swing rhythm, and declarations of *NSYNC having “the flow.” On the track the group flexed their muscles, showing they weren’t manufactured robots and had more of an identity than the public was aware of. “Here We Go” was placed in the opening credits for Model Behavior, a Disney Channel Original Movie, and was a stepping stone for what corporate entities were willing to classify as popular music. The growth of genres like R&B and country on Billboard charts paired with the fandom kids were tapping into on shows like Total Request Live meant that *NSYNC couldn’t afford to be a second-rate version of any band for much longer.
When the group wasn’t borrowing from R&B they were exploring other genres that were faring well on the charts, like rock and country. “God Must Have Spent” was their endearing love song and a change of pace from the mixed signals sent on “Tearin’ Up My Heart” and “I Want You Back.” The original track belonged to country band and RCA labelmates, Alabama. *NSYNC’s rendition peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s Hot 100, 14 spots ahead of Alabama’s. The covers seemed like a strategic move, and as *NSYNC remade Bread’s “Everything I Own,” and Christopher Cross’s “Sailing,” they were proving just how far their reach stretched.
The group’s marriage of pop and their interpretation of R&B, soul, and country was inevitable. The band members had a variety of backgrounds—coming from places like Memphis, Mississippi, and Maryland—with each having music roots in country, soul, and go go, so they wouldn’t remain pop clones for long. *NSYNC’s genre-bending sound set them apart from their contemporaries because it came natural to them, rather than feeling like a gimmick. In reality, it was their traditional pop sound that sounded forced.
The five boys put down their mics 17 years ago, but their impact is undeniable. It’s present everywhere from their successors in One Direction to alt-R&B singers like PartyNextDoor. In just three albums, spanning from 1998 to 2001, the boys carved a lane and inspired a wave of artists who are redefining the meaning of mainstream culture. They won consistently with all three of their major releases, *NSYNC, No Strings Attached, and Celebrity, sitting at the top of the charts. It’s the reason why a meme is circulated every spring, to an entire wave of internet kids who were probably in diapers when Justin uttered the words “It’s gonna be May.” They transcended more than genres, but also industries, with JC as a host on America’s Best Dance Crew and Lance literally pushing the boundaries of space. *NSYNC was the preamble to Justin’s 15 year career, which is an extension of the sound he forged within the group. Though reunions between the bandmates are rare, they gave the 2013 Video Music Awards a dose of 90s nostalgia and the next time they’ll join forces will be next month to receive their Hollywood Star. *NSYNC mania was real, and you were probably in high school longer than it took them to become the best boy band of the 90s—and maybe of all time.
Kristin Corry is not here for any *NSYNC slander. Follow her on Twitter.