*NSYNC’s Debut Album Turns 15: Backtracking

Robbie Daw | March 22, 2013 5:45 am

Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.

The arrival of *NSYNC into the American mainstream conjures up memories of several phenoms of a bygone era: the days when an album achieving Diamond certification (selling 10 million copies) wasn’t as infrequent as Haley’s Comet; TRL being the Holy Grail of music promotion in the US; and the tsunami of teen pop that flooded the market in the late-’90s, the crème de la crème of which bore the hallmark of slick, candy-sweet pop-and-funk production by any combination of the Swedish production crew at Stockholm’s Cheiron Studios.

Now, let’s just put it out there that *NSYNC’s debut LP, which was released on March 24, 1998, isn’t what you would call a great album. At best, it’s a decent collection of somewhat dated pop and R&B numbers buoyed by two stellar singles and a standout album track or two. Still, given the significance of Justin Timberlake‘s third solo LP The 20/20 Experience arriving almost exactly 15 years after his former boy band’s debut landed, we thought the record was worth revisiting, if only to trace the humble beginnings of the Grammy-winning “Mirrors” singer.

Head below as songwriter-producer Kristian Lundin joins us for a look back at Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone and Lance Bass‘ first foray into pop stardom.

One thing to keep in mind is that *NSYNC blew up in 1998 — four years before American Idol hit the airwaves, five years before MySpace and iTunes launched and seven years before any of us watched our first cat video on YouTube. There was nary a performance clip of these young gents that went viral and catapulted them to overnight success; they struck teen-pop gold the good, old-fashioned way: in Orlando!

Like several boy bands in the 1990s — including chart rivals Backstreet Boys — *NSYNC were initially bankrolled by now-imprisoned mogul Lou Pearlman. Here’s the lowdown: Kirkpatrick, the oldest member (and the one with the pineapple dreads), rang up fellow Universal Studios crooner Joey Fatone about forming a group after a 1995 meeting with Pearlman in Orlando. Kirkpatrick had narrowly missed making the cut for Backstreet Boys, another group Lou put together, and was eager to get his own vocal act up and running.

Justin, JC, Chris, Joey and Lance discuss forming the band in a Disney Channel special

Timberlake was out of work after the Disney Channel’s revival of The Mickey Mouse Club was put on ice the year prior, and was thus drafted into the group. JT called in his MMC castmate JC Chasez, who had been working on music with Timberlake. The pair would go on to become the two key vocalists in *NSYNC and, subsequently, the most recognized and pinup-worthy members of the boy band. Fifth member Jason Galasso split early on, and was eventually replaced by Lance Bass.

*NSYNC — “I Want You Back” (original video)

In 1996, *NSYNC were shipped off to Sweden to record their first single at Cheiron Studios with Denniz Pop and Max Martin. It makes sense, then, that one of the most immediately noticeable characteristics of the dance-pop track is that the drum pattern is nearly identical to Ace Of Base‘s “The Sign,” another Denniz Pop production.

Were the music-loving masses ready for yet another American boy band that first found success in Europe, so soon after Backstreet Boys wound up in heavy rotation? Well, sort of. “I Want You Back” slowly began to make its way onto American airwaves in spring ’98, a year-and-a-half after the song was first released in Germany. It eventually peaked at a so-so #13 on the Billboard Hot 100.

A slick new video for the song was also shot for use in *NSYNC’s home country. Though, we admit —we kind of prefer their cheesy space odyssey in the German clip above!

*NSYNC — “I Want You Back” (US version)

“I remember them being polite, a bit shy, upbeat and keen to do well,” Kristian Lundin tells Idolator, while recalling his first meeting with *NSYNC at Cheiron in Stockholm. Lundin produced the quintet’s second single “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” which he co-wrote with Max Martin.

“We wrote ‘Tearin’ Up My Heart’ once ‘I Want You Back’ showed traction,” Lundin recalls, also noting that the track came together in “about three days, which was extremely fast back then.” He adds, “I believe [‘I Want You Back’] was doing well in Europe and the label wanted ‘the same but different’ for the US.”

*NSYNC — “Tearin’ Up My Heart”

Like much of *NSYNC’s output in those early days, the video for “Tearin’ Up My Heart” — which features the young white-tee-and-muscle-shirt-clad guys dancing in a warehouse, shooting hoops and boy-band-emoting over some Polaroid pics — was shot in Florida and serviced to Europe a full year-and-a-half before it premiered on MTV in the Sates in September 1998. (The fivesome’s first label deal was with Germany’s BMG Ariola. They eventually wound up on RCA in the US.)

As Lundin remembers, the actual recording session for “Tearin’ Up My Heart” got off to a rocky start. “I had been up all night finishing a rough track, got to bed around 7 a.m. and planned to sleep a couple of hours before recording,” the producer tells us. “We only had that one day to get it all before they were to catch a flight to Germany the morning after. Unfortunately, after missing what must have been four alarms, several wake-up-calls and Denniz and Martin frantically banging on my door, I slept a good seven hours.”

Sweden, thankfully, offers many distractions. “The guys were outstanding, and in good shape despite flying in to Stockholm the night before,” Lundin says. “Luckily, Denniz and Martin took them sight-seeing in Stockholm while waiting, so they were still in good spirits. Needless to say, we didn’t take any breaks during the now very late session, which went on until 6 in the morning. We actually recorded the last takes with JC while the other guys were well on their way to the airport.”

In America, the *NSYNC album was a slow burner that didn’t truly start flying off the shelves until the boy band’s *NSYNC: Live In Concert special aired on the Disney Channel in summer 1998. And like High School Musical, another juggernaut the cable network broke eight years later, the concert documentary benefited from multiple repeat airings.

Coinciding with this was the re-branding of  MTV’s Carson Daly-hosted Total Request, which was re-launched in September 1998 as daily countdown show Total Request Live. With *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and, a short time later, pop newcomer Britney Spears becoming staples on TRL, more singles and videos were lifted from Justin, JC & Co.’s debut album.

*NSYNC — “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You”

Produced by Carl Sturken and Even Rogers, the ballad “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You” is notable for becoming *NSYNC’s first Top 10 hit in the US. (It peaked at #8.) Veteran country act Alabama, RCA labelmates of *NSYNC, recorded their own version the song, and both renditions wound up being hits on the pop and country charts in 1999.

Alabama — “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You”

Elsewhere, tween party track “Here We Go” was surely designed less for getting 11-year-olds on the dance floor, and more for having the repeated chant “Yes! Yes! Yes! Here we go! *NSYNC has got the flow!” seared into fans’ memory banks until their dying days. German songwriter-producer Veit Renn worked with the group on other trendy, R&B-flavored tracks like “You Got It” and “Giddy Up,” as well as the boy band’s final US single from the album, “Thinking Of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)” — a curiosity that actually features Chris Kirkpatrick picking up the main vocal duties on the first verse…and has a video set in an insane asylum.

*NSYNC — “Thinking Of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)”

Kudos to future My Big Fat Greek Wedding star Joey Fatone, who demonstrated his early flair for acting in the above clip by donning a Superman costume and smacking himself in the face with a flyswatter.

*NSYNC’s debut also boasts, of all things, schmaltzy covers of Bread‘s 1972 hit “Everything I Own” and Christopher Cross‘ 1980 dentist office fave “Sailing,” both of which at least manage to strip back the heavy production found elsewhere on the album and showcase the quintet’s impressive harmonizing skills.

One album track that stands out as a true guilty pleasure on *NSYNC is “I Need Love,” a European-influenced slab of dance cheese that apes both Snap‘s “Rhythm Is A Dancer” and La Bouche‘s “Sweet Dreams,” yet still comes off as charming and invigorating ear candy.

Following the success of *NSYNC’s first album, the five members sued Lou Pearlman over what they perceived to be a shady record contract, and eventually departed their label RCA for Jive. (And speaking of release dates, Pearlman, who is serving a sentence in federal prison for money laundering and other charges, is due to get out of the slammer on March 24, 2029 — 31 years to the day *NSYNC dropped.)

Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears soon became pop’s royal couple for the TRL generation, which naturally helped boost JT’s profile. After recording two more studio LPs and a holiday album with *NSYNC, Timberlake left JC, Joey, Lance and Chris in the dust for the lure of a successful solo career — under the guidance of the group’s manager Johnny Wright, who is still with Justin to this day— seemingly never to return.

“[Justin] was clearly talented and displayed outstanding focus, but I don’t think anyone knew just how well he’d do on his own,” Kristian Lundin says. “Though there were some clues. He usually kept goofing and bantering to a minimum and always seemed to be one step ahead. I remember being very impressed by his ambition — especially watching him working on ‘Gone’ during the recordings for [third *NSYNC album] Celebrity.”

As for Lundin, he went on to earn Grammy nominations for co-producing Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” (with Max Martin) and *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.” But those, of course, are Backtrackings for another day.

Were you caught up in *NSYNC mania in the days of TRL? Share your memories of the album during our Twitter re-listening party on Friday, March 22, or by hitting us up in the comments below.