In 2002, *NSYNC, the boy band of our collective pre-teen dreams, decided to go on hiatus at the height of their career. Lance Bass, JC Chasez, Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick and Justin Timberlake were stretched a little too thin and in need of some R&R, fans were led to believe.
But as the months rolled on and Timberlake released his first solo album, “Justified,” the situation proved to be a little more murky.
“There’s no reason my solo career and *NSYNC can’t coexist in the same universe. *NSYNC is in no danger. The break we’re on was a conscious move. We all wanted to do it, and we were ready to do it. Performing at stadiums every night for 50,000 fans takes a little out of you ... The time was right; we were all in the same zone,” Timberlake told The New York Post in November 2002, before cryptically adding of his new record “Justified”: “This album is what I wanted to do.”
What Timberlake wanted to do, yes, and perhaps Chasez, who also headed into the studio to work on a solo project.
“For us, it happened organically,” Chasez told me over the phone last month, a few weeks before he was set to reunite with his former bandmates for a Hollywood Walk of Fame ceremony in Los Angeles. “After you do something for a certain amount of time, you get into a rhythm of it and then new things spark your curiosity; you need new brain food. At that time, we just felt like we had exhausted every kind of idea for what we were doing and we just felt like ‘OK, let’s do something different.’ So, that’s what we did.”
All these “we’s” suggest that the break was a unanimous decision, a Kumbaya conclusion that served to benefit everyone. And maybe it was. But an actual breakup? Not so much.
“We thought we were getting back together,” Fatone told me. “It was, ’OK, after [Justin] does his thing, blah, blah, blah, we’ll get back together and move forward and do what we got to do. And then it was like, nope. The record company wanted to push Justin, I guess, is what it was. He got bigger and bigger, which is honestly great for him and I’m totally happy for him in that sense, but it was more or less weird that there wasn’t an explanation to say we’re not going to do it, period. I was a little bit on hold for a moment and it was like, ‘OK, we got to shit or get off the pot.’”
In fact, the band never officially announced the end of *NSYNC. Yet, in his 2007 book Out of Sync ― released five years after their initial rest period ― Bass wrote, “We’re definitely broken up. It’s not a hiatus. Justin made it clear that he wouldn’t be interested in discussing another album any time soon.”
It wasn’t anything crazy – no big, crazy fight to break us up. We’re all still close and we talk daily, but I guess it just had run its time...
When I asked Bass about the hiatus-turned-breakup, he said he always saw *NSYNC “evolving and maturing,” despite its origins as a boy band. “We all decided, ‘OK, six months. We need it. We need the vacation time, we need the downtime,’” he said. “But when we came back, it just … everything changed.”
“It took us a while to naturally say, ‘You know what? I think ... we might be done,’” Bass recalled, laughing. “And that’s how it was. It wasn’t anything crazy – no big, crazy fight to break us up. We’re all still close and we talk daily, but I guess it just had run its time, which was sad because I was really excited for the next album.”
Fatone and Kirkpatrick felt the same way.
“I was upset at first about the ‘why.’ Then you understand the logistics of everything,” Fatone said.
“I don’t know if I was ready for it to end,” Kirkpatrick added. “In my 20s and into my early 30s, I was in a band touring the world every day. You wake up and there’s a schedule on your floor saying you have a photo shoot this time, a meet-and-greet this time, a radio interview this time, a TV appearance this time and a show this time. Then, suddenly, you wake up and there’s nothing. You’re like, ‘Oh man, where do I go now?’”
To fans and music critics alike, it was a strange choice for *NSYNC to throw in the towel after only a few very successful years and three chart-topping albums. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last year, Timberlake further explained his leaving. “It started as a fun snowball fight that was becoming an avalanche,” he said. “And, also, I was growing out of it. I felt like I cared more about the music than some of the other people in the group.”
Whether he did or didn’t is up for debate. Chasez produced and wrote multiple *NSYNC songs, and admitted the studio is still his safe haven. And Bass said he spent a good portion of his time off in Nashville writing lyrics for what he thought would be the band’s next album.
“I had several songs that I wrote that I was going to present, so that was definitely sad that I didn’t get to experience that part of making the next album,” Bass said. “I thought our sound just kept evolving ― from ‘*NSYNC’ to ‘No Strings Attached’ to ‘Celebrity,’ you could see the growth there. It would’ve been very interesting to see what our sound would be like today.”
After years apart, the five members of *NSYNC will be back together on Hollywood Boulevard to receive a star on the Walk of Fame. They won’t be performing, though. Instead, the group will be joined by family members and former collaborators, including speakers Ellen DeGeneres and Carson Daly, recruited to commemorate their legacy in the presence of the Chamber of Commerce and fans. There’s even an “immersive experience” (read: a memorabilia mecca) for former followers called The Dirty Pop-Up. It’s a nostalgic affair, laced with an air of anticlimax: *NSYNC is reuniting without really reuniting.
Ahead of the ceremony, I reached out to the former members to see if I could compile an investigation of *NSYNC’s demise. Bass, Chasez, Fatone and Kirkpatrick obliged, mostly eager to reminisce about the good ole days of wide-legged cargo pants, frosted-tip hair and smooth a cappella. But Timberlake, who’s already had a few shots at explaining his side of the story, was too busy to hop on the phone. (He’s currently on the U.S. leg of his Man of the Woods tour.) Perhaps it was for the best, because the other guys got très deep about the beginnings of the group, fame in the early aughts, their unfortunate dissolution and their unlikely-but-high hopes for a legitimate reunion.
Behold: An oral history of *NSYNC’s breakup (and everything that led to it), according to bandmates not named Justin Timberlake.
It’s Gonna Be Me: The Rise Of Chris Kirkpatrick’s Boy Band
As most histories will tell you, *NSYNC was formed by the now-late and disgraced record producer Lou Pearlman in Orlando, Florida, in the mid-1990s, after he found huge success with their future rivals, The Backstreet Boys. Chris Kirkpatrick was the one who met with Pearlman to discuss starting another boy band, thanks to a connection to Backstreet Boy Howie Dorough.
“I went to school [Valencia College in Orlando] with Howie ― we had chorus together,” Kirkpatrick said. “And there was another kid, Charlie Edwards, who went and became a Backstreet Boy, and I guess he had a falling out with a producer and quit. He’s the one who came to me saying that this guy Lou Pearlman was looking for another band.”
After Pearlman and Kirkpatrick met, Kirkpatrick began helping him audition potential band members, bringing “quartets I was in from school.” They landed on a few potential singers who eventually dropped out before Mickey Mouse Club alum and Tennessean Justin Timberlake walked into the picture, bringing along fellow Mouseketeer and Maryland native JC Chasez. During a bonding night out at Disney World’s Pleasure Island, the newly formed trio happened to run into a mutual friend who seemed like a natural addition: Brooklyn-born Orlando transplant Joey Fatone. And just like that, there were four.
“I was like, ‘Hey, this is my buddy Joey! We both worked at Universal!’ And JC was like, ‘Yeah, we know him. He used to come to the Mickey Mouse Club,’” Kirkpatrick explained. “So we all knew each other and we were like, ‘Hey man, we’re putting together a group!’”
At the time, Fatone was in another group, Big Guys, with Luis Fonsi, but he left to join Kirkpatrick’s budding ensemble, deciding his then-bandmate Jason Galasso would round out the quintet. That’s when the concept for the name “In Sync,” aka *NSYNC, was formed, using the last letters of the guys’ first names: JustiN, ChriS, JoeY, JasoN, and JC. Of course, Galasso didn’t last long. He was soon replaced by Mississippi teen Lance Bass, who allegedly earned the nickname Lansten so the remaining “N” in the group’s name would still make sense.
“Bob Westbrook was Justin’s and my vocal coach, so when they got the group together, Justin called him to see if he knew of any bass singers that would work and he immediately thought of me,” Bass said. “I didn’t think my mom would ever let me do it!”
At 14, Timberlake was the youngest member of the group, followed by Bass, 16; Fatone, 18; Chasez, 19; and Kirkpatrick, 23. Timberlake’s and Bass’ moms stayed with the band as they traveled and rehearsed, since the pair was too young to go without chaperones.
“We’d have my mom and Justin’s mom washing the clothes in hotel sinks every night because we’d wear the same outfit for like six months,” Bass said with a laugh. “We didn’t really have a choice of what we wore at the beginning because it was just whatever we could afford.”
By 1996, *NSYNC signed with BMG Ariola Munich and were carted off to Europe to work with Swedish music producer and songwriter Denniz PoP and producer Max Martin in PoP’s Cheiron Studios. There, they perfected their “boy-band” image ― an image they weren’t quite sure would work with their musical background.
“The only time that we felt like we were kind of pushed with new stuff and new styles was when we were in Europe, because everything was so new to us. We thought we were kind of getting cultured,” Chasez laughed. “We were experimenting and trying to be as excited and open as possible.”
“We basically had label and management people looking down on us saying, ‘Hey, now you have to do this,’ especially the late Lou Pearlman. He was always like [imitating his husky voice], ‘Now I want to see you guys like this,’” Kirkpatrick said. “I think we could’ve been a lot better right out of the gate if he wasn’t there trying to push us into this mold. The word boy band wasn’t even out then, and it was almost like Lou knew what that was.”
In the beginning, a cappella music was *NSYNC’s passion. Kirkpatrick recalled how, during those days abroad, the guys would find a hallway with great acoustics and harmonize ― conjuring an image we always hoped existed, of five beatific friends who just can’t stop singing.
“So to be in this band where it was like, ‘OK, we want you to dress as clowns. OK, now we want you to be in the swimming pool with your shirts off.’ There were so many times where we thought why are we doing this? This is stupid,” Kirkpatrick said.
Although each bandmate emphasized that they weren’t aggressively slotted into personas, they did tick a certain box, respectively, when it came to fitting the five-person boy band mold Pearlman originally envisioned. The boxes weren’t as “cut and dry as the Spice Girls,” Kirkpatrick noted, but they contained certain fan niches.
“We were never like, ‘You have to be the funny one, you have to be the cool one, you got to be the sexy one,’” Fatone said. “Like Chris is always the prankster and the jokester. Justin has a great voice and everyone wants to marry him. And the moms wanted to take me home and cook me dinner. That’s the one I always got.”
“We always thought that the most important thing was to be good at what we were doing, and then the rest we’d let the chips fall where they may,” Chasez said.
That was the mantra when determining who would get the lead solos, too. Kirkpatrick explained that, in the beginning, the guys would take turns singing verses when practicing a cappella, and when it came time to record in studio, it was clear two voices stood out.
“Justin and JC had already been doing this, they were professionals, they knew what they were doing. But they also proved themselves to be the best lead vocals for the songs. I had a really high falsetto, so I would do the backgrounds, octaves and harmonies,” as would Joey and Lance, Kirkpatrick said.
After exploding in Germany with their hit “I Want You Back,” they released their self-titled album under BMG, Ariola Records and Trans Continental in May 1997. It peaked at No. 1 in its second week on the charts. *NSYNC became an overnight success abroad, touring across Europe and garnering the attention of RCA Records, which signed them to an American deal. The label switched out a few tracks on ”*NSYNC” and released the album in the U.S. on March 24, 1998.
But American audiences didn’t automatically swarm. “I Want You Back” wasn’t receiving the attention it had garnered overseas, and the album debuted at only No. 82 on the Billboard 200. So Disney, a bastion of media aimed at tweens and beyond, swooped in and saved the day by offering the band a chance to headline a special, “*NSYNC: In Concert,” which first aired in July 1998.
“We were a little discouraged, thinking, ‘Well, I guess we’ll never be able to create that craziness we had in Europe. We’ll just have a normal career here.’ But that Disney special started to air five times a day for months and we went from zero to 100 overnight,” Bass said.
By October, their debut album reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and, well, pandemonium ensued.
The ‘No Strings’ Years: How ‘Clockwork Orange’ Inspired *NSYNC
Justin, JC, Joey, Chris and Lance quickly became household names, their faces peering down from posters in teenage bedrooms. “Tearin’ Up My Heart” ― or their equally successful holiday album “Home For Christmas” ― rang through adolescent boom boxes everywhere. They toured the U.S., appeared on “Total Request Live,” and showed up at events alongside the reigning princess of pop, Britney Spears, Timberlake’s longtime girlfriend. (That’s a whole other story.)
“It was almost like going to college in a way, growing up with these different artists who were pretty much the same age and all starting at the same time: Destiny’s Child, Mandy Moore, Britney, Christina [Aguilera], Backstreet – it was like a pop college,” Bass said. “We all worked together, toured together and became kind of family.”
Friends, perhaps, but foes nonetheless. Anyone who consumed entertainment news 20 years ago knows of the relentless fan rivalry between *NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys, which the bandmates claim was entirely perpetuated by the press.
“Everybody, mostly the fans, were trying to pit us against each other, but for a while there we had the same management. So everywhere we turned it was like we were doing our thing, they were doing their thing, but it was always ‘Backstreet, Backstreet, Backstreet’ to us and ‘*NSYNC, *NSYNC, *NSYNC’ to them,” Kirkpatrick said. “After a while, that kind of rubs off on you and you feed into it a little bit. I think people just wanted to pick something up and know there’s some kind of huge animosity between us. All the gossip.”
Actually, *NSYNC was focused less on the BSB drama and more on a legal battle with Pearlman, Trans Continental and BMG Entertainment over business practices. The group left mid-contract and signed with Jive Records after claiming Pearlman and the labels misled and exploited them, taking most of the profit from American album sales. A few months after Pearlman and BMG filed a $150 million lawsuit against the band for prematurely breaking a contract, both parties settled out of court. *NSYNC eventually released their third album, “No Strings Attached,” under Jive in the spring of 2000. The concept for the album, which dominated the Billboard 200 for eight consecutive weeks, was slightly inspired by the management snafu.
We thought “nobody is controlling us anymore. This is us, this is who we are, we’re not going to just appease the management and label,” Kirkpatrick said.
That album gave fans earworms like “Bye, Bye, Bye,” “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “This I Promise You.” It also provided some of the most iconic *NSYNC fashion moments: acid-washed denim jackets, leather cargo pants, spiky colored hair.
″‘No Strings Attached’ was like the Pinocchio ‘I Got No Strings’ song. We came up with this whole weird idea of patchwork orange ― a ‘Clockwork Orange’-ish sense,” Fatone said. “This guy Steven, who was on our wardrobe team, came to us with these drawings and we loved them. That’s was how the style of it went down.”
For the “It’s Gonna Be Me” video, the group ― as they did with “Bye, Bye, Bye” ― gravitated toward an on-the-nose marionette concept, portraying themselves as dolls at a toy store. Fatone said it’s one of his favorite *NSYNC music videos.
“It’s a staple, you know? Like ‘Bye, Bye, Bye.’ All our videos kind of stick out because they’re all moments in time.”
The fandom was intense in the “No Strings” era. Young followers weren’t hiding behind iPhone screens or computers tweeting about why *NSYNC was the greatest boy band of all time. They were physically present at meet-and-greets, red carpet events and concert dates.
“You’re like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Some were die-hard fans and know my birthday or ask about my brother. They talked to you like they actually knew you, even though you’ve never met these people before in your life,” Fatone said. “They’ve followed everything you’ve done and love everything you do and everything about you. It’s a weird, surreal feeling. Even to this day, I’ve never gotten used to it.”
But the chaos was different than what the likes of Justin Bieber face today ― constant praise and scrutiny in public and on the web from admirers and critics alike.
“We were so lucky that we got to have a way more innocent time in this industry than a lot of people do today. We could be stupid teenagers, we could be seen with a beer in our hand at a club and not think someone was going to take a picture of that and send it to someone,” Bass said.
Bass, perhaps, had the toughest task in terms of dealing with wild female fans. During the days of *NSYNC, he had not yet come out as gay, and was facing the “torture” of hiding his identity behind a diluted pop culture persona.
“Being onstage and singing those songs that you don’t really relate to since you’re talking about girls, it all, to me, wasn’t real,” Bass recalled. “Onstage, I just felt like I was playing a character the whole time, but offstage, unfortunately, I didn’t get to have my real life, because I felt like I just had to hide this secret.”
After enduring what he’s described as excruciating guilt during his formative years, the singer came out in a People magazine story in 2006, shocking friends and fans. He said he kept his sexuality under wraps as not to diminish the success of his bandmates.
“The ’90s were a different time,” he said. “If you came out, if anyone knew you were gay, it was a disaster and people really flipped out. I felt like if anyone found out that I was gay, the record label would immediately drop us and the fans would hate us ― these were all the crazy things that went through my head as a teenager. So, I just trained myself into being a certain person and became that person.”
Bass said “it would’ve changed everything” if he had been open about his sexuality during his days with *NSYNC, knowing his bandmates would’ve been completely supportive.
“As long as I’ve known the guys, I’ve known that there’s not one bigoted bone in their bodies, so I knew they would be fine with it, but I also knew that they wouldn’t be able to keep their mouths shut,” he said, laughing. “That’s why I just told no one. I just thought if I even told just one single person it would get out, which it would have. So that secret stayed with me and me only.”