Once upon a time, people bought CDs. Lots. Like, more than ever before. Of course, by people I mean kids, and by CDs I mean a select few blockbusters, and neither fact was lost on the folks tallying the numbers. ‘N Sync sold 2.4 million copies of No Strings Attached in that album’s first week, more than doubling the sales numbers for the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, which had broken that same record less than a year earlier. And this commercial development may have done more to accelerate the industry’s “collapse” than convenient e-boogiemen like file-sharing, for it encouraged a willing addiction to first-week sales, and a conviction that success could, forever after, manufacture itself from the tweens up.
But there wouldn’t always be so many kids, and (all apologies to mileyselenademi) pop for teens would not always be Teenpop, that millennial confluence of marketing savvy, precision songcraft, and the demographic inevitability of a gimme-more generation flexing its shared consumer identity. Teenpop set the stage for the ’00s as the public enactment of a mass coming-of-age story, with those of us born before the ’80s relegated to supporting roles, whether as wicked, manipulative Boomers like Lou Pearlman and George Bush, or avuncular, manipulative Xers like Max Martin and Barack Obama. And only a confused digital pummeling like “Bye Bye Bye,” a stern kiss-off expressed through heartfelt pleading, could intuit the hormonal contradictions at the heart of the phenomenon.
Truth be told, ‘N Sync, despite superior talent (Justin yeah of course, but give J.C. some credit), had far fewer strokes of brilliance than the Backstreet Boys. Neither “I Want You Back” nor “Tearin’ Up My Heart” slammed as effortlessly as “Backstreet’s Back,” and ballads were no contest: Not only did ‘N Sync lack an “I Want It That Way,” but Backstreet never stooped to “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You” or turned to Richard Marx for a slow jam like “This I Promise You.” Still, by 2000 ‘N Sync were just hitting their stride where their competition’s moment was all but past. And though Backstreet were the first to haul Lou Pearlman’s sleazeball ass into court, ‘N Sync more effectively dramatized their battle against their former manager, casting him as the duplicitous puppetmaster from whose titular strings they’d struggled to detach.
The “Bye, Bye, Bye” video told a different story, though. Here, it was cruelly titanic hottie Kim Smith who pulled the strings and later (all the better to torment her prey) snipped the boys free. Ever a bunch of wronged lads (a vice JT has carried over into solohood), ‘N Sync understood an essential paradox of pop: Maybe real-life maturity can be achieved through monogamous commitment, but aesthetic maturity sprouts from an assertion that ain’t no woman can push you around. As a rueful overture gives way to an uneasy electroripple, and the boy’s voices dodge violent punches of synth and guitar, we’re experiencing the harsh, involuntary spasms of puppy love as it’s put to sleep.