Backstreet Boys, or *N SYNC? It is a question that has haunted boy band fans for darn near 20 years. BSB and *N SYNC happen to be two of the most successful pop groups of all time, but because their most dominant runs happened concurrently, the pair of quintets will forever be compared. Looking back on their heydays 15 years later, it’s easy to love both groups — but, inevitably, it’s just as easy to lean toward one or the other, and pledge an unspoken allegiance to either Backstreet or the asterisk.
Today, those unspoken allegiances become spoken, as Billboard pop editors Jason Lipshutz and Erin Strecker face off to explain why Backstreet Boys were better than *N SYNC, and vice versa. Whose side are you on? Read the debate and sound off in the comments section below.
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JASON: Okay before we begin, Erin, full disclosure: we both wholeheartedly love the music of Backstreet Boys and *N SYNC. I am not an *N SYNC hater in any regard — who could ever hate the reason that the name “Chris Kirkpatrick” is forever burned into our brains? — and I know that the shape of your heart is geometrically accustomed to include lots of BSB love. There is no “last place” in this competition, only second place.
And we are both positive that we know which quintet belongs in first place. I know you have no doubt in your mind that *N SYNC was the superior turn-of-the-millennium boy band, in the same way that I cannot fathom giving anyone other than Brian, A.J., Nick, Howie and Kevin the modern boy band crown.
I watched MTV’s Total Request Live every day after school for years beginning at the end of 1998, basking in the mayhem of Times Square and Carson Daly’s black nail polish. There were big hits that devoured their TRL competition in those first few months — “…Baby One More Time,” of course, and I see you, Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba”! — but when the video for Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” came out in April 1999, it felt like the teen-pop tsunami that had been gathering for months had finally crashed ashore.
The word “iconic” gets tossed around too much by modern music fans, but everything about the “I Want It That Way” song and video felt instantly iconic: that opening couplet, the powder-white suits, the way A.J. lurches his body forward during “It’s too-o-o la-ate!”, the “Kisses For Kevin” sign being waved around during the final chorus. Everything about the construction of “I Want It That Way” and its video is so simple, so clean, and yet so memorable, that whenever anyone brings up the boy-band era of the late 90’s/early 00’s, my mind immediately goes to that one song — and by extension, the feeling of watching it on TRL, of the day Millennium came out, of realizing that these dudes were rock stars in a way that 11-year-old me never imagined rock stars could be.
So I guess that’s where my argument starts: you can keep your “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” because to me, “I Want It That Way” was unequivocally the high point of that boy band era. It’s the boy band song that people who hate boy bands still admit is pretty great. It’s my fire; my one desire. Is it not yours, Erin? If not, tell me why.
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ERIN: Wow, you’re really tearin’ up my heart here, Jason.
First of all, I want to second your point that we’re both fans of both bands (and I’ve had this debate at previous jobs as well). Anyone who isn’t currently in a 7th grade IM war can admit that the bands are of course very similar, both contributing to the apex of teen pop at the turn of the millennium. SPEAKING OF… I rocked out hard to Millennium, and Backstreet Boys was one of the first albums I ever bought. I was pretty sure I was going to marry Nick Carter for a time, so on a deep emotional level I understand where you’re coming from.
But. BUT. To dub Backstreet Boys the preeminent boy band of the era is a mistake on par with walking out of the house in matching all-denim outfits with your significant other. Sure, *N SYNC didn’t give their fans as many albums as Backstreet Boys did theirs, but the three they did put out were pop perfection: tight harmonies, catchy choruses, and iconic music videos full of dance moves still so instantly recognizable that one need only move their arm in a horizontal motion across their body while bringing their fingers and thumb together and apart to elicit approval at any bar or karaoke situation in which one might find themselves.
*N SYNC showed they were equally adept at stirring ballads (“God Must Have Spent A Little More Time On You”) as well as upbeat dance tracks (“No Strings Attached”). For me, that’s a significant *N SYNC edge: Backstreet Boys may be able to harmonize with the best of them, but — barring the excellent “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” — their dance tracks fall short. We aren’t deciding who are the best technical singers, we’re going for overall impact, and from the costumes to the stage show (THEY PRETENDED TO BE DOCTORS), *NSYNC checks every box.
“I Want It That Way” is an excellent song, no argument here. But I would argue that its the high point for the band; a level they don’t get quite as close to again. *N SYNC was able to sustain their incredible run for quite some time, from “Tearin’ Up My Heart” to “It’s Gonna Be Me” to “Pop.” At this point, quite frankly, all that matters is that you recognize that it’s just about respect.
JASON: “Their dance tracks fall short”??? What about “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” “The Call,” “Larger Than Life”? And, sorry, the “Bye Bye Bye” dance can’t hold a candle to the “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” two-handed body pull.
I understand that BSB and *N SYNC each released three albums during the heights of their cultural popularity, but I think there’s something to be said about the longevity of the Backstreet Boys. Would an *N SYNC tour in 2015 draw more attention than a BSB tour in 2015? No question, because of the prolonged dormancy and Justin Timberlake’s involvement. However, Backstreet Boys have been steadily entertaining audiences for a decade longer than *N SYNC, and while radio hasn’t cared about the four albums they’ve released since 2005, there are some absolute gems in there if you look hard enough, first and foremost the incredible power ballad “Incomplete.”
Neil Young once sang, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away,” and while *N SYNC arguably burned brighter than the Backstreet Boys (at least in terms of album sales), Backstreet Boys have kept chugging along without fading away (at least in terms of live performances). BSB still sells out shows! And I know they do so because of their hits from 15 years ago, but they’ve been putting in the work and delighting people past their prime in a way I cannot help but admire.
ERIN: I give Backstreet Boys credit for their longevity, but I think the fact that radio hasn’t cared since 2005 means that the overall quality has waned and their present-day concerts are merely a shadow of their former ones.
We’re getting into a very intriguing hypothetical here, because this is where the argument gets interesting, right? What would a 2015 *N SYNC look like? (Hopefully a little more exciting than the all-too-brief VMAs reunion of 2013). It’s impossible to say for sure, but I, for one, would certainly pay to watch Joey Fatone, Lance Bass, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick and of course Justin Timberlake break out their biggest hits. They were moving in an interesting direction before the indefinite hiatus — “Gone” and other Celebrity songs pointed to a new, mature sound (look what One Direction is currently doing as they grow).
If a fourth *N SYNC album had happened, would it have been more of the same, or would it possibly have taken the best of Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds and melded that with a group dynamic? I don’t want to argue for a world where FutureSex/LoveSounds doesn’t exist (I’m not a maniac), but it’s certainly intriguing to think about what an alternate universe with Timberlake and the collaborators he subsequently worked with would do with *N SYNC. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.
Speaking of Justin, he’s the curly blonde Ken doll in the room here. We simply can’t have a conversation about best boy bands of that era without acknowledging that there was one incredible performer who rose above it all. A consummate showman who is now in a boy band alum stratosphere all by himself, Timberlake’s star power elevated everything around it, from cheesy music videos to charming interviews — even his teenage dream tabloid romance with Britney Spears contributed to a zeitgeist that simply paid more attention to *N SYNC than Backstreet.
Numbers aren’t everything, but I’ll leave you with one quick stat: Between 2000 and 2009, the top-selling album was The Beatles’ 1. Number 2? No Strings Attached. For a time *N SYNC wasn’t simply a big thing in pop culture, they were pop culture.
JASON: Justin Timberlake is one of my favorite artists, and the first six songs on FutureSex/LoveSounds probably represent the best six-song run on any album released last decade. JC Chasez is someone whose voice, music and hair I will always defend as underrated, and “Blowin’ Me Up (With Her Love)” is for SURE on my wedding playlist. Lance Bass and Joey Fatone starred in On The Line, so they are golden in my eyes. Chris Kirkpatrick? Dreads, the Eminem diss, three first names composing his name. Perfection.
The members of *N SYNC are more singular than the members of Backstreet Boys, there’s no denying that. But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? BSB have always been a unit — they can’t operate without each other, and those two Kevin-free albums are their worst for a reason. I don’t necessarily think that a group needs flashy personalities to put on a great show or make great music, and when you listen to the Backstreet Boys harmonize or watch them do their “Backstreet’s Back” dance, there’s a certain cohesion that remains irreplaceable. *N SYNC songs are more or less just JC Chasez & Justin Timberlake songs, with backing harmonies on the chorus. The five Backstreet Boys balance each other out — everything is in its right place, to paraphrase Radiohead.
To respond to your final point — it’s true, No Strings Attached is more massive than any Backstreet Boys album. You know what else though? No Strings Attached has “Digital Get Down,” which is the ickiest boy band song this side of “Liquid Dreams.” Yuuuuuuuuck.
ERIN: Don’t bring up On The Line trying to distract me. I see you, Jason, and I won’t stand for it.
Look, is “Digital Get Down” Grammy-worthy? Of course not. But it is an oddly specific throwaway song about a time (the dawn of the Internet age) and place (your house, chatting with your crush). I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but did Lance Bass introduce teenage America to sexting? Would Catfish exist if not for this tune? OMG, I HAVE TO KNOW WHAT THE HECK BRITNEY SPEARS THINKS OF THIS SONG.
In all seriousness, I guess my final argument is simply that *N SYNC perfected the boy band formula that had been done before and would continue to be done again and again. They had the moves, the cheese, the personalities, the songs (both ballad and dance club-worthy), and zeitgeist-y media attention. By only releasing three full-length albums, they retained a higher quality that the Boys’ albums began to lose. That *N SYNC eschewed the reunion tour game only allowed them to burn brighter in fans’ mind, as you say, but it also allows fans remember, untainted, the joy of learning to dance like them, a time where “Bringin Da Noise” could soundtrack a hangout, and “This I Promise You” could appear on a mixtape from a junior high crush. The music is important, but a perfect boy band is all about the feelings said songs provoke: of hope, of fantasy, of fun. Cue up the opening notes of “Pop” and you’re instantly transported back to 2001, ready to take on the world (ideally with Mr. Timberlake by your side).
Also, I mean, in a music video *N SYNC once hung out in a mental hospital (not to mention that time they ran atop a moving train). Game, set, match.
JASON: All fair points, but your argument also leads me right back to mine: *N SYNC may had better moves, cooler personalities and tastier cheese, but I think BSB had the better songs, and that it’s not a particularly close competition.
Let’s break it down album by album, at least for the first three. BSB’s self-titled album had “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” “As Long As You Love Me,” “All I Have to Give” and “I’ll Never Break You Heart.” Compare that to *N SYNC’s self-titled, which had “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” “Here We Go,” “I Want You Back,” “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time on You” and “I Drive Myself Crazy.” Both albums are brimming with hits, but come on, Erin. “All I Have To Give” is amazing, and it’s, like, the fourth best single on Backstreet Boys!
Then you have Millennium vs. No Strings Attached. “I Want It That Way,” “Larger Than Life” and “Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely” vs. “Bye Bye Bye,” “It’s Gonna Be Me,” “This I Promise You.” This is a closer competition, but “I Want It That Way” is unbeatable, “Larger Than Life” is the best classic rock single of 1999 and the “Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely” is the most unintentionally hilarious music video ever made. Game, set, Millennium.
Then there’s Black & Blue vs. Celebrity. Look, “Pop” is my favorite *N SYNC song, “Gone” is probably my second-favorite, and “Girlfriend” has that red-hot Nelly remix. That trio is pretty tough to top! But here’s the thing, Erin: “The Call,” from BSB’s Black & Blue, is better than all of those songs. Especially the Neptunes remix, featuring Clipse! “The Call” is so overdramatic, immaculately produced and gleeful to perform at a karaoke bar at 2:00 AM, when your battery actually is low. Throw in “Shape of My Heart” and “More Than That,” and I think I’d still opt to pick up a copy of Black & Blue than Celebrity.
If Backstreet Boys Music > *N SYNC Music, I can only conclude than BSB > *N SYNC. We can agree on one thing at least: that era of boy bands was impossibly fun to live through.