Following our Billboard staff-picked list of the 00 greatest songs of 2000, we’re writing this week about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here, we circle back to *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached era one last time, via a frequent collaborator: MTV legend Wayne Isham, who helmed the pop quintet’s classic videos for “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me.”
“Everybody stepped up big on this one,” states Wayne Isham on a cross-country phone call from Los Angeles.
The legendary music video director is reminiscing on “Bye Bye Bye,” the 2000 single that lifted *NSYNC out of the bumper-to-bumper jam of pop acts and placed the band a good mile ahead of the traffic. It’s been a moment since Isham revisited that eye-popping clip, as well as the one for follow-up “It’s Gonna Be Me,” a Billboard Hot 100-topper that the famously long-maned Isham also directed — and he’s tripping out over revisiting the potentially perilous stunts and creative freedom that went into crafting these two TRL staples.
“I know that *NSYNC wanted something different and big,” says Isham. “And I was definitely different from any of the other boy band stuff.”
Indeed, the man and myth that is Wayne Isham had over a dozen iconic visuals on his dance card by the time Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Joey Fatone, Lance Bass and Chris Kirkpatrick came calling. His resumé reads basically like a Who’s Who and What’s What of the artists and imagery that kept viewers glued to MTV in its infancy. And it all started, as Isham explains, with “an animated thing [I’d done] for Rod Stewart with ‘Some Guys Have All The Luck’” in 1984.
“There was just a freedom to experiment. Not everything was as result-driven in those days,” he says. “You had the freedom to express the music in an artistic fashion. Even in 1999, 2000 — during that time period — there was still the freedom to do things, just in a bigger fashion.”
By the dawn of the 1990s, Isham became an award-winning force in crafting the live video look for arena-rockers Bon Jovi (“Livin’ On A Prayer”), Def Leppard (“Pour Some Sugar On Me”), Mötley Crüe (“Girls, Girls, Girls”) and Metallica (“Enter Sandman”). As the decade skidded toward the millennium and the sound of radio began to shift toward catchy pop and R&B, the California-based auteur maintained his spot at the forefront of the medium by directing quintessential turn-of-the-millennium videos like Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca” and Aaliyah’s “Try Again,” all of which were nominated for Grammys and won various MTV Video Music Awards.
It was only a matter of time before *NSYNC, eager to take their star status to the next level with 2000 sophomore LP No Strings Attached, came calling. “Our thought process was, let’s do something fun that’s not too much of a pose,” Isham recalls. “It brought [the band members]…I almost hate to use the term ‘out of their box’ here. And they all enjoyed it! They all wanted that. I think it was a great way for them to express themselves. ‘Let’s do something big and crazy and filmic!’ It really allowed them to express their personalities far more so than some of their earlier videos.”
At the onset of planning for the marionette-themed clips for the first two singles off No Strings Attached, Isham initially spoke with quintet over the phone. They eventually met in person during one of the band’s dance rehearsals. “For ‘Bye Bye Bye’, Justin wanted something exciting and dynamic [like] car chases,” Isham notes. “He was throwing it out there and I thought, ‘Well, fuck — let’s just go for it. I clicked on their excitement for doing something fun.”
*NSYNC employed choreographer Darrin Henson to guide them through their moves for “Bye Bye Bye,” the bulk of which were performed inside a blue gimbal room. But it would be another music video that triggered Isham to create the look for this sequence. “I remember Lionel Richie did ‘Dancing on the Ceiling,’ and they used [director and choreographer] Stanley Donen to do the video,” Isham points out. “That inspired me, because I always loved musicals and all the madness with what Gene Kelly used to do. He really was so innovative. The band just loved the idea. It was inspiring them to do the dance numbers in a different way.”
Synchronized dancing was one thing, but a different kind of fancy footwork was needed for “Bye Bye Bye” to keep Joey and Chris from toppling off the roof of a moving locomotive. Recalls Isham, “One of the last places you can shoot trains is up in Fillmore [California]. We got a helicopter literally right next to the train. We shot the car sequence up there, too… they didn’t have any safeties on! They went for it. They were running on a moving train. Just imagine — it’s hard enough jumping from one train car to the next while just standing still. They’re doing it on an old-school train with a roof that curves off. It was madness!”
Released over two months before the arrival of No Strings Attached, “Bye Bye Bye” charted within the Top 10 in over a dozen countries worldwide, including the US, where it hit No. 4 on the Hot 100. Sticking with the puppet motif utilized on the album’s cover, and collaborating with Isham again, was a no-brainer for follow-up single “It’s Gonna Be Me.” But this time around, the five *NSYNC members were freed from the puppet strings of “Bye Bye Bye,” only to find themselves trapped inside a toy store.
“We went both into a store and then, by utilizing that as a background, matched it exactly and made multiple shelves [on a set] that looked just like a regular shelf,” Isham explains.
To help keep the seamless nature of the two videos going, model Kim Smith, who pulled the strings as the puppet master in “Bye Bye Bye,” was called back into action for “It’s Gonna Be Me.” “She’s such a nice person and a trooper. She got up on the train,” Isham says. “Being with those guys, she had great chemistry; she was the sixth member that ties it all together. Getting Chris and Joey on top of the train, you can see how much energy and fun they had. Kim was right there next to them, working with the stunt guys.”
While CGI effects could easily have been used to aid with the look of both music videos, Isham insisted on avoiding modern visual wizardry when possible. For instance, getting the *NSYNC gents to resemble puppets required hours of prosthetic makeup. Even the domino sequence in “It’s Gonna Be Me” was authentic. “I got a guy who did dominoes. While we were shooting a scene of the elements of the toy store, he laid them all out in the store and we shot it going across,” Isham explains. “We did the real thing! We didn’t use technology. We used real dominos and put the guys on top of a moving train like an old silent movie!”
The results of all this toying around were worth it; “It’s Gonna Be Me” outperformed its predecessor when it hit No. 1 multiple times on MTV’s TRL between May and September of 2000 — including both the special End of Summer and 500th Episode countdowns. The single also spent two weeks atop the Hot 100. Perhaps the cement that holds the song’s noteworthy status firmly in place, though, is the enduring meme it spawned, which you’re guaranteed to see on social media at least once in about four weeks’ time.
When asked which of his two babies — “Bye Bye Bye” or “It’s Gonna Be Me” — is his favorite, Isham very diplomatically weighs his choices, and relays the following:
“Literally for this phone call I watched both again and I’m going, ‘What? Good video, man’. Then I watched the next one and I go, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool, man! That’s a good video. We did a good job on that one!’ So I said the exact same same thing after each one of them. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m patting myself on the back, but I did enjoy watching them again. It’s a little difficult choosing between the two — because it’s so exciting, doing what we just talked about, on top of the train, in the cars and the helicopter and all the energy. And then going into the toy store and building the whole set, which is exciting in itself, and matching their perspective and their performances and their thoughts. That’s exciting, too, for me. So it’s hard for me to choose between them. I can’t.”