As the kiddies hit adolescence and the warm fuzzies of the late ’90s dissipate, days of five hunky men busting out mean dance spins and belting lyrics about immortality are numbered. The emphasis now is on the individual—it usually is when times cry for a hero. Nick Carter and Justin Timberlake, the youngest, prettiest members of the Backstreet Boys and *NSync, must sense the arsenic in the wind. Each has temporarily abandoned his “together forever” crew and Gap Kids sweetheart image. Nick has a forced head start, with his Boys in a brutal holding pattern and their image in the public toilet. On Now or Never, he’s counting on sincerity to guarantee life on the other side.
Justin, whose *NSync are still indisputably enormous, is running mostly on ego. Consequently, though he may still look athletic wearing a wifebeater T-shirt and earnest crooning a Brian McKnight ballad, he’s also the funky, squealing icon of dance eras past—on Justified, he wants to be Astaire, Elvis, and Michael all at once. He’s wearing black gloves, derbies, and wind-blown button-downs, and he’s aligned with the Neptunes and Timbaland in search of black-music sainthood, coming close on single-of-the-year candidates “Like I Love You” and “(And She Said) Take Me Now.” It’s Timberlake’s statement that he, too, is important.
Nick Carter, on the other hand, just wants to be Nick. He’s dressing down and just making records. He appears on his Now or Never album seated against a vintage car in T-shirt, jeans, and beat-up sneakers. He’s also less progressive than Justin; Nick co-writes five songs, and he knows what he likes—Max Martin drama, Brian Wilson sunniness, Def Leppard bombast. The beautifully derivative “Girls in the U.S.A.” gives approval to the “California Girls” reject list (“My Texas honey’s always on the run/Gives me lots of love at the Alamo”), and employs the echoed drums and Viking chants of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” simultaneously—with help from dancehall toaster Mr. Vegas, no less.
Nick also honors his meal ticket—Max Martin contributes three productions. This Martin, however, is not the forlorned lover who wrote the all-time great tunes (“As Long You Love Me,” ” . . . Baby One More Time”) that initially propelled teenpop. Rather, he writes silly, up-tempo ditties that sound both like end-credit fodder for The Karate Kid and like the Europes and Warrants of yore. In “I Got You,” Martin hides the trademark Carter yelp—so well-meaning in overcompensation it hurts—under a bed of harmony vocals, so that even though this counts as a Nick emo gesture, it might still work as a Backstreet hit.
In contrast, almost nothing on Justified could work as *NSync fare. The Neptunes’ funk tracks are so airtight that anything other than a speak-singing Justin or his baby falsetto would seem out of place. Likewise, Timbaland’s productions are their otherworldly selves, so wacky that “Right for Me” squeezes Justin into awkwardness and “Cry Me a River” limits him to a lousy Aaliyah impression.
People who think of themselves as true stars, however, like this kind of exercise—and with enough hard work, they pull it off. If Michael Jackson reached out to Quincy Jones for a few seminal grooves, why isn’t Justin entitled to a few of his own? “Like I Love You” is amazing, the most delicious combination of funk, hooksmanship, moaning sexuality (Justin coos, invites, and suggests throughout) and avant-garde production (that little acoustic loop!) in years. The song’s coda, a James Brown coupling of snare drum and nonsense talk, is damn near archetypal. Justin competes admirably with himself on “(And She Said) Take Me Now,” where he and Janet Jackson tease back and forth along Tim’s exotic clavinet and metallic drums. The song proves that the star is only as good as his collaborators, but also that Justin has the balls to pursue the A-plus list.
Certainly, Now and Never and Justified are as different as ice cream cake and glazed duck, but so were the Backstreet Boys and *NSync in their prime, really. The Boys conducted themselves as clean messengers. They smiled, expressed the lyrics, nailed the harmonies, and pleased the audience. Their dance moves were lame, and their stage content rarely offended. *NSync were much more self-absorbed. They sold their sex appeal willingly and lathered on the production values. They looked like autistic Tourette’s sufferers when they danced, dazzling with hard work over substance. With star turns in rabid demand, the altar boy stands no chance against the megalomaniac.