‘N Sync’s “Celebrity” – 10 years later

Hey, you!

What, me?

Yeah, I’m talking to you, sassy girl.”

*blushes*

Need a little achh! in your step? Try this on for size. It’s Pop and it tastes great and it makes you feel kinda funny. Not here [points to head], not down there [points downwards], but all up in this area [gestures to the general chest region]. And coming July 24th 2001, Jumbo Pop!

That’s the intro of ‘N Sync’s “Pop” video, where a Max Headroom-esque Justin Timberlake suddenly appears on the flatscreen TV in a cereal-eating sassy girl’s living room. The Pop in question is an orange fizzy beverage presented in a round-bottom flask. But the pop is also the music on ‘N Sync’s third and final studio album “Celebrity” which was indeed released on Tuesday 24 July 2001.

It went five times platinum in the US. That sounds impressive, but ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached” went 11x platinum, and their debut album (which wasn’t even all that good) went 10x platinum.

But it sales aside, it’s a good place to draw a line. It was released only a few months before 9/11, and it also seemed to represent the last gasp of the millennium giddiness, before we all had to settle down and get a bit serious for the next decade. How did this final album of Justin, JC, Joey, Lance and Chris hold up over the passing decade?

And “Celebrity” is one of my fave albums, and it got my through some tough times, man. So as it’s the 10th anniversary of the album, I though it was about time to look back and do a track-by-track.

1. Pop

In which ‘N Sync want some respect.

First, it’s not just pop, it’s dirty pop. ‘N Sync are quick to establish that they aren’t the squeaky clean teen pop idols of 1998. They’re not talking the NKOTB route and dressing up in leather, trying to pretend they’re street hoodlums. No, ‘N Sync still fully own that they are a vocal harmony band with fresh dance moves. But they’d just like a little respect, ok?

The chorus triumphantly unites:

Do you ever wonder why this music gets you high?
It takes you on a ride.
You feel it when your body starts to rock, and, baby, you can’t stop.
When the music’s all you got, this must be pop.

That’s what it is. When you listen to pop because a good pop song feels good. It is better than sex, better than drugs and better than rock ‘n’ roll.

But then the song hits the breaks and Justin says, “Man, I’m tired of singing.” This was originally just the intro for – gasp – Justin’s beatbox solo, but now it takes on another meaning. Because Justin is tired of singing. His last solo album was released in 2006, and he’s now moved on to acting.

If you want to look for other signs of impending doom, they’re there. “The thing you got to realise, what we’re doing is not a trend. We got the gift of melody, we’re gonna bring it till the end.” No, Justin, what you were doing was just a trend. Though it is true that ‘N Sync brought it till the end. “Celebrity” had only a couple of dud tracks, and is a fine album to unintentionally go out with.

And then there’s the other sign of doom – it’s a Justin and JC sung track, written by Justin and his Australian choreographer. It’s produced to let Justin and JC’s voices stand out, with the rest of the group sounding more like session singers brought in for a few oohs.

But here’s the thing, despite all that has happened since, it’s still a great pop track. It’s danceable and uplifting and full of slices of club music and other bits of the late ’90s that didn’t usually make it to the top of the charts. And it’s a great opening track for the album.

2. Celebrity

In which ‘N Sync grow weary of this world.

“Write what you know,” they say. So Robyn writes about ‘N Sync and ‘N Sync write about being celebrities.

It’s hard out there when you’re a famous pop star and your girlfriend isn’t. Although, it’s a Justin-penned track and at the time he was very famously in relationship with Britney Spears, who enjoyed equal levels of celebrity to her fellow ex-Mouseketeer.

If I wasn’t a celebrity would you be so nice to me?
If I didn’t have cheese, like, every day, would you still wanna be with me?

The first time I heard this song, I didn’t know that cheese was slang for money, so I imagined ‘N Sync were talking about actual cheese. I imagine Lance frolicking with a giant wheel of gouda, when suddenly hordes of screaming teens run after him, making him frantically roll the cheese wheel down the street to make getaway.

Like in “Pop”, Justin takes the first verse and JC takes the second one. But JC gets the best bit – “See, it would be different if you had something, maybe like a J-O-B”. Only the “J-O-B” bit is sung a cappella with the full group harmonising on it. Because that is their J-O-B.

The song sounds quite bitter, with the protagonist vowing to leave Ms Golddigger and find someone who will “love me for me”. The song is a little bit of a middle finger to all of ‘N Sync’s nutso fans, who blindly vow their love for the band, but it also reveals a weak point of self-esteem among the lads. What if the girl answered, “Yes, I’d still want to be with you because you’re not a horrible person and I enjoy being with you”?

3. The Game Is Over

In which ‘N Sync do not achieve the high score.

“The Game Is Over” is a JC song, so he also gets to sing lead vocal first. But that’s not the best thing. The song is super cool because it samples bits of the Pacman theme. It’s chipcore years before all the cool kids were into it. (But, ok, Yellow Magic Orchestra fully got there first back in 1978 with “Computer Games“.)

And the video game samples are effective. ‘N Sync are the generation who grew up playing spacies. It makes perfect sense to extend the “game over” of a false-hearted lover’s betrayal into the same sense of loss one feels when the ghosts get Pacman.

“The Game Is Over” also works as a counterpoint to JC’s other technology-themed song “Digital Getdown” from ‘N Sync’s previous album “No Strings Attached”. “Digital Get Down” was a celebration of cyber sex, which was a fairly awesome thing for a pop group to be singing about in 2000.

But “The Game Is Over” is angry. “How could you think that you could do me like that,” JC spits, and his posse is right behind him. “You played yourself!”

If one wants to get Freudian here, one can look at the sexual parallels of the coin in the video game slot. In ‘N Sync’s live tour, they dressed up Tron-style versus an army of fembot types. But in reality, it’s more about a lone dude in a T-shirt and Levis, angrily battling away at a video game cos he’s just found out his girlfriend’s been rooting around.

4. Girlfriend

In which ‘N Sync try to peer pressure you in to being their girlfriend.

Why don’t you be my girlfriend?
I’ll treat you good.
I know you hear your friends when they say you should.

Every girl wants to be wanted, and this song is the voice of a guy who wants a girl. Let’s take a moment to luxuriate in the fantasy of “Girlfriend”. Let’s say you’re a girl and you have a crush on Justin or JC (or Joey, Chris or even Lance). You know realistically there’s no way that Mr Timberlake will be your boyfriend, but maybe if you got to meet him backstage at an ‘N Sync concert you could convince him.

“Girlfriend” turns it around. Rather than you having to seduce/beguile/drug your favourite ‘N Sync into loving you, there he is trying to convince you to be his girlfriend with song.

The song is written by the Neptunes, with plenty of their trademark staccato sound. Kids, that was back when the Neptunes wrote and produced songs, rather than Pharrell making Qream, that weird low-calorie cream liqueur for the ladies.

There’s a slightly sexed-up remix of the song, with Nelly showing up for a guest rap. That and the video (gangs, drag races, go Greased Lightning) show that ‘N Sync were continuing with the slightly toughed-up image.

“Girlfriend” was their final single off “Celebrity”, and it was the first single released after 9/11, five months after the event. It makes sense that in the confused post-9/11 world, they’d want to harden up a little.

But sometimes you just want a boy to want you to be his girlfriend.

5. The Two of Us

In which ‘N Sync just can’t get you out of their head.

Romantic obsession, it’s quite fun, yeah? The song starts with some sweet harpsichord-style keyboard, not unlike that of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, before stuttering to life with some tasty beats.

The song treads a fine line between the romantic and the sexual. The song works as the story of a man waiting for his new girlfriend to come home so they can stay up late watching DVDs and eating chips or he’s waiting for his girl to come home to they can have sex all night long.

“I always wanted to tell you,” Justin sings, “but I was so afraid.” Now he’s made that big step, he’s confessed his feelings and now things are going to get better.

But there’s a little self doubt. “Baby, I wonder if you feel the same as I do.” In the back of his mind, there’s the very real possibility that the girl might not be as into him as he’s into her. She might just be using him for sex. Or chips.

But there is hope in my heart. I think the girl will be into him and will want to do more than just watch DVDs.

6. Gone

In which ‘N Sync struggle with loss.

Was this song, the second single off “Celebrity”, the straw that broke the ‘N Sync camel’s back? (And is there a Backstreet Boys dromedary?) Written by Justin and his Australian choreographer, and with Justin on all the lead vocals, it might as well have been credited to “Justin Timberlake and the ‘N Syncs”.

It’s a sad song, chronicling the aching loss that comes with a breakup. Following the two previous tracks at the hopeful beginning stages of a relationship, the sting of “Gone” is even stronger.

With the girl out of his life, what does Justin miss? “I’ve drove myself insane wishing I could touch your face, but the truth remains – you’re gone”. It’s simple, tender and the lack of face-touching, it hurts so much.

The song functions as a showcase for Justin. As well as the getting all the lead vocals, the song also affords him a bare a cappella break down, just to prove he’s got the skills that pay the bills. This is what it sounds like when a boyband splinters, when a guy goes solo.

And so the song takes on a double meaning. Now it’s not just about a guy missing his girlfriend. Justin is singing the loss that his group will soon feel when he sidesteps away from them, and the group’s theoretical hiatus becomes a permanent breakup.

7. Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby

In which the big guns are brought out.

The Swedes are back. There’s always a moment of tension when one hears that a pop artist has started writing their own songs. Sometimes it works, other times it’s terrible. In the case of ‘N Sync, the songs co-written by Justin and JC were perfectly good pop songs, but it took the Swedish pop production house of Cheiron to really bring the power pop. On this song, it’s Max and Rami from Cheiron.

The first sign that something great is happening is the ellipses in the song title. You know what other song used that? “…Baby One More Time” is what.

The song starts with perfectly adequate beats and “oh ohs”, before one of the ‘N Syncs stops things and says, “Hold it, can we back it up just a little bit?” The song rewinds and starts over with a sonic explosion of shattering glass and snippets of Cheiron’s previous hits with ‘N Sync. Take that, Justin and his choreographer!

The song also features that hallmark of the Cheiron/Jive Records oeuvre – the pronunciation of ‘me’ as ‘maaayyee”, which nicely rhymes with ‘baby’.

Like “Gone”, it’s a cry for a relationship that’s fallen apart. But unlike “Gone”, there’s hope that things can be mended. It’s more of a group song, with a united boyband sound. It’s the hope that ‘N Sync can stay together, forever. Maybe they just need Cheiron to work some more magic.

At this point I was going to come to the defence of professional songwriters and pop production houses. But if it’s not Cheiron (which closed in 2001), it’s Tamla Motown or the Brill Building. And it’s the same old criticism that come up again and again, only to go away when the songs are a few decades old and are recognised as gems. Really, if a single sounds amazing, why is it a bad thing that the person who wrote it is different to the person who sings it?

8. Up Against the Wall

In which ‘N Sync enjoy a good humping.

I love this song because it’s about humping. It’s a collaboration between Justin and JC (hot), and is self-consciously full of two-step beats. Yeah, take that, Craig David.

She took my hand.
We never said a word at all.
We starting grinding.
Shorty had me up against the wall.

You could choose to think of it as a dance style like jacking or daggering, but there’s also the possibility that it’s just about an attractive young couple, high on who knows what, who’ve spotted each other across a crowded room but just don’t have time to deal with the hassle of removing clothes.

The action takes place in a disco, where the protagonist spots a fine young lady who then proceeds to come over and hump him. This is top quality humping, because it takes the fellow away from all his cares. “Ask me about tomorrow – you know that I don’t care at all. I just got caught up when she had me up against the wall.”

But what happens tomorrow? Does he wake up with the fly honey in bed with him, realising he has to go through an awkward morning-after conversation? Or does he wake up alone, wondering what happened to his leather trousers at the club?

9. See Right Through You

In which ‘N Sync shed an angry tear.

Things are bitter. A moment of clarity hits ‘N Sync. That girl, the one they loved, she ain’t nothing but a cheating ho.

Covering similar territory to Alanis Morrisette’s “You Oughta Know”, the song is the voice of cheated-on lover angrily dealing with the aftermath of that discovery. But where as Alanis bluntly asks, “Would she go down on you in a theatre,” ‘N Sync get more euphemistic, asking, “Does he freak you the way that I do?”

‘N Sync move into slightly sweary territory with the line “These games they’ve gotta stop. About to get pissed off.” It’s also remarkable that it’s “pissed off”, which is more British than the American “pissed”. I think this may be a contribution of Justin’s Australian choreographer.

The song is angry, but it doesn’t quite seem to have the real anger of being dicked over. Later, when Justin’s girlfriend rooted his Australian choreographer, he wrote the bitter epic “Cry Me a River“.

Yeah, write what you know.

10. Selfish

In which ‘N Sync cater to the all-important newlyweds demographic.

There are two dud songs on “Celebrity”, which was the same miss rate on “No Strings Attached”. But while the two songs on ‘N Sync’s previous album were written by Richard Marx and Diane Warren (yeah….), this time around the lads managed to write the songs themselves. The first is a JC song.

I used to tolerate this song, but now it annoys me. “Selfish” sounds like an ’80s slow jam, with strings, mellow keyboard and key changes. Lyrically it’s a boring declaration of love. It’s a mature grown-up boring kind of love, not the fun sexy kind of love.

I have this idea that every ‘N Sync album has to have a “wedding song” – a slow-dance declaration of love for the bride and groom to take their first steps as husband and wife. But this song makes me feel ill. It makes me not want to get married, ever, if that means avoiding ever having to hear this song again.

11. Just Don’t Tell Me That

In which ‘N Sync ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger.

Another Cheiron production, this time by songwriters Andreas, Kristian and Jack. “Just Don’t Tell Me That” works on the same theme as “Celebrity” – a fame-hungry, gold-digging girl is given her marching orders.

Predicting the popular rise of Playboy in the coming decade, the song opens with, “You’ve got to be seen at every party at the Playboy Mansion”. The girl is revealed to be camera whore, who enjoys the lifestyle to which ‘N Sync have treated her. But, of course, she’s a fake so she needs to hit the road.

This song is a bit of a litmus test for the listener. Either the girl thinks, “Well, I deserve the fancy car and to be seen on your arm at the VIP events, so if you can’t treat me right and give me what I need, then I will find someone who can, like Hef.” Or she thinks, “Yay! JC is ditching his no-good girlfriend. I am pure-hearted so now we can be together!”

But neither of these types have a place in the real world of ‘N Sync.

12. Something Like You

In which ‘N Sync pray just to make it today.

The second dud song is a Justin song, co-written with his old vocal coach Robin Wiley. But what makes it even worse – it features guest harmonica from Stevie Wonder. No! What? Stevie?! Yes, further evidence that everything Stevie Wonder has done since the ’80s has been a bit rubbish.

It’s not quite a wedding song, with the relationship in its early stages. It’s the blossoming of a serious, adult relationship. This is a song to be sung dressed in baggy white linen suits, seated on stools.

It’s the most religious song, with Justin’s prayers to “the Lord above” and asking, “Is this what God has meant for me?” The next step after this is not to get involved in some sweaty humping in a crowded night club. It’s to don a chastity ring and wait until marriage before doing anything else.

I also think songs like this exist to give the lads a bit of a breather during their hectic live shows. But for the listener, it’s much more enjoyable to skip to the next track.

13. That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)

In which ‘N Sync reach for the top.

The trio of Swedish power pop is rounded out with “That Girl (Will Never Be Mine)”, which was also the theme song of Lance and Joey’s romantic comedy movie “On The Line”, back when Lance was heterosexual.

Like other Cheiron productions, there’s a unified group vibe, Justin and JC’s lead vocals supported by the rest.

The song starts with a very brief burst of 1950s-style vocal harmony, before bursting into some fresh ’00s pop. The lyrics examine a case of unrequited love. Sometimes in the world of ‘N Sync a crush suggests it will lead to a lifetime of happiness, but in this case, it’s nothing put trouble.

The girl in question is some sort of celebrity, “tearing up the big screen”, but “she’s in a different league.” A reminder that while ‘N Sync are famous enough to write about the perils of fame, there are others who are more famous, who might sneer at these pop wannabes.

There is determination in the lyrics, “She will be mine!” I like to think this song is about Madonna, the culmination of which was the epic, next-level “4 Minutes“.

14. Falling

In which ‘N Sync let the short one have a go.

This song comes close to making it a trilogy of songs that I don’t like (it has a ‘truck driver’s gear change’ key change!), but there’s something strangely appealing about this cheesy ballad.

It’s the only song on the album written by ‘N Sync member Chris, who sings the high parts. It starts with some moody electric guitar, not unlike that of Bryan Adam’s “Run to You”, and expertly builds to a dramatic chorus. It feels like a really well constructed song. It’s nothing amazing, but has a nice comfortable feeling to it.

Like the Cheiron songs, “Falling” also feels like a good group song. ‘N Sync’s strength as a vocal harmony group is put to good use, with lush layers of harmony. And Chris has even thrown in a few high bits for himself.

If this was all ‘N Sync were capable of, they’d have been a perfectly adequate footnote in the history of late ’90s, early ’00s pop, but the fact that there are so many better song on the album make it just all that much more thrilling.

15. Do Your Thing

In which ‘N Sync are doing their thing and doing it well.

The album ends with a question: Are you doing your thing and doing it well? It’s a simple song about pursuing one’s goals, about staying focused on being the best.

If ‘N Sync were to ask themselves that question, the answer would be yes, and the song amply demonstrates their talent. But then where do you go? If all your dreams have come true, what is there left to achieve?

So it seems inevitable that ‘N Sync broke up. They could have easily made another album, but instead they took the hard road. Joey became a father, Lance came out, Chris went on a reality TV show, JC put out a bunch of killer singles that didn’t get enough attention, and Justin had a very successfully solo career that he put on hold to move into the harder world of acting.

Are you doing your thing and doing it well? Yes? So then what? You move on to the next thing.

3 thoughts on “‘N Sync’s “Celebrity” – 10 years later”

  1. Everything you said in this is 100% true. I love reading current stuff about the boys written by true fans. *sigh* I miss them…the days when they were working hard – TOGETHER – and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other. *sigh* Before the arrogance.

  2. I think you’ve changed me for ever. In my previous life as a cynical curmudgeon, I would have automatically dismissed any N-Sync song as being rubbish, mostly I s’pose cos of its silly name, and my general dis-like and mis-trust of manufactured boy bands.
    I must confess – I had never thought of them this way – they’re actually quite good. Helped along by your carefully crafted commentary, and useful elucidation of their languidly lisping lyrics, I listened to all of the songs you recommended, and carefully avoided all those you dissed – one verse of a syrupy lyric confirmed that you were indeed correct.
    Therefore, grudging respect for N-Sync, and much kudos to you Ms G, for your finely scripted commentary.

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