Singled Out: “Pop” by ‘N Sync

Revisiting the popular singles of yesteryear.

If you were raised as part of Generation Y, you’re all too familiar with the concept of a “boy band.” For those who aren’t, Wikipedia “loosely” defines boy band as:

A popular music act consisting of only male singers. The members are expected to dance as well as sing, usually giving highly choreographed performances. More often than not, boy band members do not play musical instruments, either in recording sessions or on stage, and only sing and dance, making the term somewhat of a misnomer. [Wikipedia]

For the more visual learner, perhaps this simple photograph serves as a better definition. However, the one thing all these definitions lack is the word “exploitation,” which is something ‘N Sync publicly dealt with very early on in their career.

In 1997, ‘N Sync made a big splash in both the music industry and popular culture with their debut self-titled album. Following their massive success came seemingly endless legal troubles with their manager and teen talent-farmer Lou Pearlman. Once resolved, they were on their own and released their second album, the aptly titled, No Strings Attached. Another success. Feeling comfortable that they could do this music-thing without Pearlman at the reigns, they took to the studio for their third album, Celebrity. Fueled by platinum records and adoring fans, their confidence could not have been higher. It was time to exert some true creative control over the music. The results were visible… both in the music and the liner notes.

If you look at the album credits, you can see the group’s increased involvement, at least from the likes of unofficial band leaders JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake. Chasez received four writing credits opposed to the three he received on the previous album, and Timberlake went from receiving one writing credit on their second album to seven (out of thirteen tracks) on their third album. So, what do you get with new, overly confident, and relatively inexperienced songwriters?

“Pop”: the lead single off ‘N Sync’s most personally accountable album, and our topic of discussion for today.

‘N Sync is angry in this song, which, in regard to content, didn’t necessarily sound so strange when the song was released in 2001. Boy bands had surged back into the music scene in 1997 and the major backlash against them was really ramping up at this point. This song was ‘N Sync marking their territory, standing their ground. They were not just some boy band anymore — they were grown men. Hear them roar in melodious five-part harmony! “Pop” was an indictment of all their haters and ‘N Sync couldn’t wait to get the word out. It’s the first song on the album and here are the lyrics of the opening verse, written and performed by Justin Timberlake:

Sick and tired of hearing all these people talk about
“What’s the deal with this pop life and when is it gonna fade out?”
But then you got to realize what we doin’ is not a trend
We got to give the melody, we gonna bring it ’til the end.

This, amongst other reasons, is why this song is a flop. They were wrong about everything, almost immediately. “Pop” was released in 2001 and by 2002 “this pop life” of boy bands was on life support. ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys both went on hiatus that year; the final album from 98º came back in 2000; and O-Town (the newest of the bunch) didn’t make it past 2003. The humanity! What you’re doing is not a trend? That’s exactly what it was. You’re gonna bring it ’til the end? That line should have ended with “of 2001.” When is this pop life going to fade out? Well, you got me there, it never actually faded… it burned to the ground in a horrible, horrible deathly fire.

The sole survivor of this conflagration, of course, was Justin Timberlake. In fact, ‘N Sync’s 2002 hiatus came about because Timberlake was releasing a solo album (“…and nothing more,” hoped the other members of ‘N Sync with fingers crossed). His debut album Justified was released in 2002, went multi-platinum, launched Timberlake into superstardom and served as perhaps the final nail in the boy band coffin. Listening to “Pop” now, I can’t help but wonder how great it would have been (not the song, but the serendipity) if Chasez had sang the line at the end of the first verse (“But then you got to realize what we doin’ is not a trend / We got to give the melody, we gonna bring it ’til the end”) and Justin got the line at the end of the second verse (“Just worry ‘bout yours, ’cause I’ma get mine / Now people, can’t you see?”). If that were the case, this song would be a little bit less cringeworthy; at least we’d know somebody understood where all of this was going.

Listening to “Pop” now is like watching David Brent on an episode of The Office. They share all the same idiosyncrasies and obliviousness. It makes for a very uncomfortable listen. Can you imagine what it was like in the studio when they wrote it? If we only had an in-studio transcript, we’d be able to better understand…

  • Where the “dirty” in “dirty pop” came from;
  • The process of shoehorning the words “classify” and “animosity” into the second verse;
  • The reasoning behind Timberlake singing “or the ice around my neck” instead of “what I wear around my neck”; and
  • Why nobody could talk him out of that beatbox solo.

Speaking of which, I used to think that track was actual beatboxing. Maybe it’s because I used to have an MP3 of “If Your Mother Only Knew” by Rahzel and gave all beatboxers the benefit of the doubt. Or maybe I was an idiot. Either way, that “beatbox solo” at the end of the track is just the DJ cutting up the record and making it sound musical. It’s layered and in stereo. It’s not true “beatboxing,” it’s this:

That being said, it doesn’t sound terrible… like it would have if the beatboxing were left untouched. If you want to see Timberlake’s actual beatboxing skills, watch him lay down a beat for Michael Jackson at the end of their performance of “Pop” from the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards. (Skip to 3:55 for The King’s entrance, 4:15 for the start *fricky-fricky* of the *fricky-fricky* beatboxing.)

Shame on all of us for not seeing a Timberlake/Timbaland collaboration coming from a mile away.

This also seemed like an appropriate time to pose my theory that there is not a single good song (excluding hip hop) that uses the word “cheese” in it. I thought “Pop” fell under this umbrella and was going to serve as further proof in support of my theory. However, despite their other missteps here, ‘N Sync never says the word “cheese” on this track. The song I was mistakenly thinking of is “Celebrity”, the album’s title track, which is home to this lyrical gem: “If I didn’t have cheese, like, every day, would you still want to be with me?” It may seem like I’m guilty of a little shoehorning here myself, but through the interpretive canon noscitur a sociis (“it is known from its associates”), I find this tangent to be absolutely appropriate. So don’t get fussy. Plus, I have cheese, like, every day.

As long as I’m on the lyrics of the song, I should quickly address another glaring issue. By all accounts, “Pop” is a celebration of the genre of pop music, boy bands, how great it all is, and how all the haters out there can talk to the hand. The problem is that the second verse poses this question: “Now, why you gotta try and classify the type of thing that we do?” This would be perfectly valid gripe if only the entire song and title were not a classification of the “type of thing that [they] do.”

I mentioned earlier that the anger of this song wasn’t a problem in regard to content. However, it is very much a problem in regard to delivery. Simply put, there is no effective way to angrily sing in five-part harmony. If you’re going to take a stand on something in five-part harmony, unless you’re going to be really sarcastic about it, you can’t really take an attack position. It comes off as soft. Really soft… like you’d be knocked over if someone sneezed in the wrong direction. The angry pop song works better if your angle is one of support for your own cause. For an example on proper execution of this technique, see “Be True To Your School” by The Beach Boys.

Another interesting note and something I’d like to compliment ‘N Sync on is that “Pop” inexplicably incorporates no parenthetical in its title. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this was a huge trend amongst boy bands in the late nineties. In fact, up to this point, ‘N Sync had at least one parenthetical title on each of their albums.

  • “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You” on ‘N Sync
  • “Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)” on ‘N Sync
  • “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)” on No Strings Attached

The other reason this is so surprising at first has something to do with the use of the word “dirty.” When I started the research on this song, I began my search with: dirty pop. I thought “dirty” it was part of the song’s title. Based solely on the four or five people I spoke to while writing this, everybody thinks “dirty” is somewhere in the title of this song. Maybe it’s because “dirty pop” is the song’s takeaway, or maybe it just naturally lends itself to parentheses. To illustrate, I have mocked up some possible alternate titles:

  • “(Dirty) Pop”
  • “Dirty (Pop)”
  • “(You Know You Like That) Pop”
  • “(You Know You Like That) Dirty Pop”
  • “(This Must Be) Pop”
  • “Pop (Babe, You Can’t Stop)”
  • “Dirty Pop (Babe, You Can’t Stop)”
  • “(What’s The Deal With This) Pop (Life)”

But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by the title. Although this was a prevalent trend, ‘N Sync was never really a big offender. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the grievous song-naming habits of the Backstreet Boys, whose debut album alone is awash with gratuitous parentheses:

  • “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart)”
  • “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”
  • “Hey Mr. DJ (Keep Playin’ This Song)”
  • “Get Down (You’re The One For Me)”
  • “If You Want It To Be Good Girl (Get Yourself A Bad Boy)”

That’s five out of twelve songs — just under half the album — that have parenthetical titles. Being generous, maybe one of them is justified (namely, “Everybody (Backstreets Back)”). Parenthetical titles are a dangerous habit… a dangerous habit that ‘N Sync avoided when all the odds were against them.

The last part of “Pop” that I’d like to address is the instrumental breakdown that starts about halfway through. In a little over thirty-seconds this segment includes beatboxing, remixed beatboxing, distorted electric guitar chords, hair metal guitar riffs, echoing guitars effects, porno-style electric guitar riffs, samples of the song’s own chorus, hype men, slap bass, rattles, synth, drum machines, record scratching, and probably every pre-set instrument setting you could find on a 2001 Casio keyboard. The strange thing about it, and another compliment to ‘N Sync, is that for all of those sounds being mashed into such a tiny space, it’s pretty cohesive. So, kudos to ‘N Sync for the production of that run… not that it’s exceptionally redeeming, or anything.

So, what is the legacy of “Pop”? Well, considering the fact that everything the song stood for came crumbling down the following year, the legacy of “Pop” cannot be much. Hearing the song now, it’s weirdly angry at nothing. It’s an anthem for a non-existent group of people. It’s a dollar bill from the Confederate States of America — it tangibly exists, nothing more. And despite how upbeat the song is, it really is a sad and cringe-inducing listen… especially if you put yourself in the shoes, er, wet tank top, of one of these boy band members not named “Timberlake” sometime.

Remember May 21, 2011? Harold Camping predicted Judgment Day was coming, we all refused to believe him, we turned out to be right, and now we are all still alive. Imagine if we were wrong. That must be a little bit like what these boy band members were feeling around 2002. I mean, they weren’t physically hurt, but their careers and pride must have been. And nobody wants to re-open that wound.

Some boy band songs are timeless, like ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” and the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”. In fact, if you’re out at some bar with your fellow Gen Y’ers, the DJ will occasionally spin one of those songs and the partygoers will be delighted. The DJ will not spin “Pop”… seemingly because the song only exists in 2001. People laugh when they hear it now. Essentially, the legacy of ‘N Sync’s “Pop” is this moment: Someone reminds you about the song, you do a sassy impression of Timberlake’s opening words — “dirty pop!” — and then giggle to yourself and sigh.

But there is a glimmering shred of hope for the legacy of “Pop”, mainly because the concept of “boy bands” is astoundingly resilient. And in case you didn’t already know, the return of the boy band is upon us. If you listen closely, you can hear the hysterical screaming of female teenage banshees — echoes of the past. Full analysis of The Return of Boy Bands warrants a completely different discussion; but for now, suffice it to say that the boy bands are arriving, and the frequency in which people are writing about them these past two weeks makes me believe that their return will be embraced. This is where “Pop” really has a chance to make an impact.

If “Pop” is going to have any sort of lasting legacy, it will be to future boy bands. To the more observant boy bands, “Pop” will serve as a harbinger of their inevitable persecution and demise. Although they will not be able to avoid their own “2002” (which I predict will be in 2015), they can be better prepared for it and brace for impact. [Editor’s Note: In 2015, Zayn Malik officially quit One Direction, the world’s preeminent boy band. Shortly following his departure, the band went on hiatus which then became a permanent split. This article was originally published in May 2012.] To the boy bands who are too distracted by how cool they are to notice the warning that “Pop” has provided for them, well, history repeats itself. In my research, I discovered one such up-and-coming boy band, JLS (short for “Jack the Lad Swing” — classic boy band acronym usage), has already made this misstep:

So, boy bands, listen to your not-so-elderly elders and learn from their mistakes. Acceptance is the first step. Maybe one of you can write a truthful pop song about how you learned these important lessons from the boys who came before you. That would be something special. You can call it “There Are Lessons (To Be Learned Here)”.

For your enjoyment, here’s a Spotify playlist I made just for this article: (Parenthetically) Yours: A Boy Bands Playlist.

This article was originally published on Halftime Hennessy on May 2, 2012.