'N Sync gets cute with its image

Review: Boy band's latest album, `No Strings Attached,' is more street than sweet.

March 21, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

A lot of adjectives have been applied to the current crop of boy bands -- "cute," "clean-cut," "energetic," "annoying" -- but "edgy" isn't one of them. The whole appeal of teen idol acts is that they're safe and unthreatening, taking the edge off pop trends to make them palatable both to pre-teens and their parents.

Playing it safe has paid off big-time for boy bands like 'N Sync, 98 Degrees and the Backstreet Boys. What these lads promise falls under the category of good, clean fun, so most parents have no problem with letting their little girls scream themselves silly over such well-scrubbed hunklets. After all, it's not like there's anything objectionable in the music, right?

Well ...

Even though it carries no Parental Advisory sticker, parents might want to take a closer-than-usual look at the new 'N Sync album, "No Strings Attached" (Jive 41702, arriving in stores today). No, it doesn't boast any bad words or backward-masked hymns to Satan, but neither is it entirely wholesome.

Not only does the album deliver a tougher, more in-your-face sound than 'N Sync's self-titled debut, but there's a much more street-wise attitude to some of the songs. "Just Got Paid," for instance, is a party-hearty jam about the joys of blowing a week's pay on a Friday night, while "It Makes Me Ill" finds the fivesome framing the tune's jealous-guy sentiments in hip-hop slang ("Don't wanna be a hater ...).

But the tune most likely to cause parental concern is "Digital Get Down," a funky little ode to the joys of cybersex. The guys in 'N Sync aren't at all coy about the kind of connection they hope to make via modem; the track opens with a little rap about how "we can get nasty-nasty/we can get freaky-deaky" and picks up momentum from there.

There's nothing new about the concept of computer sex, and "Digital Get Down" isn't terribly explicit in its descriptions. Even so, 'N Sync's J.C. Chasez -- the main writer on the song -- should have been more conscious of the fact that the group's mostly young, mostly female listenership is a prime target for sexual predators on the Internet. Is the message implicit in "Digital Get Down" -- that it's cool to "get freaky-deaky" online -- really one the group wants to convey?

Then again, it could be that "Digital Get Down," like much of "No Strings Attached," is intended for an older, more sophisticated audience than would normally be associated with a group like 'N Sync.

The first single, "Bye Bye Bye," closely follows the teen-pop template. Its slamming synths, minor-key melody and slinkily mechanical groove comes from the same Swedish hit factory as smash singles by Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera, and are sure to appeal to the same young fans.

But "Bye Bye Bye" is more the exception than the rule. Apart from "It's Gonna Be Me," every other up-tempo number on the album skews more R&B than Euro-pop, as 'N Sync passes over the Stockholm teen pop mafia (producers Max Martin, Kristian Lundin, et al.) in favor of such American groove merchants as BLACKstreet's Teddy Riley (who handled "Just Got Paid") and Destiny's Child producer Kevin "Shek'speare" Briggs (who did "It Makes Me Ill"). Add in soulful efforts by 'N Sync's own Chasez and Justin Timberlake, and the album takes on a much harder, funkier feel than the group's previous efforts.

'N Sync hasn't totally forsaken its sweet-and-sentimental side, as "No Strings Attached" also includes two big ballads: "This I Promise You" and "That's When I'll Stop Loving You." Even here, however, the album's rhythmic orientation takes precedence, as the group's performance on "That's When I'll Stop Loving You" has more in common with Boyz II Men than with the Backstreet Boys.

How 'N Sync's teen following will take to this newfound musical maturity is hard to say, especially since some of the album really isn't suitable for kids. Older listeners, on the other hand, will be pleasantly surprised at how much there is to like about this album. Could it be that 'N Sync has made the first teen pop album for grown-ups?

How utterly edgy.

'N Sync

No Strings Attached (Jive 41702)

***

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