'N Sync seems to be ... well, out of sync

The cute-boy band may be changing course to meet changing tastes

Pop Music

April 21, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,Sun Staff

Going to an 'N Sync concert has always seemed a little like the experience it must have been watching the Beatles live.

There are the tens of thousands of screaming female fans who show up. They wave "I love Justin" -- not John -- signs. They cry. They sing their little hearts out when their boys do syrupy ballads. And the moment any of the nouveau fab five ventures toward fan contact, pandemonium is inevitable.

Just like it was with the Beatles.

The big difference, of course, is that the Beatles created legendary music. The stuff 'N Sync peddles ... well, it's hardly the same.

Which is what makes the group's concert program this year intriguing.

Halfway through the show -- which comes to the MCI Center tonight -- Justin and the gang cast off the slacker dude duds they showed up in and reappear in spiffy black suits. They complete the puzzling transformation with a medley of Beatles hits, playing parents' favorites like "Hey Jude" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."

Cover songs at an 'N Sync concert?

This is a group that has churned out more than enough hits to fill a concert in the four years since its self-titled debut album was released.

These, however, are uncertain times for 'N Sync.

In the late 1990s, Justin Timberlake, Joey Fatone, JC Chasez, Lance Bass and Chris Kirkpatrick became regulars at the top of the pop charts when their catchy songs and carefully engineered wholesome image won over millions of teen-age and preteen girls. Today, the group is faced with an audience that is showing signs of outgrowing frothy pop music.

And 'N Sync's 2002 concert tour might offer some indication of the new paths its members are exploring to keep themselves viable.

Stadiums to arenas

Almost since the dawn of 'N Sync, it has been the pop group everyone has loved to hate. Critics have gleefully savaged its music, and the nonteen, non- female American public has made lively sport of predicting its demise.

But the one thing the naysayers could never deny was the group's phenomenal success.

Two years ago, No Strings Attached, the band's second album, sold an unprecedented 1.1 million copies on its release day. It went on to sell a record-breaking 2.4 million the first week and has sold 11 million to date, according to Soundscan, a firm that tracks music sales. And last year, Billboard magazine reported that 'N Sync was the second biggest concert act of the year -- behind U2. The boy band's tour grossed more than $90 million, sold out nine of the 48 stadiums it visited and almost filled the rest.

Its third album, Celebrity, hasn't done nearly as well. In the July week it was released, according to Soundscan, it sold a paltry (by comparison) 1.9 million, and 4.7 million have been snapped up so far.

This year, instead of playing at stadiums -- which seat 25,000 to 40,000 -- the group is doing arenas, which have capacities of 15,000 to 25,000. And of the 20 concerts that Billboard has tracked so far, none has sold out. Bob Allen, Billboard chart manager, said 'N Sync's crowds have averaged 86 percent capacity.

Roy Waddell, Billboard's touring editor, said 'N Sync's switch to arenas this year doesn't necessarily foreshadow the beginning of the end.

"It can mean a lot of things," he said. "Stadium shows are extremely expensive. You have 20 trucks of equipment, as opposed to 10 or 12. And everything about it is more expensive, so your profit margin is slimmer and potential losses are huge.

"They've played each market so many times that they've diluted it to a point," he added. "They may just be scaling it down a bit."

And with 'N Sync, the scaling down seems to be occurring at many different levels.

Growing up hard to do

In a recent interview with Bryant Gumbel, Timberlake said that when the band was planning this tour, the thinking was, "Let's put it in an arena and let's make it feel like we're in a club."

During their No Strings Attached tour, the boys performed with an elaborate backdrop, making a dramatic entrance by being slowly lowered onto the stage like marionettes on strings. At 'N Sync's concert last weekend in East Rutherford, N.J., their entrance was so simple they seemed to just show up.

The costumes were far less elaborate. Instead of flashy or space-agey outfits, they spent most of the concert in casual pants and T-shirts that looked straight out of the Gap.

Fast songs like "Bye Bye Bye" were still performed with gusto, but the elaborate dance sequences that used to accompany them had been pared down. The boys still crooned the ballads that set young hearts aflutter. But two of the usual fan favorites -- "Drive Myself Crazy" and "This I Promise You" -- were condensed.

Instead, the boys devoted a hefty chunk of concert time dressed up and determined to prove they can mimic grown-up acts like the Beatles and the Temptations. (Concertgoer, be warned: Watching them attempt the Temptations' smooth moves is a tad hard to stomach.)

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