Justin Timberlake Contemplates The Meaning Of Celebrity In ‘Popology’

They say a well-rounded education is the key to success, and if that truly is the case, the my schooling is woefully incomplete when it comes to the subject of pop. That’s why we bring you “Popology,” the guide to modern radio-friendly stars as seen through the eyes of a guy who grew up on punk and metal. In case you missed the debut, check out my thoughts on Britney Spears’ landmark debut.

In this week’s installment, *NSYNC drop their swan song.

In 2010, Justin Timberlake is a multi-platform superstar who has succeeded in music, on television, in movies, on the golf course and everywhere else he chooses to go. But back in 2001, he was merely the likely breakout star of *NSYNC, the chart-topping, world-dominating boy band who started life out as Backstreet Boys tagalongs and ended up shattering sales records. Today, Timberlake is a pop superstar that everybody loves (even grizzled metal dudes think he’d be pretty cool to have a beer with), but that wasn’t always the case. It’s difficult to legitimize yourself once you’ve made your bones crooning prom ballads like “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You,” so how did Timberlake evolve from boy bander to dominant cultural force in less than a decade? Perhaps Celebrity has some answers.

People tend to remember the boy band era being a dominant pop force, but it really only lasted five years or so (about as long as grunge). The men of the Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, 5ive, O-Town and the like were regular guests on “TRL” and dominated airwaves, but fans tired of uber-populist sugar and moved deeper into pop sub-genres. However, *NSYNC never had to deal with any sort of backlash because they broke up just before the bottom dropped out. Timberlake’s debut solo album Justified (a title he must still regret) came out in 2002 (a year after Celebrity) and he never looked back (they’re like the Pixies of boy bands).

I adore Timberlake’s second album FutureSex/LoveSounds and was always fine with the singles on Justified, but I’ve never really explored *NSYNC. I always assumed that the gap between Celebrity and Justified would be massive, but it turns out Timberlake treated his group’s final original album as a test run for what would become a hugely successful solo career.

Celebrity opens with “Pop.” Timberlake opens the song with a blast of frustration and a justification of his group’s existence. “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?” he sings over a stew of burping bass and scratches. Sonically, Celebrity has already aged better than many of the albums put out by *NSYNC’s contemporaries. “Pop” (which was justifiably a gigantic hit) then breaks into a bounce beat and a neck-snapping chorus with metal guitars and sweet harmonies.

Somewhat surprisingly, Celebrity isn’t just the Timberlake show. Rather, each member of the group has a distinct personality and a memorable presence. JC Chasez‘s lead take on “The Game Is Over” is pretty remarkable. He is aided by a plethora of “Galaga”-era arcade sound effects, which makes the track sound simultaneously futuristic and old school.

Speaking of both futuristic and old school, the Nelly collaboration “Girlfriend” is produced by the Neptunes, and they lend the track with a bombastic bass undertone and a sexy Spanish guitar. These explorations into the worlds of hip-hop, world music and contemporary R&B could have been dangerous, but they give Celebrity an unpredictable feel. For an album that sold nearly two million copies in its first week of release, it’s pretty free-wheeling.

In fact, the only times Celebrity stumbles is when they fall back into traditional boy band territory. “Tell Me, Tell Me … Baby,” produced by Max Martin, is pretty rote, especially sandwiched in between the delightfully bubbly ballad “Gone” and the progressive disco of “Up Against the Wall.”

“See Right Through You” hits pretty hard, but the ballad “Selfish” comes up a little bit short. In fact, the album stumbles a bit (both “Just Don’t Tell Me That” and “Something Like You” are forgettable) before ending on “Do Your Thing,” an odd little tune that multi-tracks every member’s voice and floats them on top of a sparse keyboard beat that morphs into top-shelf robo-soul.

Of course, Timberlake went on to become a cross-pollinating mega star, but the other men of *NSYNC have fared just as well. JC Chasez (who really should have become a bigger star) released the profoundly underrated album Schizophrenic in 2004 (it has two of the strangest and best singles of the past decade in “Some Girls (Dance With Women)” and “All Day Long I Dream About Sex”). Chasez currently makes his bones as a judge on MTV’s “America’s Best Dance Crew” and has written and produced tracks for a number of other artists. Joey Fatone narrowly missed winning “Dancing With the Stars” a few years back and has had several notable roles in Broadway musicals. Lance Bass wrote a best-selling autobiography called “Out of Sync,” tried to go into space and also appeared both on Broadway and on “Dancing With the Stars.” Finally, Chris Kirkpatrick competed on CMT’s “Gone Country,” did a regular voice for “The Fairly Odd Parents” and currently performs with the band Nigel’s 11.

While it seems like an *NSYNC reunion is unlikely (at least for the immediate future), the quintet can feel good knowing that if they ever do want to get the band back together, they have Celebrity to lean on. While it’s not nearly as accomplished and consistent as Timberlake’s solo work, it’s a solid piece of electro-pop that holds up relatively well. Plus, “Pop” pretty much rules.

Which *NSYNC album is your favorite? Which *NSYNC member do you prefer? Let us know in the comments!