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Billboard declared last week “boy band week.” As such, it’s time to revisit a heated debate that was never fully resolved: Which was the definitive boy band: Backstreet Boys…?
… or N’Sync?
Boy bands have been around forever, and have included bands that have gone on to outlive the term (The Beatles!) and those who are always associated with the tag (Menudo!). Each decade has its own definitive boy band: The ‘60s had the Monkees, the ‘70s had the Jackson 5, the ‘80s had New Kids on the Block, the ‘00s had the Jonas Brothers, and the ‘10s have One Direction.
But when it comes to the ‘90s, there was an unusually high number of contenders for the crown. Most of them (LFO, 5ive) can be quickly weeded out as notable also-rans. After that, we’d almost certainly have to give the bronze medal to 98 Degrees. But really, the battle of the ‘90s boy bands comes down to only two contenders: Backstreet Boys and N’Sync.
Both Backstreet Boys and N’Sync were the brain child of sleazy svengali, Lou Pearlman. Wanting to create his own version of New Kids on the Block, Pearlman scouted talent until he formed Backstreet Boys in the early ‘90s. Despite an initially slow start in the States, the band proved to be a hit in Europe before finally crossing back over to spearhead a boy band revolution when their U.S. debut, Backstreet Boys came out, in 1997.
Lightning struck twice for Pearlman, in 1998, when his second boy band, N’Sync, released their self-titled debut album.
Soon, both bands were dominating the pop landscape through the late ‘90s and into the early ‘00s. Naturally, because both bands’ career origins, level of success, and time in the spotlight were so similar, they have become forever intwined in pop culture’s collective unconscious. But it’s 2015, and we need to figure out once and for all which is the definitive boy band of the ‘90s.
In determining which boy band is the most definitive, many factors have to be considered; album sales is usually where most arguments start. Let’s take a look at the numbers.
When Backstreet Boys’ second US album, Millennium, debuted in May of 1999, it sold 1,135,505 copies, breaking a one-week sales record previously held by the album-selling behemoth country music star Garth Brooks.
This kickstarted a new trend of “fastest selling album” (essentially, who had the best first week sales) that everyone from Britney Spears to Eminem to Limp Bizkit were suddenly a part of. The Backstreet Boys’ follow-up, Black and Blue, then sold 1,591,191 copies, making Backstreet Boys the first artist to have back-to-back albums debut with over a million in sales.
But this ended up being small potatoes compared to their rivals: N’Sync famously made history when they sold 2,415,859 copies of their second album, No Strings Attached, in late March of 2000.
2.4 million copies! That’s about as many copies as Beyonce’s last album — one of the best-selling albums of this decade — has sold in its entire run. For an album to sell 2.4 million copies in a single week today would require a powerful mix of the right artist at the right point in their career with the right marketing and a huge buzz-generating first single. Taylor Swift, and possibly Adele, are the only artists who can even hope to sell one million copies — an enormous accomplishment — in a single week.
Records are meant to be broken, but unless the public starts buying albums again (unlikely) and/or Billboard radically changes the methodology for what counts as an album sale (possible), N’Sync’s one-week sales record will always stand. And just for good measure, N’Sync also have the second best sales week ever: third album, Celebrity, sold just shy of 1.88 million copies upon release in July of 2001.
Accordingly, N’Sync should be declared the winners of this round. However, while No Strings Attached won the battle, Backstreet Boys’ album Millennium won the war: total sales for the albums stand at 12,250,000 for Millennium and 11,160,000 for No Strings Attached. Additionally, Backstreet Boys’ cumulative US album sales are, by conservative estimates, at least five million higher than N’Sync’s.
Finally, due to Backstreet Boys’ continued output — they released a new studio album as recently as 2013 — they have managed (since their U.S. debut) to amass nine consecutive top 10 albums; that’s an active streak only one other artist (Sade) can beat. So if we’re looking purely at album sales, this round is a draw.
As mentioned earlier, Backstreet Boys had to find success in Europe before they made it big in the States. However, once they hit their stride, they churned out eleven top 40 hits out of twelve releases through 2002, when N’Sync went on hiatus. Backstreet Boys added one more top 40 song, in 2005, with “Incomplete”.
Meanwhile, N’Sync yielded slightly fewer top 40 songs (nine, in total). However, they matched Backstreet Boys’ total of six top 10s. And more impressively, they scored a #1 with 2000′s “It’s Gonna Be Me”.
On the other hand, Backstreet Boys only ever made it to #2, with “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).”
But when it comes to signature songs, Backstreet Boys blow N’Sync out of the water. Backstreet Boys’ signature song, “I Want It That Way,” was a huge radio hit in 1999; although it only peaked at #6 on the Hot 100, it was the most played song on American radio for three consecutive weeks.
Additionally, the song’s legacy has been recognized time and again: VH1 named it the 3rd best song of the ‘90s, MTV and Rolling Stone named it the 10th best pop song of all time, and it was even nominated for Record of the Year and Song of the Year (a songwriters’ award) at the 2000 Grammys. Additionally, the music video was iconic enough to be hilariously mocked by Blink-182 in their award-winning “All the Small Things” video.
Put simply, “I Want It That Way” is one of the best pop songs of all time.
Comparatively, N’Sync’s signature song “Bye Bye Bye,” lacks the same pop gravitas. The song peaked at #4 on the Hot 100, and was also nominated for a Record of the Year Grammy. The dance-heavy music video won two Video Music Awards — “I Want It That Way” only won one.
While “Bye Bye Bye” is a great tune, it unsurprisingly shares none of the accolades of “I Want It That Way” — the song is just not in the same league. Backstreet Boys would win the singles war, albeit barely.
There are other, less concrete factors to consider. For instance, it can argued without too much dissent that Backstreet Boys were the slightly better vocalists (they always referred to themselves as a “vocal harmony group” and not as a “boy band”), while N’Sync were by far better dancers (one of the two Video Music Awards “Bye Bye Bye” won was for Best Choreography). N’Sync were able to reach a huge audience when they were asked to perform at the 2001 Super Bowl. Backstreet Boys had a hilarious cameo in Seth Rogen’s This is the End.
N’Sync’s individual members may have been better at staying in the public eye (Lance Bass coming out as gay, Joey Fatone becoming a noted TV personality), but I think the members of Backstreet Boys are far more physically attractive. It’s essentially a dead heat.
But really, none of this matters. Backstreet Boys are the more definitive boy band over N’Sync, and it because of one major reason: none of the individual members of Backstreet Boys went on to have a successful solo career.
This might seem paradoxical, a band being greater if its members fail to attain individual success afterwards. But it boils down to context: Backstreet Boys were always seen as a collective unit. N’Sync, meanwhile, were arguably a cohesive group at the time, but have retroactively become Justin Timberlake and Friends.
All five Backstreet Boys have released solo material in one form or another, but none of them were successful away from the band (Brian Littrell had modest success on the Christian charts with his Welcome Home album in 2006).
None of the Backstreet Boys’ solo singles made the Hot 100, something that even Nick Carter’s kid brother, Aaron Carter, was able to manage three times. Anytime an individual member tried to stray from the Backstreet Boys brand, the public’s apathy sent out a clear message: we would only accept this band as a collective whole.
N’Sync, on the other hand, proved to be the training ground for Justin Timberlake’s solo career: when he went solo in 2002, he charted a meteoric rise that has enabled him to become one of the most beloved pop stars of this millennium (even fellow N’Sync-er, JC Chasez, managed to attain some minor success with his solo album, Schizophrenic).
What’s more, this exact same thing happened when Michael Jackson left the Jackson 5, and when Beyonce left Destiny’s Child. In each case, the band’s previous status, no matter how great, ultimately pales in comparison to the legacy of the solo superstar. As soon as Timberlake dropped his Justified album and it became a hit, N’Sync were forever doomed to play second fiddle not only to Timberlake, but to Backstreet Boys.
Two other crucial components existed that helped Backstreet Boys win the war:
First, N’Sync did not soldier on without Timberlake, neither immediately nor years later. Although it meant that they would not be the definitive ’90s boy band, this was probably a wise decision. Just a few years before, the Spice Girls had tried to continue as a four piece after losing Ginger Spice, only to see their subsequent US sales plummet. At best, releasing a Timberlake-less fourth album would have been a nice way to tie up loose ends… at worst, a pathetic attempt to squeeze every last dollar out of the N’Sync empire.
However, bands that can continue to have hits after losing a key member end up attaining an unusual respect from critics and the public: The Supremes are still remembered fondly because they managed a string of hits after Diana Ross went solo. Likewise, Van Halen were able to survive David Lee Roth’s departure. And, in perhaps the best example, British boy band Take That reunited and had a colossally successful second career, ten years after Robbie Williams left the band. The list goes on and on. N’Sync, however, did not want to (or knew they could not) succeed without Timberlake.
Second, aside from a quick reunion at the 2013 Video Music Awards, where Timberlake was honored with the Video Vanguard Award, he has never returned to N’Sync.
The group had outlived its usefulness, and the superstar had moved on. To have gone back to N’Sync would have been seen as a step backwards for Timberlake, while re-elevating the group’s status. We either want the group or the solo artist to be the major success story, but not both — and certainly not at the same time. Beyonce is the most notable example of this: After successfully launching a solo career with Dangerously in Love in 2003, she came back to Destiny’s Child for one final studio album.
But Destiny Fulfilled felt like a retread. The songs were enjoyable enough, and they ended up being decent-sized hits, but it felt superfluous, unnecessary. Beyonce had not only not added anything substantial to the Destiny’s Child legacy, but she was also taking precious time away from her successful solo carer. Timberlake side-stepped all of that; in doing so, N’Sync’s legacy as a solo-star launching pad remained frozen in time.
Because of all this, Backstreet Boys were always the more definitive boy band. Their albums might be selling in progressively fewer quantities, but it doesn’t matter: What they accomplished in their heyday, coupled with the N’Sync/Justin Timberlake complex, has assured their legacy amongst the public. The boy band is more than the sum of its parts.
It should be noted that a Backstreet Boys vs. N’Sync debate can only happen if both bands experience relatively similar levels of success at the same time. Comparing Backstreet Boys to N’Sync works because both were huge at the start of the new millennium. However, a similar debate involving One Direction and The Wanted will always be inherently one-sided in One Direction’s favor due to how disproportionately successful they are compared to their rivals. Likewise, while New Edition might have been a better boy band in the ‘80s, New Kids on the Block’s cultural ubiquity makes them the definitive boy band of that decade. In most cases there will be an overwhelming winner, but in the Backstreet Boys vs. N’Sync debate, it’s always been too close for the casual observer to call.
In the end, both Backstreet Boys and N’Sync are going to be remembered for being iconic torchbearers of a teen-pop empire. While N’Sync might have had the larger first sales week, might have been better dancers, and might have been asked to play the Super Bowl, they’ll have to make do with the silver medal in the ‘90s boy band Olympics.
Had Timberlake returned to record more tunes with N’Sync — or if Timberlake’s solo career had never taken off in the first place—N’Sync would probably be remembered as the definitive boy band. But Timberlake did become a huge solo star and he never looked back. As such, the Backstreet Boys, a boy band who add up to more than the sum of their individual parts, can conclusively be said to be the definitive boy band of the 1990s.