There was a time — 1998, to be exact, when the Backstreet Boys backed out of a planned Disney concert due to Brian Littrell’s heart surgery and ‘N Sync stepped in and became swoonworthy overnight — when I thought I had to choose between the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. I could appreciate both groups’ music, but I could only care about one of them enough to surf the Web when my computer screen was visible to two coworkers. Looking back, it was probably a lingering effect from my years as a devoted New Kids on the Block fan, which culminated in my high school yearbook being full of classmates wishing me a lifetime of happiness with Jordan Knight. I was a one-group kind of girl.
Thirteen years later, however, I’m still being asked to choose between Backstreet and ‘N Sync. And today, so are you. Join myself and Dave Karger as we take our turn in the ring for EW.com’s ongoing series of pop culture face-offs. We’ll put it to a vote at the end. Ding. Ding.
Mandi Bierly (‘N Sync supporter): Okay, Dave, I think we need to set two ground rules: You can only mention once that the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” is widely considered to be the best boy band song ever, and I can only mention once that ‘N Sync’s Justin Timberlake is the most talented and successful boy band member since Michael Jackson so therefore I win. Deal?
So let’s start here: I’ll concede that Backstreet has three members who can carry a lead (Nick, Brian, and AJ — sorry, Howie), and ‘N Sync only had Justin and JC. But with the way those two effortlessly traded vocals verse-to-verse, matching emotion or funk, you didn’t need or want anyone else upfront. If JC had the personality, fashion sense, and songwriting skills of Timberlake, he would be a top solo artist today instead of a judge on America’s Best Dance Crew. His voice was equal to Justin’s, and Justin’s is, again, the best since Michael Jackson’s. And as for the backup members (Joey, Chris, and Lance), anyone who saw them sing “I Thought She Knew” a cappella knows their worth.
Dave Karger (Backstreet Boys partisan): You know I love you, Mandi, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that more than two fifths of a boy band contributed lead vocals to their songs, do you? And the fact remains that although Brian, Nick, and AJ sang most of the lead parts for the Backstreet Boys, both Howie and Kevin also had the occasional moment in spotlight — most notably on “I Want It That Way,” which, by the way, a very smart lady I know says “is widely considered to be the best boy band song ever.” I couldn’t tell you what Joey, Lance, or Chris’s voices sounded like if I had a gun to my head. When it comes to the ‘N Sync B-team, the fact that an entire SNL skit was built around the fact that Justin couldn’t even remember Chris Kirkpatrick’s name kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
But let’s talk about the music too, while we’re at it. Besides The Song That Shall No Longer Be Named, BSB has “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” “Shape of My Heart,” “Drowning,” “As Long As You Love Me,” “I’ll Never Break Your Heart,” lesser-known gems like “Bigger” and “That’s What She Said,” and the crazy awesome current single with the New Kids on the Block, “Don’t Turn Out the Lights.” ‘N Sync had “Bye Bye Bye” and…basically that’s it. ‘N Sync may have broken BSB’s record for most CDs sold in one week, but didn’t you get the feeling that their songs were all Max Martin’s sloppy seconds? Anyone who goes to the NKOTBSB tour (which I might have attended out here in L.A.) can see that the Backstreet Boys are still as shriek-worthy as they were 13 years ago.
MB: “‘N Sync had ‘Bye Bye Bye’ and…basically that’s it?” Dave! While “Bye Bye Bye” may be their signature song, their hit list includes (but is not limited to) “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” ranked No. 30 on VH1’s list of the top songs of the ‘90s (ahead of Radiohead’s “Creep”); the Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper “It’s Gonna Be Me” (I refuse to believe you don’t remember the action figure video, sir); “This I Promise You” (the best of their radio ballads); and two killer tracks Timberlake cowrote that transcended the boy band genre and showed where he was headed. He may have brought sexy back solo, but it started with the Grammy-nominated “Gone” and Nelly-featuring “Girlfriend,” the latter produced by the Neptunes, thank you very much. (Oh, and also at 3:44 in this clip of them doing “Digital Get Down” live.)
Yes, Backstreet is still going strong, and “Don’t Turn Out the Lights” is on my iPod. But they’re still nowhere near the dancers ‘N Sync was even in their gloriously dated “I Want You Back” video (minus Lance, every group has to have one). Plus, ‘N Sync gave us the Justin-Britney drama (and their coordinated denim outfits they wore to the 2001 American Music Awards), a video in which they acted insane (“I Drive Myself Crazy”), a Christmas album with original tunes that didn’t suck (“Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays”), and genuinely hilarious appearances on The Simpsons and in Chili’s commercials. What did the Backstreet Boys give us? Isolated drug and health problems — way less entertaining.
DK: Okay, I did love “Tearin’ Up My Heart.” But by and large I struggle to remember any of ‘N Sync’s other songs, while BSB music fills my head on a regular basis. (Which makes me happy, by the way.) I’ll rest my case by stating one simple fact: Between the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, one group still finds it advantageous to be together (and sell out arenas, mind you), while the other is becoming more of a distant memory every year. Now it’s time for EW.com readers to have their say!
MB: Right. After I say again that Justin Timberlake is the most talented and successful boy band member since Michael Jackson. So therefore I win. (Sucker!)