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Pop Music Review

'N Sync Follows Backstreet Boys Formula

January 07, 1999|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The sound of clean-teen spirit filled the Universal Amphitheatre on Tuesday, as thousands of girls waited for what seemed like forever to see rising pop idols 'N Sync in the flesh.

Finally, the stage lights blazed, and five figures in white jumpsuits appeared, their faces shielded by shiny white helmets. As the capacity crowd howled with ecstasy, the anonymous quintet robot-danced to the ominous theme music of that most archetypal movie villain, Darth Vader.

Really, what more can you say?

Well, you could say that, judging from the intensity of the teen screams throughout 'N Sync's official L.A. concert debut, 'N Sync has successfully challenged the swoony sovereignty of the Backstreet Boys.

And they've done it largely by following the same formula. If all it takes for pop stars to win adolescent hearts and minds these days is the adequate abilities and pallid hooks of this bunch, then every other semi-attractive singing, dancing young man in America should take heart.

Though fans would no doubt disagree, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys are strikingly similar. Both are quintets, each group's career incubated with the same Orlando, Fla.-based management team, and both blend New Kids on the Block-style high-energy charm with R&B-lite ballads and dance tunes.

Like Backstreet, 'N Sync even contains some Disney alumni, J.C. Chasez, 22, and Justin Timberlake, 17, who appeared in the Disney Channel's revived "Mickey Mouse Club." (As, coincidentally, did one of the opening acts, Britney Spears, whose bubbly 15-minute set displayed more affinity for Madonna than Annette.)

And, like Backstreet's L.A. debut last August, 'N Sync's 75-minute performance was as slick and shallow as a theme-park stage show, if not quite as polished, dazzling or distinctive as the other group's.

Backed by a five-piece band, the singers presented the requisite hits from their multimillion-selling 1998 debut album ("I Want You Back," "Tearin' Up My Heart"), along with an a cappella medley of Bee Gees tunes designed to prove that, yes, they can sing. Only passably, though. Their main distinguishing feature was their human-beatbox vocal routines, which included a percussive medley of contemporary hip-hop hits that became less interesting as it wore on.

Although the harmonies were tepid, the group was most engaging when crooning such soulful ballads as "I Drive Myself Crazy," oozing the kind of ersatz vulnerability that makes young girls vow that, given the chance, they'd never break an 'N Sync heart.

If the romantic sentiments proved innocently sincere, however, there was no Hanson-esque naivete to the group's behavior when, at the end of the vaguely naughty hip-hop number "Giddy Up," they led the audience in shouting, "Just ride it!," over and over, then whipped out giant water guns and thoroughly spritzed the front rows.

* 'N Sync, Britney Spears and B*Witched play Friday at the Universal Amphitheatre, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, 7:15 p.m. Sold out. (818) 622-4440.

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