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'Kid Brothers' Grow Up, Assert Independence

Pop Music * The youth movement continues as 'N Sync readies a new album that may challenge the Backstreet Boys.

March 17, 2000|GEOFF BOUCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can you hear that shrill sound in the distance?

It's the sound of legions of young girls screaming their love and retail devotion to 'N Sync, the fresh-scrubbed Florida quintet whose third album, "No Strings Attached," arrives in stores Tuesday with an outside chance of shattering the record for first-week sales.

The first single, "Bye Bye Bye," was, in radio parlance, the "most-added" song of the week when it came out in January, with a record 200 U.S. stations putting it into their rotations. The song and the album are, in the words of 'N Sync member Joey Fatone, "dirty pop, a lot of heavy up-tempo songs."

If you aren't among the faithful, if you groan at the bonanza of glossy youth pop dominating today's music scene, then prepare for a new wave of frustrating froth along with an intense media and marketing blitz heralding the new album's arrival.

On the other hand, if you love the heartthrob group's burnished harmonies and their carefully choreographed shows, then this is nothing less than the biggest music event ever . . . or at least since last May, when the most recent Backstreet Boys album arrived.

That album, "Millennium," sold a record 1.1 million copies in its first week in stores and earned a Grammy nomination for best album of 1999. "Millennium" has now sold 10.4 million copies and dominated last year's radio and video airplay.

Can their rivals in 'N Sync match that feat?

"I doubt it," says Jeff Pollack, one of the nation's leading radio consultants. "It will be a huge record, but being bigger than 'Millennium'--that's asking a lot."

It's also asking a lot to believe the tidal wave of youth pop will continue, Pollack says. The 1999 explosion of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, 98 Degrees and other avatars of the genre has spawned dozens of imitators, and history suggests that the saturation will eventually dampen the whole party.

"You get so many sound-alikes and look-alikes it creates this top-heavy effect and tends to water down the music, and people feel like they've had it up to here with this music, that they can't get away from it," Pollack says. "It even hurts the more legitimate artists like 'N Sync because they get lumped in."

But don't expect a downturn to happen next week. "This band is so hot, there's such tremendous interest and huge airplay already," he says. "This is going to be big."

Four million copies of "No Strings Attached" will be shipped today to stores--a total that exceeds the initial shipment of "Millennium"--and retail executives such as Gary Arnold of Best Buy say the disc has been viewed for months as "the next really big release, the next big pop happening."

'N Sync--like the Backstreet Boys--hit the music scene under the wing of Louis J. Pearlman, a New Jersey aviation mogul who was inspired by the success of New Kids on the Block to create a music factory of sorts in an Orlando industrial park.

'N Sync's big break came in July 1998 when their elders, the Backstreet Boys, bowed out of a Disney Channel concert special and the "kid brother band" got the gig. The youthful audience loved them, and their self-titled debut album would go on to sell 7.9 million copies in the U.S. alone. Their second album, a hastily assembled Christmas collection, also sold in the millions.

Crossing paths with the Backstreet Boys has become a familiar, and uncomfortable, situation for both groups. The Backstreeters took a jab at the rival group earlier this year in an MTV interview for copying their style and working with the same managers, songwriters, video directors and record producers. To make matters more uncomfortable, 'N Sync sued their way out of a record deal with RCA Records and in September signed with Jive, the label home of the Backstreet Boys. Around the same time, they parted ways with Pearlman.

The title of "No Strings Attached" is a winking reference to the group's independence from RCA, Pearlman and other past handlers, but how do the 'N Sync members feel about the claims that their success is too closely tied to their label mates and forerunners?

"Jimmy crack corn, and I don't care," says group member Fatone. "I don't have a reaction to the references. If the people that made that statement hear this new album, they will know what they said was false. . . . When you run the race, you don't look behind you, you look forward."

'N Sync is sprinting at the moment as far as media exposure. Besides extensive appearances on MTV and Nickelodeon, the group is also hitting "Good Morning America," "Saturday Night Live," "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and other network shows to publicize "No Strings Attached." The group will also appear on this year's Academy Awards show, performing the original song nominee "Music of My Heart," their duet with Gloria Estefan from the movie "Music of the Heart."

"That," says member Lance Bass, "will be one of the most special nights of our lives."

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