It’s been 15 years since *NSYNC were the biggest band on the planet. The group’s third studio album (not counting their Christmas record), Celebrity was released in July 24, 2001 with the band at the peak of their powers. Their previous album, No Strings Attached was a massive blockbuster, selling more than 2.4 million copies in its first week. Singles like “Bye Bye Bye,” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” were utterly inescapable and it had become clear that band had beat out all of their contemporaries — even the mighty Backstreet Boys. So, what would they do for a follow-up? The answer was to make a record that, in retrospect, seems highly self-referential.
Right away, with the album’s title, *NSYNC was acknowledging exactly how huge they were, and how many people were waiting with baited breath for their next move. This might seem arrogant, but it actually comes across as charmingly nervous. When you have a success as massive as No Strings Attached, it would be natural to fear that you may have plateaued. Were those fears founded? Well, the album didn’t have opening sales quite on par with its predecessor, but it still sold 1.8 million copies in its first week, which would be unheard of today for anyone other than Adele, or possibly Taylor Swift. More important than the sales, though, the album had enough memorable singles to guarantee they would stay in the spotlight.
The leadoff single, “Pop,” was the album’s biggest hit, with yet another earworm chorus. It was a boastful song about, well, just how ubiquitous *NSYNC and their particular brand of pop music were. But, if anything, the track seemed like a defense of the genre, perhaps serving as a rebuttal to their harshest critics. It more or less reminded us that while pop was disposable, it was also really, really fun. And if it made so many people feel good, who were the snobs to resist it. “Pop” acted as a sort of proto-salvo against in the rockist vs. poptimists argument still raging today.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that Timberlake was poised to become the band’s breakout star — he was probably the most famous member of the band already. But what was particularly notable was that Celebrity was the first time he really began to demonstrate his chops as a songwriter. It seems quite telling that all three of the singles from this album — “Pop,” “Girlfriend,” and “Gone” — were at least co-written by Timberlake. Furthermore, these tracks also feel like predecessors to the immortal jams he would lay on us only a year later with Justified. The post-breakup pain of “Gone” feels like the precursor to “Cry Me A River,” while the immediate danceability of “Pop” gave us a preview of “Rock Your Body.” At this point, Timberlake was rapidly finding his voice, and soon it would become quite clear that he had outgrown *NSYNC.
Timberlake wasn’t the only member of the band attempting to spread his wings on this record. JC Chasez — who had become sort of the *other* popular band member at this point — wrote a few songs on the album as well. While his contributions like “The Game Is Over,” and “Selfish” more or less faded into the background, it was still quite clear that he had wanderlust, too. The biggest members of *NSYNC were slowly realizing that maybe they didn’t want to be in this band anymore, and maybe they could try to become independent stars. It worked beautifully for Timberlake, while Chasez’s only hits were “Blowin Me Up” from the Drumline Soundtrack and the unfortunate “Some Girls Dance With Women,” the latter of which is an embarrassing ode to faux-lesbianism that would launch about a million think pieces if it had been released today. But while Timberlake would emerge as the only real solo star, there probably wasn’t much more that *NSYNC could have done after this album.
Celebrity feels like a logical swan song as well as a transitional album. The recent hiatus of One Direction — as well as Zayn Malik’s and Harry Styles’ aspirations to solo stardom — were a reminder that boy bands are rarely built to last. Even when the fans are still there, and the band members are still dashing, there’s only so much that can be said before things run their course. That’s probably why Celebrity — and its lead single in particular — was so self-referential. It was the sound of a world famous boy band asking themselves “so, what do we now?” The answer was to break up, and allow the band’s most talented and charismatic member to take his place as pop icon while the rest of the band was left remembering the good old days. While this album made it clear that *NSYNC had ran its course as a band, it also proved that they still had a few more great pop songs to go out with.