By Drew Ailes
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By Tom Murphy
There's no getting around it: People's reactions to certain kinds of pop music tend to change once they become parents and their offspring start consuming it. What was once innocuous, disposable, easy to ignore and often a guilty pleasure can suddenly seem strangely sinister if you're not careful. Such worries are almost always illogical and misplaced, and they usually come to nothing over the long haul: Even though my wife grew up loving the music of the Eagles, for instance, she's managed to avoid winding up with a $1,000 a week cocaine habit (unless she's doing a really good job of hiding it from me). But that doesn't make it any easier to watch girls a good four years short of serious pubescence waggling their keisters while singing, "I'm a genie in a bottle/You've got to rub me the right way."
Enter 'N Sync, which on the surface is merely a typical boy band in which four adorable hunks (Justin Timberlake, J.C. Chavez, Lance Bass and Joey Fatone) and one considerably less attractive bloke (Chris Kirkpatrick -- how'd he get past quality control?) deliver a Caucasian-tested variation on tight-harmony R&B. Despite some occasional hair-tinting, they all seem like the sorts of guys mothers would cherish, and while their concerts (I was forced to witness one at McNichols last year) contain occasional floor-humping, they seem to understand, as all youthful idols should, that any displays of sexuality need to be leavened with cuddliness. That way, the poster-buying public can leap directly from Mary Kate and Ashley to them, with no stops in between.
No Strings Attached, the act's third album (on Jive), doesn't totally ditch this formula, but it tinkers with it. Apparently not understanding that there's absolutely nothing they can do to extend their careers beyond the usual teen-dream span (sorry, dudes; little girls get bigger every day), they've tried to infuse some credibility via guest producers such as Teddy Riley and She'kspere and a cameo from Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes of TLC-and burning-down-Andre-Rison's-house fame. The result makes for unintended comedy on "Just Got Paid," a Riley-helmed and co-written effort in which the language is a little too street for 'N Sync's own good; simply by delivering the lines "Check the mirror/Looking fly/Round up the posse/Jump in my ride," the quintet strips every last bit of hipness from three slang terms in less than ten seconds. (It might be a world record.) Later, the She'kspere opus "It Makes Me Ill" begs for funkiness these striplings can't even rent, and "Digital Get Down," about "freaky-deaky," "nasty" computer sex ("Digital get down/Just you and me/You may be 20,000 miles away/But I can see you/And baby, baby you can see me"), can't help but feel like kiddie porn. Keep both hands on the keyboard at all times, little ones.
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Just as troublesome are the hints of misogyny that creep into the proceedings. "Bye Bye Bye," which starts the vixens in training on TRL Live screaming nightly, has more hooks than a candy-cane factory, but its lyrics mingle male self-pity ("I loved you endlessly/When you weren't there for me") with mean-spirited assholery ("I wanna see you out that door"). This same brand of aggressive whininess crops up again in "It's Gonna Be Me" ("There comes a day/When I'll be the one/You'll see!"). Perhaps the frustration of having groupies they can't nail without risking a statutory rape charge is finally getting to them.
That said, a lot of this stuff is pretty catchy. I have a low tolerance for ballads like "I'll Be Good for You" and "I Thought She Knew," which are conveniently backloaded for easy skipping, but "Bringin' Da Noise," though about as far from Public Enemy as it possibly could be, seems like a safe enough way to introduce tots to booty-shaking. And despite a fairly staggering dumbness quotient and some quizzical rhymes ("Here it comes, millennium/And everybody's talkin' 'bout Jerusalem"), "Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)" is the type of tune that will have the ten-and-under set jabbering its title uncontrollably. (I know this from bitter experience.)
In the end, then, No Strings Attached, though a bit tainted at times, will likely cause the children of America no permanent harm. Or at least that's what I'm trying to convince myself.