Released: 9th July 2001
Writers: Justin Timberlake / Wade Robson
Peak position: #9
Chart run: 9-17-25-30-41-56-68-71
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 29-23-19-19-19-25-31-41-47-55-62-73-85-90-99
*NSYNC had enjoyed record-breaking commercial success with their previous album No Strings Attached. But the release of Pop saw the group set their sights on something that had thus far evaded them: critical approval.
With that goal in mind, this single – and the accompanying Celebrity album – marked a turning point for *NSYNC and indeed bubblegum pop as a whole. While their label-mates and perceived rivals the Backstreet Boys stuck firmly with a Swedepop writing and production team, *NSYNC broke with convention. They started to utilise their own talents, as well as those of writers and producers who weren’t typically known for working with boybands. Pop music had earned an unwelcome reputation for albums that contained swathes of filler, a criticism not without some basis. But it’s also true that the genre as a whole was often dismissed based on a few (very) bad examples of this phenomenon. If *NSYNC couldn’t change that perception, at the very least, they wanted to challenge it. And by working with cutting-edge producers, the group minimally ensured that their new material couldn’t simply be disregarded because of who they were.
As the lead single, Pop was an unmistakable statement of this point. The production – courtesy of BT – is intense, frenetic and feels utterly chaotic; within the first few seconds alone, there are distorted synths, frantic record scratches and a producer shout-out. It very much adopts the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach and with good reason. This was a song that aimed to confront the expectation of what pop music should – and could – sound like; by throwing everything at the wall, *NSYNC sought to expand the scope of the genre. There are stuttered beats, squelchy electronic basslines, an instrumental breakdown, beatboxing, electric guitar riffs…you name it, it’s here, and all contained within a track that runs less than three minutes. Pop rattles around your head like an aggressive pinball, and yet despite the staggering plethora of elements, not one of them feels shoehorned in just for the sake of it. Well okay, maybe one…
Justin Timberlake’s beatboxing verges on being a tad over-indulgent. There, we said it. An impressive talent though it may be, the music video and album versions feature an additional 30+ seconds of it tagged onto the end of the track. Moving from a production where no few seconds are the same, to a coda that does the same thing for a relatively long time lets the steam out of Pop. The mix was initially made for Justin Timberlake’s personal use, and it probably should have stayed that way. The radio edit is the way to go with this one.
The other notable shift in Pop is the occasionally barbed lyrics; *NSYNC used this opportunity to bite back at their critics, and although it may seem somewhat tame by today’s standards, in 2001 this was not commonplace at all. Pop acts had, for too long, been put on pedestals and expected to smile pleasantly as people took pot-shots at them. That started to change here: “Sick and tired of hearing all these people talk about, what’s the deal with this pop life and when is it gonna fade out” / “Now, why you wanna try to classify the type of thing we do, ‘cause we’re just fine doin’ what we like, can we say the same for you”. Far from trying to disassociate themselves from the material they performed (as was often the case), it was utterly refreshing for a group like *NSYNC to stand up for pop music proudly and defiantly. This was a watershed moment as self-awareness crept into the lyrics and criticism became a two-way street. Those themes were taken much further during subsequent years, but this is where the revolution started.
The accompanying music video does its utmost to match the energy of Pop, and the result is fabulously trippy. It opens with Justin Timberlake in a commercial advertising a beaker of “pop”. It includes a neat reference to “jumbo pop” coming July 24th, which was the American release date of the Celebrity album (it arrived a day earlier in the UK). It’s unclear whether the scene is deliberately creepy, but the over-editing and stuttering of the footage certainly creates an unsettling atmosphere. The central part of the video, however, takes place in a dance arena. It’s here that the sheer scale of the visuals becomes apparent. The sets are enormous and *NSYNC (with impressively coiffured hairstyles) are joined by what appears to be a cast of hundreds – if not thousands – of extras. The action is complemented and accentuated by dynamic camera shots that zoom, twist, pulse and change speed with the music.
Famously, Joey Fatone was injured days before the Pop video shoot and was replaced by choreographer (and co-writer of the song) Wade Robson for many of the sequences. He was positioned at the back of the formation, and due to the lower resolution at which videos were broadcast, it wasn’t easy to make out. But thanks to the gift of high definition, it is now conversely rather difficult to miss. There’s a final stylistic shift for the beatbox section, which features Justin Timberlake performing in front of a patchwork backdrop made up of the other members of the group. Somehow, despite such a contrasting and conflicting mixture of aesthetics, the result is an off-the-wall video that perfectly matches the exhilarating, zany rush of the song.
As such a loaded single, in many ways, Pop represents both the best and worst of *NSYNC post-No Strings Attached. On the one hand, it showcased how unpredictable and daring the group could be. Without any need to do so, they willingly threw caution to the wind, ditched their usual writing and production team, and leapt five strides ahead of their peers. Coming off the back of a record-breaking album, they were influential in opening the floodgates for other mainstream acts to make similar departures with songs like I’m A Slave 4 U and Dirrty. But it came at a high price because this is also where the group arguably sacrificed themselves to become a vehicle for Justin Timberlake. He and JC Chasez were consistently the lead vocalists within *NSYNC, but Pop tipped the balance further still. There was only ever one person in the spotlight here, and the creeping sense that this was a means to an end for Justin Timberlake to launch his solo career became harder and harder to ignore. It was an entirely, er, justified suspicion because that’s precisely what happened 16 months later.
In the meantime, however, if *NSYNC intended to create material that put authenticity over commerciality, then Pop’s chart performance landed in the right way. With critics forced to admit that the group had pulled it out of the bag, the track peaked at #9 in the UK and #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. In both territories, it was neither the group’s biggest hit nor was it their worst-performing. Landing somewhere in the middle felt like a fair outcome for such an unprecedented release. And it did little to harm the performance of the Celebrity album (was there ever any doubt?) which shifted over 1.8 million copies to follow its predecessor to #1 in America. That’s a rather impressive outcome for a group who now considered sales figures as a secondary concern. It underlines not just how big *NSYNC were – a fact not always evident in the UK – but how significant this rejection of their own conventions was. There is absolutely no doubt that whatever the group had to say with this album, people were listening.
Pop remains a bold, brilliant move that is brimming with ideas. But as the poster boys (in America, at least) for bubblegum pop, *NSYNC’s voluntary decision to move in a new direction heralded the start of the end for the very sound that launched them to fame.