Celebrity Skinned…Pondering *N Sync

The Bible says it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. In the fledgling A.D. era, the notion of transitioning from the flashfire of teen superstardom to legitimate artistry was as concrete a concept as skim decaf vanilla lattes.

But in today's sagging record business, where teen tonnage is a cornerstone of billing, the need to transition our Backstreet Boys (REHAB!), Britney's and Christina's (Lolita Goes Blaze Starr) into consistent cash flow from a launchpad of proven fickleness -- and what appears to be lagging new breakouts -- is critical. First-week-sales record-holders N Sync turn to music over image to try and pave the way to a legitimacy that will elevate them from more than squeal-inducing pre-puberty poppers, the amyl nitrate of the hormone-rising set.

Celebrity, debuting at #1, makes an interesting case for their homesteading land grab toward adult-seeming cred. While walking the line between the normal teen drowning in the- need-for-the-girl and the big gulp of outrage-for-being-played, Justin, JC, Lance, Chris and Joey attempt to grapple with commentary on the behind-the-curtain reality of celebrity and naysayers on the obviously-titled "Celebrity" and "Pop."

There will be no mistaking these songs for Dylan, Springsteen or Elvis Costello, but the petulance firing the mondo-heavy-metal-sellers' rebuke to critics begs a question as old as rock'n'roll -- why judge something you don't understand?

"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?"
-- "Pop"

In a recent conference call interview, JC Chavez, Lance Bass and Chris Kirkpatrick attempted to address celebrity as a replacement for art -- and it was a concept that defied them "Celebrity is definitely an artform," allowed Kirkpatrick.. "It's strange. It's weird."

It also makes evolving from teen dream with any anonymity awkward. Still 'N Sync understand that the little girls understand. So while they strive for their props and protest they're happy doing what they do -- though hate the suspicion that people dig them for their c-e-l-e-b-r-I-t-y -- they choose to make the lion's share of their stand through the creative process, working with the white hot producers of today. Enlisting Brian McKnight, the Neptunes, Rodney Jerkins, Riprock'n'Alex G and Swedish hotties Kristian Lundin and Jake Schulze and Rami, they help the quints craft their mix of rapid-fire aerobics jams and luxurious, vocally lush ballads.

And the beauty of a young fan base remains the lack of musical foreknowledge. 'N Sync is cutting edge with their re-new-ed jack swing balladry that works the silky smooth soul tip (see JC's gorgeous "Selfish" or the Justin's breathless "Gone") and the heavily staccatoed computer-driven funk that recalls video games and the night moves samples of Midnight Star ("No Parking On The Dance Floor"), the Deele ("Body Talk") and even Cleveland's own Dazz Band ("Joystick," "Keep It Live") because their audience doesn't remember.

Indeed, the percolating, heavily phased-and-programmed up tempo songs -- the bitter "Tell Me, Tell Me…Baby," the bitter "The Game Is Over" and the bitter "Celebrity" -- all flex and kick and offer the high karate connection that is all that young energy focused on a single point for 3-5 minutes. Coil, recoil. Build, release.

Which is what N Sync does so well. They know how to focus and burn a hole into the moment with conviction. While Steven Tyler would never yowl "…'Cause if you were my girlfriend, I'd be your shining star/ The one to show you where you are…," Timberlake sells it with all the drama he has. Good boys gone ardent -- that's what we have here -- and coupled with their one-for-everybody-heartthrob appeal, their willingness to be unabashedly that translates to commited performances.

What's next remains to be seen. Can they keep growing as musicians, tempering their songs for an audience growing older, wiser and perhaps more embarrassed by their once-was-fave? Who knows?

For now, N Sync remains the safest sex: blanketed in squeals, shrieks and screams, there's nothing real about the promise. There will be no "freakin'," contrary to the boast on "See Right Through You," because not only can't the little girls get to the winsome five -- but N Sync are ultimately lost in the flood of fame and its current of faster, faster where everything becomes disposable and finding something to hold on to other than the centrifugal force of the rush they know isn't the way to survive.

-- Holly Gleason