When the lights dimmed at Cleveland Browns Stadium on June 22 for the second of two 'N Sync concerts, the giant TV monitors with Verizon Wireless logos were the first things to flicker to life. The mock instructional video that played was intended to not only excite the already giddy audience, but also reinforce the concept behind the band's latest tour, dubbed "PopOdyssey." And what did we learn? Definitions of the words pop and odyssey were typed out on the screen. (In case you didn't know, "pop" is "music popular with the general public," and an odyssey is "a long series of travels and adventures.") Once this profound knowledge was dropped, a dumpy-looking cartoon teacher came out to narrate a history of the band, which has the distinction of holding the record for most albums sold in the initial week of release (last year, it moved 2.4 million copies of No Strings Attached in the first week alone).
While the video segment was pedantic, self-aggrandizing, and ultimately unnecessary -- c'mon, by now who doesn't know that the Orlando-based boy band has been tearing up the charts since the release of its self-titled debut three years ago? -- the group's actual entrance was spectacular. Five masked figures came out in Jedi outfits and stood on a gigantic steel structure built in the end zone. With an explosion, the five Jedis vanished, and the members of 'N Sync appeared on a flower-like platform in the middle of the field. It was like something along the lines of a big-budget (and glitch-free) version of the Spinal Tap pod sequence. And in that way, the PopOdyssey commenced.
Wearing sleeveless shirts speckled with bright splashes of color, J.C., Joey, Justin, Lance, and Chris quickly busted into suggestive dance moves and ran down the catwalk to the main stage, singing (or was it lip-syncing?) into headsets as an eight-piece band played their new single, "Pop." The crowd, mostly teenage girls and their parents, produced a roar loud enough to be heard in Michigan.
There's no denying that 'N Sync is at the head of its class. With the Backstreet Boys struggling to sell out arenas and few other acts capable of filling stadiums these days, 'N Sync's popularity is at a peak, and the band has the stage show to back it up. Standing on rising pedestals to sing "Tearing at My Heart," walking down from a steel staircase that opened up from the top of the stage for "The Two of Us," and riding mechanical bulls to accentuate the Wild West theme of "Space Cowboy," the boys put showmanship and theatrics to good use. Making a rock concert work in a stadium setting isn't easy, but 'N Sync pulled it off -- dare we say, with as much verve as the Rolling Stones, perennial stadium rockers whose music played over the P.A. system before the concert began.
But there was a strange irony at work. Despite the boy-band mania (we saw girls with photos of their favorite members glued to their T-shirts, the boys' names scrawled on their arms in magic marker), 'N Sync is trying to distance itself from its teen fan base (at some shows, Joey has even been seen wearing a shirt that reads "boy bands suck"). That's right. They're boys who wanna be men. In interviews, they talk about their forthcoming album, Celebrity, as if it's sophisticated stuff -- the culmination of time spent listening to cutting-edge electronic music from the U.K. They even enlisted BT (a noted American electronic producer) to tweak "Pop," a song littered with the kind of off-kilter R&B tracks that typify two-step, the latest British dance craze.
Undoubtedly, the group is trying to avoid what Entertainment Weekly is calling the impending "teen bust," the fallout inevitable when the teen audience buying records by 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears moves on to something else. The end of the boy-band fad is near, and 'N Sync is doing everything it can to ensure a long musical shelf life. That's what this PopOdyssey was really supposed to be about. And in light of that, the band's juvenile antics were at odds with some of the more sophisticated material.
Sitting on big bouncing balls, donning superhero outfits to fight off an evil alien, or pulling little red wagons across the stage isn't appropriate behavior for a group of twentysomethings out to prove that they've grown up. But then, maybe these guys haven't changed that much after all -- the trio of ballads from Celebrity ("Something Like You," "Falling," and "Selfish") smacked of the same tired boy-meets-girl sentiments that have been regurgitated on previous albums.
In the end, this PopOdyssey was more like an amusement park ride than a rock concert. Everything about 'N Sync -- the choreographed dance moves, the Romper Room outfits, and the squeaky-clean good looks -- contrasts with the rebellious spirit at the heart of rock and roll and even pop (see Madonna). The emptiness at the heart of this tour was enough to make us hope that "Bye Bye Bye," the closing song that was delivered with a fireworks display befitting a Fourth of July celebration, will become prophetic for both 'N Sync and its teen pop peers.
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