When you see Red Rocket, one of the year’s best indies, you’ll be introduced to Mikey, a washed-up porn star (played by Simon Rex) who’s moved back to his Texas hometown after a stint in L.A. And as he returns to the economically depressed shithole where he grew up, he rides the bus while an unlikely song plays on the soundtrack. It’s an old NSYNC banger.
“Bye Bye Bye” actually shows up several times in Red Rocket, and in several forms. (One of the characters Mikey encounters will even do her own version of the song.) “[It became] an anthem for the film,” Red Rocket director Sean Baker explained recently, later adding, “The price on that track wasn’t part of our initial budget. … All members [of NSYNC] had to sign off on it. So Justin has seen part of this movie.”
The song is also featured in the trailer, its hammered-into-your-skull hook impossible to dislodge from your brain once you’ve heard it. I saw Red Rocket at Cannes back in the summer, and all these months later, I’ll suddenly have “Bye Bye Bye” in my head and think of Mikey’s dirtbag misadventures. “Bye Bye Bye” serves as a sort of ironic counterpoint to the desperate lives of the individuals we meet in that film. They’re mostly an unhappy lot, longing to escape their circumstance, while “Bye Bye Bye’s” energetic breakup energy is both overly caffeinated and brazenly defiant. Is the song cheering the characters on, or is Baker mocking their dreams with a piece of bygone bubblegum pop?
Both badly dated and weirdly impervious to the scourge of time, the song is now older than the young men who recorded it were. NSYNC was a boy band, a term that’s almost always used as a pejorative. The group consisted of five guys, and depending on your age, you definitely can name one of them, perhaps more: Lance Bass, JC Chasez, Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick and Justin Timberlake. In the early 2000s, they were huge. They even showed up on The Simpsons, spoofing their own superficial appeal and disposable trendiness. NSYNC were popular, but they weren’t cool, and they probably knew it.
Boy bands have long had to deal with a section of the public that hates them because, well, they largely appeal to girls. That’s a gross generalization, of course, but whether it was the adorable Beatles in their moptops singing to legions of screaming, fainting female fans or New Kids on the Block or One Direction or BTS showing off their creamy good looks, boy bands tend to emphasize their inoffensive boyishness. Add to that these groups’ pop leanings — and the fact that they often work with established hitmakers and focus more on singing and dancing rather than composing their own tunes — and it’s probably no wonder why many listeners dismiss them as being prepackaged stars without a whiff of artistic integrity.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were a heyday for boy bands — and also, of course, a backlash against them. The two biggest were Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, which both personified a shiny, friendly, not especially aggressive masculinity that made them seem approachable to their young female audience. On the opposite side of the pop spectrum, you had Limp Bizkit and Eminem, who represented the bad-boy demeanor of dudes you prayed your daughter wouldn’t date. These kinds of men were somehow more “real” than the airbrushed cuties in the boy bands, and Emimen in particular loved making fun of them, perhaps most notably on his 2000 cut “I’m Back”:
By the way, NSYNC, why do they sing?
Am I the only one who realizes they stink?
Should I dye my hair pink and care what y’all think?
Lip sync and buy a bigger size of earrings?
It’s why I tend to block out when I hear things
‘Cause all these fans screamin’ is makin’ my ears ring
Artists like Eminem were macho, while groups like NSYNC were wimps. Actually, it was worse than that, as Lance Bass could attest. “Being in a boy band, I got called gay every single day that I was in the band,” he said recently. “And it wasn’t because they actually thought I was gay. It’s just because I was in a boy band. All of us got that. I definitely wasn’t singled out. I think all of us got it equally.”
Bass came out in 2006, but he knew he was gay from an early age — and that his sexuality might be a problem for the band. “At the height of NSYNC, I was scared shitless,” Bass told The Hollywood Reporter. “The bigger we got, the more people are looking into your personal lives. … I didn’t want anyone to find out because I knew, especially in the year 2000, that if anyone found out that I was gay, NSYNC’s career would be completely over, and these guys would hate me for the rest of my life.”
In that same interview, he said his former bandmates “are still so pissed that I wasn’t able to tell them when we were still a group. One, they absolutely don’t care about me being gay. The thing that pissed them off the most is they thought that we could’ve had so much more fun together at the height of NSYNC. I could’ve been my real self with them, and they wish they could’ve had that.”
That’s a lovely sentiment, but I don’t know if Bass’s fellow NSYNC-ers (or their management) would have necessarily felt that way back then. The early aughts were still a pretty homophobic time, as exhibited by Emimen’s use of anti-gay slurs on his records, despite artists like Elton John defending him. And that attitude in the culture at large found its way into how people thought of Backstreet Boys and NSYNC. They were too pretty. They were too manufactured. Most of the members of these boy bands weren’t gay, but as far as bigoted sections of the record-buying public were concerned, they sure weren’t manly.
The height of NSYNC’s popularity came in 2000 when they put out No Strings Attached, their second album, not counting 1998’s seasonal cash-in Home for Christmas. No Strings Attached’s title referred to the fact that the band had just split from their manager Lou Pearlman, who had assembled the group when they were teens, asserting heavy control over their direction and finances, as he did with other young artists of the time like Aaron Carter and Backstreet Boys. (In 2008, Pearlman who died in 2016, was sentenced to prison for running a Ponzi scheme whose victims had been lured in by his success in the music business.) Eventually, NSYNC had had enough, sparking a legal battle that eventually freed them from Pearlman and their record label.
Naturally, many assumed that No String Attached’s first single, “Bye Bye Bye,” although addressed to an unfaithful lover, was really a kissoff to Pearlman. “It was a big f-you to Lou Pearlman every time we [performed] it,” Bass said in 2019. “You felt like an artist for the first time, without anyone’s hands in it for the first time.”
But despite the seemingly personal nature of the song, “Bye Bye Bye” wasn’t written by the band. (That credit goes to Kristian Lundin, Jake Schulze and Andreas Carlsson, Swedish chart wizards who also worked with Britney Spears, Celene Dion and Backstreet Boys.) “Bye Bye Bye” wasn’t even meant for NSYNC originally, having been pitched to another group, 5ive, who rejected the track. Indicative of the fiendish commercial instincts of the composers, they were actively trying to mimic recent hits when they came up with “Bye Bye Bye.” “There are always links with other songs that were popular at the time,” Carlsson said. “Like, we did our Swedish version of those songs. ‘Bye Bye Bye’ would probably be ‘Bills, Bills, Bills,’ We were like, ‘We want to do R&B too. Here’s our version.’ But it sounded nothing like R&B in the end. It became something else.”
“Bye Bye Bye” was indeed inspired by heartache, but it was Carlsson’s: “I had a girlfriend who left me for this guy who she’s married to today and they have kids, so I guess it made sense, but I got very upset.” But NSYNC made it a universal anthem for telling off the girl who’s done you wrong, and by the standards of boy-band pop, “Bye Bye Bye” was faintly hard-edged, although its most prominent features are its super-slick keyboards and that annoying/catchy litany of “bye bye bye” vocal hooks. Boy bands tended to do love songs — it was vaguely provocative that the lead single for the newly freed NSYNC was a taunting breakup track.
Now signed to Jive, NSYNC welcomed the new century by dropping the single and video in January. The clip was directed by video veteran Wayne Isham, who had shot with everyone from Bon Jovi to Janet Jackson. This was the age of TRL, when millions were keeping close tabs on their favorite pop acts through their videos, which were becoming more ambitious, expensive and narratively elaborate. For the “Bye Bye Bye” clip, NSYNC weren’t just selling the song but the whole No Strings Attached concept, and the group was serious about signaling to their fans their creative independence after the lawsuits with Pearlman.
“We were all in a taxicab and it was the first time we finally got our name back and it was like, ‘This is it. We finally get to work on this album. What’s the concept?’” Bass said. “Chris Kirkpatrick was like, ‘Something about I got no strings on me … Pinocchio.’ I was like, ‘Perfect. Like, no strings attached.’ Once we had the concept and album name, it all started making sense which direction we wanted to go in and magic happened.”
The video for “Bye Bye Bye” might as well be a time capsule for what the early aughts were like in the music business. In the clip, there’s a high-speed car chase and a nerve-racking scene atop a moving train. There are also two intricately choreographed dance set pieces, one involving the band members depicted as marionettes controlled by the video’s evil girlfriend, played by Kim Smith, who’s also tormenting the guys in the action sequences. Remarkably, that’s actually her alongside Kirkpatrick and Fatone on top of the moving train. “She’s such a nice person and a trooper. She got up on the train,” Isham recalled. “Being with those guys, she had great chemistry; she was the sixth member that ties it all together. Getting Chris and Joey on top of the train, you can see how much energy and fun they had. Kim was right there next to them, working with the stunt guys.”
That was the early 2000s: Pop singers going to ridiculous lengths to tell terribly convoluted mini-stories where they got to pretend to be action heroes. The opulence was gaudy, but also kinda charming. “It was a fun time to make music videos,” Bass once said. “It was all about MTV and how can we outdo each other — but spending $1 million on a video? That was probably stupid.” Maybe, but the video was a sensation, winning several MTV Video Music Awards, although funny enough NSYNC lost the top prize to their old nemesis Eminem. Still, it’s worth noting that Sean Baker’s whole budget for Red Rocket was supposedly just a little over $1 million.
That era of boy band was nearing its end, though. NSYNC made one more album, Celebrity, before calling it quits. Backstreet Boys tried unsuccessfully to make the leap from teen pop to adult contemporary with 2005’s Never Gone, which had been their first new record in five years. And Timberlake went solo, opting for a harder sound and new image, signaling that he didn’t want to be considered a teen idol anymore. “They were great times, better than great times,” he said in 2006 about being in NSYNC, “even though, in the beginning, I was being monetarily raped by a Svengali. We were just five really lucky bastards.”
Timberlake’s former bandmates never enjoyed the same solo success, although they kept working regularly as songwriters, producers and reality-show hosts. NSYNC faded from the cultural radar, although their brand of lightweight, radio-friendly pop certainly didn’t. And those who might once have scorned bands like NSYNC, questioning their manhood or scoffing at their syrupy ballads, started to soften their stance. As music critic Robert Christgau noted while reviewing the band’s 2005 greatest-hits collection, “Long ago and far away, serious young men regarded boy groups as the direst threat to their musical way of life. But that was before September 11 taught us what a threat is and American Idol taught us what crap is.”
New megasellers like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber took over the reins from NSYNC. A fresh wave of boy bands conquered the charts. The guys in NSYNC got older, settled down, had kids. Lance Bass even started managing his own boy band. And the bigger Timberlake got, the less likely an NSYNC reunion looked. As close as we’ve gotten was a one-off back in 2013 at the MTV Video Music Awards. A couple years ago, Ariana Grande brought out the other four members during her Coachella performance, and in early 2020, there was some talk that Timberlake and the rest of the group might get back together for some tour dates.
But not unlike the Beatles, there was something perhaps better about NSYNC just letting the past be. NSYNC were never a great group, but their style of gooey, harmless hits had a catchy insistence that was hard to deny — and not trying to recapture that moment (or crassily profit off of it) seemed downright commendable, a quality we tend not to associate with crass commercial pop music. NSYNC may have been fluff, but they were never evil.
The band didn’t last, but “Bye Bye Bye” has stuck around. It’s the perfect reminder of what turn-of-the-millennium life was like, its breathless, artificial drama indicative of the seemingly carefree pre-9/11 world, before despair and darkness took over. Simply hearing those faux-ponderous strings at the song’s start, which segue into mechanized drums and blaring synths, is a passport to a far more innocent, blond-hair-streaked time.
But whether because of nostalgia or scorn, the song’s continued ubiquity speaks to its sugary essence. And Timberlake himself has indulged in it, memorably doing a 2017 Super Bowl ad with Christopher Walken for Bai that saw the Oscar-winning actor reciting some of the lyrics in a pseudo-dramatic way. The point was obvious: People loved (or, maybe more accurately, “loved”) the song’s chessiness, but Timberlake had long since graduated from those boy-band days. And having Walken intone the lyrics so gravely only underlined how flimsy they really were. (“I was like, ‘Oh my god. Maybe I should have spent more time on these words!’” Carlsson said after watching the ad.)
That all-in-good-fun ribbing also probably explains why a recent episode of Ted Lasso featured the show’s soccer team working on the dance moves from the video. “I knew the dance mostly from my time living in Amsterdam,” star and co-creator Jason Sudeikis said a couple months ago. “I worked at a sketch and improv theater there along with the two fellows that I created the show with, Brendan and Joe. And the only thing on Dutch television in English were music videos and The Nanny with Fran Drescher. … [T]hat was right when NSYNC was running the world and so I watched that video a lot.”
You’ll notice that same mocking energy play out in Red Rocket. The decision to include the song happened after Baker was impressed with Suzanna Son, who plays a young woman who Mikey has designs on. “We thought, ‘Let’s display her talent in the movie, and wrote a scene where she plays ‘Bye Bye Bye’ on the keyboard,’” Baker said, “and she does an incredible job at it.” From there, the filmmaker expanded the idea, letting the original song serve as an important emotional signpost throughout the movie, so much so that the song may become synonyms with Red Rocket for a lot of viewers.
“Bye Bye Bye” works so well in the film, in part, because NSYNC’s overheated kiss-off feels like an ironic juxtaposition to Mikey’s self-inflicted woes, although those do get more serious as the movie rolls along. Deep down, Red Rocket seems to understand what we’ve always known: “Bye Bye Bye” is a very silly song, but it’s also very fun. It taps into that aspect of ourselves that can’t resist uptempo pop music, no matter how corny it is.
It’s the same part of us that knows Mikey is terrible — he’s a fool and a user, destroying people in his path because he’s so self-centered — and yet we cannot help but be sucked into his toxic orbit. Actually, maybe Sean Baker isn’t mocking Mikey at all — maybe he’s mocking the rest of us for liking the same song as a sociopath.
Might sound crazy, but it ain’t no lie.