In the year 200, boy band ‘N Sync released their smash hit album “No Strings Attached.” It sold 2.42 million copies in its first week alone and 9.9 million by the end of the year. This was back in the era where young people still felt a practical/moral obligation to buy music rather than stealing it from the internet. Still, it was an outstanding accomplishment. Millions of people (mostly female people, is my guess) bought the album. It was one of the last enormous successes for the record industry before Napster and Limewire and BitTorrent siphoned off business by making the same goods accessible for the enticing price of zero dollars forever.
When “No Strings Attached” came out, I hated every song on it, and I knew that before I heard a single note. I simply could not like it. It was an impossibility. I had to loathe the album, because, as a fifteen year old male person with a vaguely counterculture identity (drama club, closet hip hop head) I hated everything about ‘N Sync. I hated their outfits. I hated the way they were assembled. I hated how good they were at dancing. I hated that they didn’t play instruments. But Josh, don’t rappers not play instruments either? Uhh, yeah. But rappers keep it real!!! You just don’t get it!!! Ugh!!!
So it was in assault on my entire sense of self that I could enjoy any aspect of ‘N Sync. And God help their lesser counterparts 98 Degrees, O-Town, the other ones, The Backstreet Boys (yeah, I said it). I dismissed them as prefabricated garbage without a second though, often without hearing any of their music or even being able to distinguish them from one another (a point I cited in proving their interchangeability). In fact, as the lead single “Bye Bye Bye” became the omnipresent telltale heart of my fifteen-year-old life, haunting me day and night, I added the smuggest of all critiques to my repertoire of disparagement: “Overrated.” “Oh, sure,” I would say. “They’re great dancers, and they have a couple of catchy songs, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.” Geez. What an asshole I was.
Anyway, table that discussion for a minute. One year later, rappers Nas and Jay-Z became entangled in a very public feud. While rumors of Brittney Spears’s alleged virginity or non-virginity did not intrigue me, I was captivated by the idea of a high profile hip hop beef. The rivalry allegedly began when both rappers developed close relationships with the late Notorious B.I.G. and erupted when Jay-Z affiliate Memphis Bleek called Nas out in the song “Mind Right.” At the 2001 Summer Jam concert, Jay-Z rattled off some taunts at Nas, and it was on in earnest. I read about the beef online and in “The Source” magazine. I listened to the diss tracks (Nas’s “Ether” and Jay’s “Takeover”) and tallied points for each side. Ultimately, I ruled Nas the winner.
This decision was, in retrospect, more a result of my existing bias towards what I perceived as authenticity. Nas released an unimpeachable hip hop classic (1994’s “Illmatic”) and then after an enjoyable follow-up (“It Was Written”) seemed to fall off the map a little bit. He was plagued by poor beat selection and limited commercial appeal. Hip hop fans still deemed Nas a lyrical master on par with any of the greats. Jay-Z, however, had allegedly strayed from his early tendency towards social commentary and crime narrative. His recent singles “Big Pimpin'” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” were glossy mass-appeal summer jams. So even though the beef was probably dead-eve or tilted slightly in Jay’s favor, my prejudice towards’ Nas’s career trajectory caused me to choose sides.
Fast forward two years. Jay-Z announces his “retirement” from rap and releases “The Black Album.” Critics hail it as a return to form. I buy it. It’s pretty good. Then I start thinking about it a little more. I go back and revisit Jay’s catalog. It’s all pretty good. In fact, when you go back and listen to Nas’s and Jay’s 2001 albums, Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” blows Nas’s “Stillmatic” out of the water. It’s not even a contest. It’s ridiculous.
In fact, Jay-Z’s whole career has it all over Nas’s body of work. Jay is an enormously wealthy businessperson. (“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” he has rapped.) He is married to Beyonce, an unqualified success in music as well as hotness. His former producer/protegee Kanye West is arguably the biggest star in rap music. Nas married and divorced Kelis (remember “Milkshake?”) and released a few artistically commercial and successful albums. He has had a great career. But Jay-Z may have had the greatest career in the history of rap. My high school junior angst wouldn’t let me see that. I realized that when he “retired” I was going to miss his breezy, bouncy summer singles more than I would ever look forward to a new Nas record.
So what’s the lesson? Is this just another instance where I diatribe about 10-year-old rap records? No. Here’s the point. Sometimes when a lot of people like something, it’s because it’s good. When people sing “Living on a Prayer” at karaoke, it’s not because they’ve been brainwashed into loving Bon Jovi. It’s because you can sing the hell out of that chorus. And everyone sings along. Lots of people love Harry Potter. Because magic is fun! And the stories move along! And they’re all cute young people! And there’s nothing wrong with that!
Recently someone quoted a lyric to ‘N Sync’s slow jam “God Must Have Spent a Little More Time On You,” and I realized…hey, that’s kind of a sweet thing to say about someone. And I went back and considered their other popular songs. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t suck in the way I remembered. Some of them actually sounded kind of good. But I don’t think I could have admitted that until I made my breakthrough ruling in the case of Nas v. Jay-Z. No record sales could convince me that ‘N Sync made some enjoyable music. I had to come to that realization on my own. It’s like Blink-182 (a pop-punk outfit I deemed artistically meritless) said…”I guess this is growing up.”
Sure, there are still lots of things that people are in favor of that stink. Segregation used to be very popular. Nickelback still is. But I’ve learned that mainstream success doesn’t make something unenjoyable. It’s the opposite. Maybe it means that whatever it is is at least worth a look. And that ain’t no lie.
Bye Bye Bye,