*NSYNC’s Joey Fatone teams with Backstreet Boy AJ McLean in Temecula

I’m a child of the 90s. When Backstreet Boys let loose their self-titled album in 1997, I was in third grade — their target audience. I had already been primed by Aqua and Spice Girls, bumping everything from Jock Jams to Ace of Base… before boy band mania hit, right as Leo went down with the Titanic. What followed was an explosion of seemingly endless bubblegum pop groups.

But among the “wannabes” and the 98ยบ was one boy band on Backstreet’s heels that rivaled them hit for hit.

Of course I’m talking about *NYSNC. Unlike Backstreet Boys, who seemed to kind of ‘match’, *NSYNC was different… more of a motley crew of personalities, thrown into one pleather package. There was Justin, with his tight blonde curls and slick swagger, and JC, who seemed to be able to talk to your soul through his eyes in every music video. Chris Kirkpatrick had those ridiculous black-and-white braids while Lance had the reserved, yet-go-with-the-flow kind of aura — always smiling, never really talking much. Then, there was Joey Fatone, whose red-tipped spiked up hair and gold chains could’ve easily had him mistaken for a member of Limp Bizkit.

The media always had the two groups pitted against each other: it was BBB or NSYNC, Britney or Christina. But for me, finishing up my elementary years, I remained loving it all. I even caught me a Backstreet concert when they passed through Boise touring their Millennium album (although unfortunately never got to see *NSYNC, sigh). But, before I knew waht happened, everything changed; I transitioned into junior high in 2001 and it was ‘cool’ to like Incubus, Linkin Park, Reel Big Fish — NOT B*Witched. Luckily, both BBB and *NSYNC released their third and final albums that year, making the death of pop (at least for me) a natural transition.

But once you start out as a child of pop, “b-baby, baby, you can’t stop”.

When I found out that 1/5 of *NSYNC was performing with 1/5 of Backstreet Boys, I knew it would be 100% awesome. That’s just how math works. Two days after Justin Timberlake surprised the world with an unannounced *NSYNC concert in Los Angeles, Joey Fatone headed southeast to the smaller inland city of Temecula, California, where he joined AJ McLean onstage for Night One of their one-night spectacular… well, one night that turned into two nights at Pechanga Casino and had another 29 cities to go. If any of the attendees were like me, the question was “WTH will these two actually be performing??”. I didn’t care, though; I’ll make the drive to wine country and back — in the rain, as it turned out — for two men of 10 I had plastered all over my walls in my childhood room. Man, how I miss those Teen Beat spreads…

When I got inside the arena, there was already a wily group of women woo-ing to every throwback song the deejay was spinning. And that deejay looked familiar… Not really paying attention, there was an obvious theme to the warmup, going from mid-90s jams to the mid-2000s with the likes of Smash Mouth and LFO. While the sharp-dressed deejay sang along, all smiles, the group of women on the rail kept yelling for him to play “Ryan Cabrera”. Thinking I was randomly surrounded on all fronts by Cabrera fans, it didn’t click in my head til the deejay said “and this is something I released 20 years ago” fading into “On The Way Down”. Holy crap, it IS Ryan Cabrera!

Leading up to Joey and AJ taking the stage, a woman looking official came out waving a satin sticker in hand.

Ryan Cabrera was whispered something that made his face light up. Into the mic, Cabrera let it be known that another “Couch Pass” was up for grabs! The recipient of such a coveted pass would be able to sit on a couch with Joey and AJ onstage for part of the show. The place erupted. Cabrera, after weighing the tough decision, awarded a girl on the rail who had been singing and dancing since the minute she walked in the place. Pays to have a good time!

As the band took the stage (and I’m talking full band, dressed to the nines), Joey Fatone entered stage left singing the opening lyrics to “Pop”, an obvious choice for a crowd who never gave up their love for the genre. But where was AJ? Coming up through the crowd, singing in stride with Fatone. Oh, how glorious this night was already turning out to be! The two went into further BBB and *NSYNC larger than life hits, including “Larger Than Life”, “I Want You Back”, and BBB’s first-ever single “As Long As You Love Me”.

As AJ took a breather, Joey took centerstage for a jazzy, stripped down, Frank Sinatra-esque rendition of “Tearin’ Up My Heart”. Then, taking a break from their hits of yesteryear, the two turned their attention to hit songs of television, asking the audience to try and “stump” them and their band with obscure show jingles. Apparently the boys never watched Living Single although I was impressed they knew the theme to Gummy Bears… AJ then performed his latest solo single “Electric”, forging out into the audience to get them hyped. It was then time for the “Couch Pass” call… if you weren’t onstage at that point, you were jealous.

But what was the real kicker of the evening? When AJ McLean came clean.

People look at pop celebrities as if they are perfect — living on top of the world as a separate caste of human. Well, come to find out, celebrities are normal people, too. AJ confided in the audience that he has always struggled with his self-esteem (which you would never think possible), leading him to substance abuse for most of his adult life. After the conclusion of Backstreet‘s DNA Tour last year, AJ explained how he took an extended sabbatical in Arizona to care for his mental health, checking into a facility for help and guidance. Proudly, he stated how he’s been sober for two-and-a-half years (which led to ferocious cheers)… but what he’s trying to do now is get to the root of the issue; the “drugs and drinking were just the symptoms”. Now in my mid-30s and on my own mental health crusade, AJ’s message of sobriety, similar diagnoses, and self-awareness almost moved me to tears. It was REAL — possibly the first genuine thing I’ve ever heard a popstar say. In this stage of life, he’s focused on “authenticity”: thus far, the world has known him as “AJ”, but now, he wants everyone to meet “ALEX”. My jaw dropped. This wasn’t a trying-to-sell-records, interview-on-TRL, RealWorld-confessional kind of monologue that we’ve heard time and time again growing up; this is something new, something evolved. Self-awareness is replacing self-importance… and I like it.

AJ/Alex went on to do more tracks off his forthcoming EP (that will eventually turn into an album later this year). Considering the growth it took to get to this album, I highly suggest you check it out when it’s available. Will AJ/Alex continue to fly solo? Perhaps. Will Joey Fatone get on the road with the rest of the *NSYNC boys for a long overdue reunion tour? Let’s hope so. Regardless of BBB or *NSYNC futures, it’s clear that both of these players deserve to be recognized in their own right.

Photography by Kristy Rose

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