The memo arrived by e-mail:
"It's time to get on the phone with the guys from 'NSync. The 'NSync teleprint conference call has been confirmed for Monday October 9th from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Questions will be answered in the order that they are dialed in. Once the last writer has asked their question, the process will start over again. Please keep your questions focused on 'NSync's tour and upcoming projects. The guys from 'NSync will be split up into 2 groups. Please do not ask to be put on with any one specific band member."
Having never spoken with any member of the chart-dominating boy band before, I figured this might be a hoot. If nothing else it would at least impress a couple of nieces, whose estimation of their uncle may have risen a couple of points when I got them in to see a couple of 'NSync shows in the recent past.
But that "It's time to get on the phone with..." thing sounded a little too much like the note you'd get from a car dealership telling you it's time for your 40,000-mile checkup or from the dentist. And the notion that interviewers shouldn't ask to be grouped with a specific band member spoke volumes. The charge that the guys -- Lance Bass, Joey Fatone, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, and Justin Timberlake -- are interchangeable may be anathema to fans, but the next 45 minutes on the phone with three of them would prove it unquestionably true.
I found myself in a group of 10 to 15 journalists, most from daily papers in the cities the band would be visiting soon, plus a few national publications (including Tiger Beat!). We were instructed to hit "*1" when we had a question and told that we would get to ask our questions in the order we dialed in.
The worst thing was that we were allowed to ask only one question -- occasionally someone would try for a follow-up and succeed, but mostly if we tried to engage the guys in any meaningful discussion, we'd get cut off, and they'd move on to the next questioner, who, chances are, had something else entirely on his or her mind.
The advantage of this format for 'NSync is obvious: Not only can they blow out a huge number of interviews in an hour's time, but they can keep things, for the most part, light and fluffy. By and large the journalists acquiesced in this -- "What color is Joey's hair these days?" one person asked, a seeming waste of the energy it took to dial *1. Other folks asked things such as "What is in heavy rotation on the band's tour bus?" (This Is Spinal Tap on DVD) and "Is it important for the band to keep a sense of humor about itself?" ("Yes.")
But at least one journalist had better things on her mind: She asked the band whether they use taped vocal tracks on stage. Chasez's stumbling but ultimately revealing answer was entertaining.
"Well, we never use them on the lead vocals," he said. "You know, sometimes if -- we might use them on the backgrounds a bit, but never for like -- I mean, for -- we don't usually use them for -- well, we never use them for a cappella. But for the dance numbers, sometimes we'll use them, and in the fast songs, yes. But it's not -- that's not what's riding in the forefront. I mean, everybody wants to hear the -- you know, how the song itself and the leads and everything like that. And those are always live."
After Fatone pleaded the case for using tapes -- "When you're performing, you do get sort of winded," he said -- Chasez attempted a little damage control: "The only time it's controversial is when you're not singing your song, when you're not singing the leads. The background vocals are really an ambiance to the song anyway."
So here's a stock tip: Buy Memorex.
I tried to find out what they think of what's written about them by critics -- in some cases, by the very people to whom they were speaking. I thought it might be a good chance for them to call one (or more) of us a major-league asshole to his or her face (more or less). Instead Bass gave an audible shrug of an answer, saying they don't pay attention to reviews unless a journalist points something out about the show that they already know. Oh well.
My second question -- in a 45-minute call, I got to ask a grand total of three -- produced the only real news of the day, besides the backing-tape issue. "Are plans still moving forward for you guys to do a film?" I asked, knowing that this had been under discussion for some time. "And can you give us any details?" (See, I was sneaky and asked two questions at once.)
Bass said they would be doing a film though the Screen Actors Guild strike had brought things to a halt. But they had decided on a project and were having a script written.
Throwing caution to the wind, I asked again for details before my line was cut off. "Most likely it's Grease III," Bass said.
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"Grease III?" I wanted to shout. "Grease fucking III?" What suicidal maniac is guiding your career these days? I wondered. But by then we had moved on, and the next questioner was asking whether the guys had solo projects in the works.
I reported the movie project on wallofsound.com, and for a couple of days, the story had legs. At one point John Travolta stepped in, saying there was no way 'NSync would be doing Grease III, because they didn't own the rights to it. Why they would want to -- well, that's a question for another teleconference, isn't it?
And so we moved on to pressing questions such as "What is your favorite part about being on tour?" -- this from Discovery Girls magazine, which is targeted at 8- to 12-year-old girls. Fatone: "You sleep more." "If you could switch places with any other performer for a day, who would it be, and why? (from Bop magazine). Chasez: "Bruce Springsteen, because his vocal cords are insured for, like, 6 million bucks. I'd just call in with a sore throat." (Fatone would be Lenny Kravitz.) And this from Tiger Beat: "What would you most like to get stuffed inside your stocking this Christmas?" Joey: "Love, true love."
OK, enough. It's asking too much to want to glean any actual information from one of these things, but the least we can do is call them out on how lame it is to do teleconferences instead of actual interviews that have some give-and-take. God knows a band with nothing to sell but sizzle wouldn't want to give out any information about themselves that they can package, sell, and hope to have stuffed in their fans' Christmas stockings -- or maybe somewhere else.