As a teenager in the late 90s and early 2000s, I had enough problems, including pimples, my parents’ divorce, and figuring out how to pull off a German accent for my school play. I didn’t have time for actual sex and romance. Instead, I needed vague, non-threatening man-boys who sang and danced in perfectly choreographed harmony.
Luckily, I was an early millennial, which meant I had more boy bands to pick from than the current generation has Kardashians. After flirting with the Backstreet Boys, I settled comfortably into NSYNC fandom. My friend Heather was also a fan, although we didn’t have any special name for our fandom. In recent history, fans of One Direction referred to themselves as “Directioners,” but things weren’t as organized back then. Heather and I both still logged onto the Internet using AOL and a landline phone; we didn’t have time to think of cute nicknames. Even now, typing this from a wireless Internet connection in an apartment, the only name I can think of is NSyncophants, and that’s not exactly flattering.
Still, that didn’t stop us from talking about the band every chance we got, generally over AOL Instant Messenger (or AIM, as the cool kids called it). Heather’s favorite guy was JC; I was partial to Lance. But at some point, we started repeating ourselves. There were only so many ways for us to analyze the cover of CosmoGirl featuring the boys holding adorable puppies, and only so many ways for reporters to ask the guys, “Would you ever date a fan?”
So when we ran out of material, I started creating my own.
I don’t have copies of the stories anymore. But the plots, at least as far as there were plots, went something like this: Heather, me, or both of us struggled with adversity. NSYNC came along, and, if they didn’t fix our problems, they at least made it better by telling us we were great. And singing, of course. There had to be singing.
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When I was feeling ambitious, I wrote my own songs for the guys to sing to Heather and me. I’m in my early thirties now, yet I can remember the chorus to “Your Love is Like Polish Sausage” more clearly than I can remember prom night: “Your love is like Polish sausage/except not greasy and with less calories/your love is like Polish sausage/It’s lethal and it brings me to my knees/more potent than the power of cheese.”
It’s not great, but it’s not terrible for a 16-year-old who wrote it because she wanted to compare love to food. I expected to cringe a little when I typed the lyrics out, but instead I laughed the same way I laugh now when “Bye Bye Bye” comes onto the radio and I remember the exact spot in the music video where the guys performed simultaneous pelvic thrusts.
The whole boy band fan fiction thing was a way of figuring out what I could get away with, and I don’t mean lyrically. I had crushes on boys I went to school with, but the idea of writing stories about them mortified me, because what if they found out? Then I would have to deal with the fact that they didn’t like me back. I wanted someone to care about me, but I didn’t want to have to risk anything to get that affection. NSYNC broke up in 2002, and a few years later, Justin Timberlake had gone solo and figured out how to bring sexy back, while I was still trying to puzzle out how to bring sexy anywhere. I’d like to say writing the fan fiction gave me all the confidence I needed, but it was just an early step in what turned out to be a complicated process.
On TV, I saw girls screaming and throwing themselves at Justin and JC and Lance and Joey and Chris, and I felt a little secondhand embarrassment. Sure, it was fun to imagine being the same room as the guys, but what on earth would I say to them?: “Hey, have you guys ever thought of singing more songs about Central European meats?” So I wrote a fantasy version of our meetings that was as silly as possible. I set one story at the fast food restaurant where Heather worked, and I made sure to include a fryer accident that was as cartoonish as possible. I did everything short of adding a note at the top of each story that said, “This is all a joke! I don’t trust my own desires, LOL!” And why would I? Between abstinence-only education and my parents’ awful marriage, I was getting the message loud and clear: love and sex were unreliable. Wanting them was a sign of weakness. Maybe writing the silly little stories was my way of protesting, my way of saying, “I may not like whatever this is, but it does still exist.” It was a way to feel normal, and that felt like a small act of rebellion. (The stories, by the way, were quite chaste; I don’t even think I included kissing.)
I didn’t realize until later just how much faith I must have had in Heather to show her these stories. True, she was pretty much the only person who would want to read them. She thought they were funny, and she didn’t treat me like a weirdo for writing them. It was one of the kindest things she could have done for me. We’re still friends today, and she’s still kind and thoughtful.
Nowadays, fan fiction is so popular that there are websites devoted to exclusively to sharing it. People of all ages are writing it for all sorts of reasons. I haven’t tried it in a while, but the teenage version of me who did still exists somewhere. Perhaps it’s in the part of me that still knows the lyrics to almost every NSYNC song by heart. Heather does too. If we somehow manage to die at the exact same time and place, we could probably go out singing every verse of “Bye Bye Bye” plus the bridge.
One of the best/worst songs in the NSYNC discography is “Giddy Up” from their self-titled debut album. It’s very much in the “I have been wronged by a beautiful lady” pop song tradition. For some reason, Heather and I latched onto one line from the song: “Girl, were you alone?” We must have instant-messaged, “Girl, were you alone?” to each other dozens, if not hundreds, of times. Whoever received the message would respond in the silliest way possible. If I sent Heather the message, she would often say JC was with her. If she sent me the message, I would reply that Lance was with me.
We knew, of course, that the other girl wasn’t hanging out with any members of NSYNC. But even if we couldn’t say it, we also knew that we weren’t alone.
Featured photo from NSYNC album cover via BMG