In the pop music market these days, boys just want to be boys -- but not necessarily in boy bands.
New solo albums by the youngest members of the two most successful male vocal troupes of the past five years – 'NSync's Justin Timberlake and Backstreet Boys' Nick Carter -- have certainly set teen hearts aflutter. But they've also raised questions about the future of their respective groups and of the health of pop music in general, which is by all appearances on the wane as rappers and harder rocking heroes such as Avril Lavigne, Pink and others curry the favor of younger ears.
Naysayers to the contrary, however, both singers feel that any reports of their demise -- or their genres -- are greatly exaggerated.
"The thing about pop -- pop changes," says Carter, 22, who released "Now or Never" last Oct. 29. "Of course it's gonna change from what we were and what we've done ... It's already changing, really. I don't mind having to go out there and prove myself and do something different."
Timberlake, 21 -- who brings out "Justified" on Nov. 5 -- agrees that "music is ever-evolving" and, in that evolution, "hip-hop has become the new pop...The bubble-gum sound -- I don't think people want to hear that anymore," he notes.
The audience for that music certainly seems to be diminishing -- though the numbers are still in the impressive multi-platinum range. But Backstreet Boys' last studio album, 2000's "Black & Blue," sold 5 million copies fewer than its 1999 predecessor, "Millennium."
And 'NSync's 2001 set "Celebrity" sold less than half of 2000's "No Strings Attached."
But Timberlake also argues that he and NSYNC were already pursuing a kind of artistic growth on "Celebrity."
"Songs like 'Gone' and 'Girlfriend,' those aren't bubblegum songs," Timberlake says. "Those come from different influences. I think our music was beginning to evolve in different ways. The challenge is just...for people to hear it like that."
That will be no small feat. Because of their litany of hits, massive sales and ubiquitous mass media presence, 'NSync and Backstreet Boys are potentially locked in images that could be beyond their control. That will undoubtedly make it tougher for Timberlake and Carter to establish separate identities away from their groups.
"It's about doing something different, or doing something that has been done before but is twisted up, and that's hard to do," says Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, the production team that handled 'NSync's "Girlfriend" and collaborated on much of Timberlake's album.
"People have to listen to music with an open mind; you can't draw these conclusions before checking the (music) out. A lot of people already have their idea of what these guys are about, and it's gonna be hard for them to shake that."
Compounding the challenge is the appearance of "Justified" and "Now Or Never" in such close proximity to each other. Timberlake and Carter say the timing is coincidental, but even as they voice kind words for each other's albums they clearly recognize that the competition casts a different perspective on each of their projects.
"I won't lie -- this is a very interesting situation," Carter acknowledges. "It just kinda happened because it happened; I really have always wanted to do it, and I guess (Timberlake) always wanted to do it, too. As long as he creates good music and stays true to himself, that's all that matters 'cause that's where I'm at right now."
Timberlake, meanwhile, feels that comparing the two albums is "kind of lazy."
"If you listen to (Carter's single) 'Help Me' and (Timberlake's) 'Like I Love You,' they're two totally different songs and you can tell we're two totally different artists," says the "Mickey Mouse Club" veteran, who's been logging time in gossip columns with the end of his relationship with fellow singer Britney Spears and a reported romance with Janet Jackson -- one of "Justified's" guests.
"It's like comparing Coldplay to the Vines; they're just two totally different things. So anyone who does compare it, I would have to say 'Go listen to it again.'"
On "Justified," Timberlake pursues an edgier, R&B-oriented route than Carter's more straightforward pop-rock path. The first single, "Like I Love You" has been compared to '80s-vintage Michael Jackson, and the Memphis-raised Timberlake -- who co-wrote all 13 of the album's songs -- acknowledges a fondness for more groove-oriented kinds of music.
"I can't put a finger on why I picked that type of music to influence me," he says. "It's just something that kind of inspired me. There's something inside it I really felt in...Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. When I talk about Donny Hathaway, he felt every word he was saying; he lived in the music that he wrote and recorded.
"That, to me, is the essence of being a true artist."
The Neptunes' Hugo -- no fan of "the boy-band craze" himself -- says that Timberlake "dug deep" in making "Justified."
"The kid's talented, and he can pull it off," Hugo says. "When we were driving around, we weren't listening to pop music. We were listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye.
"Then we'd get in the studio, and here's this white boy singing that (stuff); it was kind of crazy."
Carter, meanwhile, thinks that the slightly harder rocking direction of "Now Or Never" will come as a revelation to the fans he courted with Backstreet Boys.
"I'm very rock influenced; I can name thousands of bands I love," Carter says, citing acts such as Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Bon Jovi, Brian Adams, Nazareth and Journey.
"I'm sure a lot of people are gonna be like 'Oh, he came from the Backstreet Boys and he has this image. What is he trying to do?' They don't realize I got into this business at such a young age, but even from the beginning I was into rock. Of course my views and stuff are gonna change; that's because I grew up."
Like Timberlake, Carter writes on his solo album, chipping in on five of the album's songs.
"I didn't know I could actually write a record by myself until I got into the studio for this one," he says. "I really don't think I'm a great writer yet. I'm kind of at the tip of the iceberg, I think."
Despite their solo ambitions, Carter and Timberlake say they'll return to their respective groups -- probably some time next year. But they predict that it will be important for NSYNC and Backstreet Boys to adjust their sounds to the times and not take for granted that the millions who have screamed for them before will be interested.
"I know for a fact when we come back to make another NSYNC record, everybody's gonna have these other ideas," Timberlake says. "The challenge is going to be trying to get a certain kind of focus on a certain kind of sound. I think we'll rise to the challenge."
Carter, meanwhile, says that the older members of Backstreet Boys need to be braced for a change as well.
"I want to do another album, but we're gonna definitely have to change some things around when it comes to the music," he says.
"Hopefully I can bring a new vibe to the band. It's almost like somebody stepping out of their family for a little bit and going to college or something, increasing their knowledge towards whatever they want.
"And that's what I'm doing now. I'm expanding my horizons."