Taking a closer look at *NSYNC’s ‘No Strings Attached’ album cover on the record’s 19th anniversary.
Album Art Deep Dive is a new BreatheHeavy RX series where we analyze iconic single and album covers. It’s especially important to cherish these precious gems considering most music is no longer released in physical format. Digital culture demands artists produce music at light speed, and somewhere along the way the importance of artistic covers became secondary to churn rate. It’s not right, and we’re here to shed light on covers that stood the test of time.
March 21st, marks the 19th anniversary of *NSYNC’s sophomore album, No Strings Attached. The album sold 2.4 million albums in its first week (1.1 million albums on opening first day) and topped the Billboard 200 for eight consecutive weeks. It soundtracked our adolescence and emphatically influenced pop music, but more importantly… was an empowering step for the boyband’s artistic and financial freedom.
On the cover, shot by world-renowned photographer Mark Seliger, Justin Timberlake, JC Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone and Lance Bass are pictured hanging from strings in a puppet theater. The name, No Strings Attached, although liberating, is a big F U aimed at the band’s former manager, Lou Pearlman. Pearlman is the centerpiece in YouTube’s new documentary, The Boy Band Con, which details Pearlman’s devious business handlings of *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, O-Town and other early 2000s pop acts.
Pearlman, who died while serving his prison sentence, was in charge of one of the longest-running Ponzi schemes ever, stealing more than $300 million from the pockets of successful boy bands. The guys have mixed feelings about Pearlman. The overarching consensus (minus Aaron Carter) is that he was selfishly maniacal, but if it weren’t for him they might not have ever tasted superstardom. Joey Fatone said “Lou was a good businessman for himself… but he brought us together.”
For the No Strings Attached shoot, Jackie Murphy was VP of design. Nick Gamma was the shoot’s senior art director.
Murphy directed productions for dozens of other epic album cover artworks, including Britney Spears’ In The Zone, Circus, Blackout & Femme Fatale albums, Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, as well as *NSYNC’s followup, Celebrity, among many others.
Gamma gave BreatheHeavy the scoop on how the art was conceptualized and what he and the guys wanted people to take away from it.
“[No Strings Attached] was a nod to the fact that they were no longer at RCA. Clive Calder (not Davis), the owner of Jive Records, found a loophole in the RCA contract and basically stole them from RCA. I think the idea behind the puppets was to show them as they felt before breaking free,” he said.
“Initially when we started to photograph them for the cover, we wanted to do it all in one take. We brought in stage techs that specialized in harnessing the guys from above. We actually had them all hanging from the ceiling together but we couldn’t get them to stay still. Hanging five guys from the ceiling at the same time was a bit tricky. They kept horsing around, kicking and pushing each other. We eventually had to have them hang from the ceiling individually, then we put it together in post. This gave us more choices to work from.”
Gamma added: “The cool part was seeing the album design come to life in the ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ video when they become dolls. The boxes that they break out of are based my design. Then to make it even better, they ended up producing actual dolls that came in those same boxes.”
Gamma also had an interesting side story to share.
“I was asked to design the cover for ‘BYE BYE BYE’ on short notice and I needed to get approval from the band. NSYNC was wrapping up a long tour and their last date was in Hawaii during New Years Eve 2000. So Jive flew me out with my girlfriend Heidi (now wife) out to meet with them to go over designs, make adjustments and get the final approval. After that last performance they were all on vacation so… getting their approval was critical.
The No Strings Attached cover art wasn’t the only glorious tribute to the guys’ superstardom. The booklet featured a circus carnival theme that was certainly an interpretation of their chaotic life in the fast lane. It features headshots of the band, thank you letters, the songs’ lyrics & publishing notes, and a list of crew members.
The No Strings Attached art wasn’t just five dudes literally hanging out, it was a defiant and rebellious answer to something unjust. Pop stars are often portrayed as powerless beings with their sole purpose being to entertain us, and *NSYNC was very aware of that. Their rise to fame was met with unfair handlings, but in the end it was them pulling the strings.