Two to get ready, and four to go

The race is on. Well, not really. With The New York Times effectively ringing the Backstreet Boys death knell in last month's extensive investigation, "The Lost Boys: How a Pop Sensation Came Undone," and both 'N Sync and the Boys fading into their terrible 20s of pedestrian environmental concerns, Broadway flubbing and space travel, the race may seem more of a solemn stroll to inevitable obscurity.

Nonetheless, this fall brings the golden boys of each group (blond, that is), Nick Carter and Justin Timberlake, into their predictable solo posturing, each with recorded debuts shelving in late October.

Are you still watching? Me neither.

But clearly some wider-hipped rubbernecks are, setting the Internet alight with speculation as to just which towhead will ultimately deserve your welfare money, and whether their host collectives will survive the manicured mutiny.

What's interesting about this -- and believe me, very little is interesting about this -- is the deep-seated rivalry instilled in these boys since way back at Lou Pearlman's first indigestive grumble of "'N Sync." The New York Times clarifies the obvious in recounting the leverage issue inherent in creating a second boyband in the first's image at right about the time the Boys were in bratty management negotiations with Pearlman and their current company, The Firm.

'N Sync's eventual exodus in precisely the same manner, to precisely the same management and record company (Jive), only added irony to the tragicomedy. But the Backstreet Boys' ultimate decline into some sci-fi-sheathed adult entity, peddling couplet balladry and increasingly irrelevant attacks on the industry itself, had people screaming breakup just in time for a greatest-hits retrospective last year.

Enter Nick Carter alone, then. Last we heard of the smelly one, he was falling out of a Tampa police car, wet with tears of the "Do you know who I am?" variety. Bandmate Kevin Richardson went public with allegations that Carter has a temper, noting his "swinging phase" and its due concern. The Nick Carter solo career already smells of desperation, right down to its album title, Now or Never, and its even more telling single, "Help Me."

"Help me figure out the future ... " croons the disheveled princess.

Pass the Kleenex. It only hurts when I laugh.

Our Nick is off on a Pink-style soul search, adopting a mock-singer/songwriter ruse that might cuff John Mayer's cords. "Yeah, I wanted to put more guitars in it, definitely," he sold to "Just different, just very different. I've been playing guitar lately and, you know I'm probably going to start playing when I perform onstage."

Bravo. More reverse growth from fame to music is promised, although holing up in summer-camp-style with tried-and-true Swedish mood manipulator Max Martin hardly qualifies as revelation.

Timberlake's attending a different camp, altogether: a soul-exploitation camp. Following the lead of the Neptunes overwrought production of 'N Sync's "Celebrity," Timberlake is logging studio time with Raphael Saadiq, Rodney Jerkins, Brian McKnight, Angie Stone and P Diddy for his more hopefully titled opus, "Justified." A performance of its lead track, "Like I Love You," saw Timberlake prancing out of an oversized boom box on "MTV Video Music Awards 2002," mining b-boy cool in a Cab Calloway fedora.

Obvious? Clearly.

With both singles hitting radio this week, both via Jive and The Firm management, the rivalry seems to have hit a fever pitch. Unofficial fan polls show Carter in the sentimental lead, but radio spins have Timberlake ahead by three times the plays.


The two reportedly brushed shoulders recently in the Jive offices, recounts an "insider" on

"Justin was here [at the Jive building] to meet with a few executives. ... Later that morning, while Justin was in the meeting, Nick arrived to see the same executives. Of course, Justin's meeting was running late and Nick was annoyed. When Justin finally appeared, he noticed Nick waiting and greeted him with a sly smirk and kept walking."

Even worse, some insider reports indicate that Jive is actually reluctant to release the Carter record, saying that it is "such a disappointment," and that Timberlake's offering is "amazing. He is going to be huge."

Hopefully not as huge as Carter, who notably aged from cute blond imp into flabby Craig Kilbourne behemoth in a mere three years.

Oh, wait. Did I say that?

Meanwhile, the Backstreet Boys are readying the release of their seemingly posthumous full-length for next year, on which Nick is rumored to be only slightly involved.

"They never threatened me to leave the group, like I heard people say," he recently told Brazilian magazine Capricho. "My God, I don't know. As far as I know, they're happy for me, my solo career."

As far as I know, nobody's happy ... and nobody cares. Help me.

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