There is a magic kingdom in Orlando. A place where dreams come true. Where childhood fantasies catch fire in the Florida sun. And Mickey doesn’t matter.
A few hundred strip malls north of Disney World, in a bleak industrial park, lies the new capital of pop music. Here, behind a stucco wall and a freshly painted Dumpster, sits the hit factory known as O-Town, the $6 million recording and rehearsal complex that has helped turn the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, and Britney Spears into bubblegum demigods. Over the past two years, these teen sensations have sold 30 million albums, generated five top 10 singles, and flogged merchandise (bedspreads, halter tops, etc.) to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars Forget Epcot Center; pubescent pop is the biggest E-ticket in town. ”This teen stuff isn’t just driving the music business,” says one Elektra Records executive, ”it is the music business.”
The air-conditioned offices of O-Town are also home to Louis J. Pearlman and Johnny Wright, the twin puppeteers — Pearlman is the deep-pocketed financier behind BSB and ‘N Sync, Wright the rainmaking manager of ‘N Sync and Spears — who profit from this teen spirit. With so much success at one address, you might expect this to be the happiest place on earth. Unfortunately, it’s fishier than Sea World: Lawsuits and the faint smell of exploitation taint the humid air. Last summer, the Boys essentially ran away from home, alleging, among other hardships, that Pearlman pocketed 43 percent of their profits (the group says it earned $300,000 to Pearlman’s $7.5 million); Wright and Spears, Billboard‘s current chart queen, can each claim suits of their own. Orlando may be the epicenter of the teen-pop explosion, but this magic kingdom has a nasty grown-up streak.
This Friday afternoon, the center of the pop-music universe has temporarily shifted to a tiny studio in Burbank. ‘N Sync are recording their third album here with Grammy-winning songwriter Diane Warren (”How Do I Live”) and French-born producer Guy Roche (Celine Dion). On the lonely side of a glass panel, Justin Timberlake, 18, is laying down the intro to a ballad called ”That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You.”
”When winter comes in summer/When there’s no more forever/That’s when I’ll stop loving you,” he coos, dropping a buttery Mariah Carey-esque ad-lib as the drums kick in.
”It’s a hit already,” gushes Warren. Roche looks at Timberlake and offers his own review: ”I see panties flying!”
If past performance is any indication, stock in Hanes is about to go through the roof. In the past year, ‘N Sync — Timberlake (the looks); Chris Kirkpatrick, 27 (the braids); JC Chasez, 22 (the energy); Lance Bass, 19 (the manners); and Joey Fatone, 22 (the goatee) — have hijacked the teen-pop throne formerly secured by boy-band rivals the Backstreet Boys. The group’s self-titled debut album (sweetened by the top 10 single ”I Want You Back” and the radio hit ”Tearin’ Up My Heart”) and Home for Christmas, a quickie holiday follow-up, have sold in excess of 7 million copies. The panty problem is no joke. ”We have fans who know my underwear size,” Timberlake says. ”People come with signs that say ‘JC, Drop Your Pants!’ That’s funny to us.”