In America, the only thing more contentious than politics is pop music.
Pop music—the stuff that’s mainstream but not hip-hop, urban, rock, dance, or anything else that might give it a shred of cred on another chart—is highly controversial, its high profile always eliciting fervent and unqualified reactions both in support and disdain. The music’s accessibility is either read as a sign of populism—the apple of democratic values—or formulism—an emblem of the numbing effects of a cookie cutter-prone music biz. Moreover, because some critics often go after pop for its apparent lack of the elements necessary to make music worth its salt (such as artists adept at instruments, guitars, or a largely male fan base), championing the sheer joy created by listening to pop music often resembles chalking up the nutritional value of Twinkies. Unlike rock, pop fans have to argue for the music, justify their appreciation, and somehow explain how to listen to it as something heartier than fluff. Even this introduction, in a way, is a testament to the dangerous terrain that a potential pop enthusiast faces.
Especially dangerous indeed: the subject currently at issue is JC Chasez, who is one of the most, if not the most, difficult pop icons to defend. A recent addition to the solo artist circuit, Mr. Chasez has two humungous strikes against him: 1) he was a member of the widely hated (or else, unabashedly adored/ironically appreciated) boy band (boo! hiss!) *NSYNC; and 2) he has released his solo album in the wake of the outstanding success of his former groupmate Justin Timberlake. Thus discussing Chasez on his own merit is a difficult task indeed. To mix metaphors, homeboy is not only plagued by a 900-pound gorilla, but he’s got an albatross around his neck and there’s a huge pink elephant chilling up in his crib.
But while undoubtedly informed by these markers, Chasez’s Schizophrenic (Jive, 2004) far transcends them to be, quite simply, an ambitious, creative, and highly enjoyable endeavor, so above and beyond the aforementioned output that comparison seems silly. If J.T. has been likened by some to Michael Jackson—as much for his saucy singing and dance spasms as for his appeals across the racial divide—then JC has his roots with none other than Prince: soulful flows that meld seamlessly with post-orgasmic screams, race (and gender and sexuality) so fucked that the issue becomes moot. And like the notorious Artist, Chasez unties pop’s straightlaces to become something not only naughtier but also far more subversive. While remaining firmly seated in its traditions (which these days mandate firm nods to hip-hop, R&B, dance, rock, and electronic motifs), his mélange is so varied that it also unhinges them. For a listener, the album demands a wide and varied listening palette. For a performer, it demands and even wider one, not to mention a hugely flexible performing capabilities.
Such diversity, breadth, and dynamism were on full display during his go at New York’s Roseland Ballroom. Though the club was shockingly underattended, what it lacked in volume it made up in variety, running the gamut from yuppie to groupie and hipster to hippie. And Chasez’s years of performing multiple nights to crowds ten times as large were put to good use. Complete with dancers, costume changes, lights, and props, Chasez crossed the line from sheer musician to pure entertainer, justifying at every turn the somewhat steep $35 ticket price. Even the somewhat canned jokes gave the night an air of professionalism. If the music business is a circus, Chasez set out to produce The Greatest Show on Earth.
All of this is just gravy, however, when coupled with the monstrous force of Chasez as a vocalist. Opening the night with single “All Day Long I Dream About Sex”, Chasez thrusted, jerked, and pumped his way through an aerobic set, both physically as well as vocally. His voice is, without question, a miracle: elastic and tough, it can move from curdling to coddling in an instant, pushing the limits of what one would think is humanely possible. “If You Were My Girl”‘s excitable screams, for instance, did not bruise him for the night’s sweeter fare; the ballads and slow songs which followed it were as downy as lullabies. Indeed, as Schizophrenic‘s variance presented a potentially tough pool of songs to draw from, Chasez’s steadfast vocals marked a parallel between them that was at once dynamic and constant. Chasez can sing. He can sing anything-any style, any genre, any speed. And apparently, any order, on record or in real time.
The show promoted most of Schizophrenic, but a cover of “Let’s Go Crazy” solidified Chasez’s kinship with the Velvet One. Though the reference clearly seemed to be lost on the bulk of the crowd, most of whom were skirting just below their 20s. No matter: another truism of a Chasez concert is that his is a fanbase of believers, willing to go with him through stylistic deviations and amalgamations. Never have I seen a crowd seem equally thrilled for guitar noise and technofunk. And for those who disparage pop music for its inability to challenge audiences, I’ll ask you this: how many rock bands do you know that can get diehard b-girls to thrash? Schizophrenic is an appropriate title for an album (and live performance) that’s all over the place—one that fractures genres like a stroboscope fractures light. But JC Chasez’s head is firmly atop his shoulders. While visionary might be too strong a word, the man clearly sees the links across artificial musical subdivisions, and has put together an album which transcends and obliterates them not as a novelty, but as a necessity. For him, a certain schizophrenia is not only natural and logical, but also beyond question. It is only us that seem to think there’s something to argue about.