This week, pop fans get to see a once-familiar group of faces on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in over 20 years: *NSYNC, the chart-topping superstar boy band who were once in the discussion for the biggest act in popular music, have returned with their new single “Better Place.”
The new single, found on the soundtrack to the upcoming boy band-themed animated sequel Trolls Band Together, bows at No. 25 on the chart this week, with excellent sales and early radio numbers. It’s the group’s first Hot 100 appearance since the Nelly-featuring “Girlfriend” reached No. 5 in 2002.
How should the group be feeling about the song’s entrance? And where will the group likely go from here? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. *NSYNC’s first single in over 20 years, “Better Place,” debuts at No. 25 on the Hot 100 this week. Is that higher, lower or about what you expected for its first week?
Katie Atkinson: Judging by the fervor over the reunion at last month’s MTV VMAs, it’s lower than I expected. I think it could have reasonably had a top 10 or at least top 20 debut had they released it the same week as the VMAs. Instead of the momentum building in the weeks after, it seemed to fizzle a bit, with high-hoped fans realizing that a Trolls song might be the only thing they’re getting from the reunited boy band – no new music outside the movie, and seemingly no tour or concert.
I kept telling my hopeful friends that if the song had a high debut, Justin Timberlake (who seems to be the holdout, since he was the one missing from Ariana Grande’s Coachella performance in 2019) would have to at least consider something beyond the Trolls music. But I don’t know that a No. 25 debut is going to motivate him to do anything further with his bandmates.
Kyle Denis: This is around what I expected, maybe a bit higher than what I was initially predicting. I think a No. 25 debut perfectly encapsulates the tension between the hype for the return of one of the biggest musical acts in pop history and the radically different commercial landscape they’re returning to.
Jason Lipshutz: About what I expected, in context with how the Trolls singles that preceded “Better Place” over the course of the franchise performed: Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” made it to No. 1 on the Hot 100, Timberlake and SZA’s “The Other Side” reached No. 61, and “Better Place” more or less splits the difference. *NSYNC is still a brand name, and their first single in over 20 years was always going to generate interest — so a top 40 debut seemed likely, even as they’ve got a lot of catching up to do in terms of modern streaming fans.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s actually a lot better than I expected based on the early crickets around the song online, and the fact that *NSYNC has been gone so long that a new Justin Timberlake solo song — even one alongside, say, two of his old collaborators — can’t really move the needle anymore. “Better Place” owes its impressive debut to a combination of massive radio support, sales from fans who haven’t completely moved on from the iTunes era and a relatively slow week on the chart, without a big new album release to clutter the top tiers.
Christine Werthman: No. 25 is lower than I expected, considering the hoopla around the group’s VMA appearance, but it’s pretty on point for Timberlake’s Trolls tunes. While “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” debuted at No. 1 in 2016, “The Other Side” with SZA started at No. 61 in 2020 and never went any higher. So, I suppose it makes sense that this one dropped roughly in the middle. I just thought that getting the gang back together would snag it a slightly higher debut.
2. “Better Place” is off to an excellent start at radio and in sales, but its streams have been fairly minimal. Does it seem like a lasting pop hit to you, or is No. 25 likely as good as it will get for the Trolls sequel single?
Katie Atkinson: I think it could definitely climb higher if the group releases a proper music video – meaning, the actual *NSYNC performing choreography, not animated clips of the Trolls boy band. Of course, with the ongoing actors’ strike, that’s a big ask. Timberlake isn’t going to want to look like he’s not supporting his fellow actors, even though he is likely clear to promote the film in his capacity as a featured musician and not as the voice star. But if actors are able to follow in the footsteps of the Hollywood writers’ strike, which wrapped more than a week ago, there’s a world where we could get a classic *NSYNC music video (can MTV revive TRL for a day?) and the song gets new life.
Kyle Denis: As it happens with soundtrack singles – a lot of this song’s future success depends on how big/well-received the Trolls sequel is, how much money and effort are put into its promotion, and how the song is incorporated into the movie. There’s certainly potential for this to stick around the No. 20-40 range – and potentially sneak a weak or two in the lower reaches of the top 10 – thanks to radio’s support. To grow into a legitimate, lasting smash, however, “Better Place” will have to pick up on streaming, but that’ll be hard to do with a musical act that’s been absent for the entirety of the streaming era.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s hard to say since, while I don’t think “Better Place” will become a huge streaming hit, I could envision radio programmers gravitating towards a new *NSYNC single, considering how many of them undoubtedly remember the group’s turn-of-the-century enormity and would love to incorporate their new song’s sunny pop sound into power blocks. “Better Place” may not rise above No. 25 on the Hot 100, yet the song will likely enjoy a comfortable run on FM dials — especially around the release of the new Trolls movie, when parents and kids are going to be happy to hear how it ties into the story of the film.
Andrew Unterberger: I’m… not optimistic about it sticking around. That said, it was just last year that another whistle-heavy song by an ’00s pop group rode a sequel soundtrack placement to extended chart success, so maybe *NSYNC will be able to follow the formula there. (It would help if Trolls Band Together was at least 1/20th as successful as Top Gun: Maverick, of course.)
Christine Werthman: The movie comes out in November, so by the time we get to the Thanksgiving car rides with the kiddos, it might be in more frequent streaming rotation. It’s also got that breezy, dentist’s-office-appropriate energy that will give it staying power, so I think it’s got a little more gas in the tank and won’t stall at 25. Maybe 20?
3. What would you be looking for regarding the song’s performance if you were on *NSYNC’s team? What, if anything, do you think they stand to gain with a good reception to the new single?
Katie Atkinson: I would be looking at the window from now through the film’s release on Nov. 17 to see if it grows from here, whether that’s through a music video, radio airplay or some sort of belated social virality. If this song peaks at No. 25, I think fans holding out hope for anything else from *NSYNC will be gravely disappointed. But if it has legs, who knows what could happen? I refuse to believe that we’re just going to get a cartoon song and a Hot Ones episode out of this whole thing.
Kyle Denis: If I were on *NSYNC’s team, I’d be paying attention to the song’s longevity above all else. We all know that the first new song from *NSYCNC in over two decades would get an incredibly warm reception across consumption channels upon debut. Now, if “Better Place” can harness that early love and turn it into weeks of stability and substantial growth, that, to me, would be a signal that there’s a place in the contemporary marketplace for *NSYNC outside of nostalgia bait.
Jason Lipshutz: This is a little bit of wishcasting, but if “Better Place” hypothetically turns into an all-out smash, that might somewhat compel *NSYNC to hitting the road together, right? Thus far, there has been no indication that their new single precedes the quintet’s first tour in over two decades, but if anything is going to potentially tip the scales a bit, it would be “Better Place” growing bigger than expected, and bridging the gap to a new generation of *NSYNC fans. Maybe a tour isn’t in the cards regardless of the song’s performance, but here’s hoping, right?
Andrew Unterberger: Honestly, I wouldn’t even be trying to get on radio or even on TikTok in 2023 if I was *NSYNC’s team — I’d just be hitting those pleasure centers for the longtime fans, the ones actually likely to buy tickets for an upcoming tour if and when one happens. There’s no particularly likely path back to contemporary stardom for *NSYNC in an era when, again, even JT solo can’t seem to find his way back in. They’d be much better off not even trying, especially since the Backstreet Boys have proven that ’90s boy bands can still have a very lucrative second life as a legacy act.
Christine Werthman: I’d be crossing my fingers for some TikTok pickup, hoping that Gen Z cared as much as Millennials about this boy band reunion. *NSYNC isn’t going to skyrocket back to No Strings Attached levels of popularity, but if there’s some interest here, it could prompt some more new music, maybe a couple reunion shows.
4. With *NSYNC now (at least temporarily) reunited, who’s another pop group that’s been dormant for at least a decade who you’d like to see give it another go?
Katie Atkinson: Destiny’s Child – whether it’s the trio lineup of Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, or even adding LaTavia Roberson and LeToya Luckett into the mix, since all four of those women attended Queen B’s hometown Renaissance Tour stop in Houston last month. After all, fans already think DC could be involved in “act ii” of Bey’s Renaissance album series. Honestly, a Destiny’s Child reunion seems way more realistic than anything beyond “Better Place” for *NSYNC at this point.
Kyle Denis: Salt-N-Pepa.
Jason Lipshutz: All five Spice Girls haven’t performed together since 2012 — and that was only a few songs for the London Olympics, not a full-fledged tour. Not only do I think a Spice Girls reunion trek would be entertaining as hell, but I’d love to hear their blended perspectives on a new single, EP or album; they accomplished so much in the ’90s, have grown into different people in the years since, and I’d bet whatever they cooked up in the studio would be, at the very least, thematically interesting.
Andrew Unterberger: Anyone else out there who would have major interest in a Junior Senior hyperpop album? Just me perhaps?
Christine Werthman: Savage Garden. Darren Hayes still releases solo music, his latest album, Homosexual, dropping in 2022, but Daniel Jones called it quits and meant it. He hated touring, works in real estate and, like Hayes, says they will never reunite. I honestly salute their commitment to the breakup, but that would be a fun one.
5. OK, it’s been seven years since Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!,” from the original Trolls, topped the Hot 100 — how do you feel about the song in 2023?
Katie Atkinson: I have much fonder feelings toward that song now than I did when it was first released. At the time, I wrestled with how uncool it was – but it’s a carefree, fun song from a kids’ movie. Of course it’s uncool! After dancing to it on countless wedding dance floors in the seven years since, I’ve come to peace with the fact that it’s a harmless, happy song whose charms are hard to resist.
Kyle Denis: It’s not a song that I would defend with my life, but I’ve never really understood the distaste for this one. It’s fun and full of my favorite pop song clichés, so I can’t be too mad at it. Doesn’t add much to JT’s discography, but that wasn’t the goal, so I’ll continue to enjoy it for what it is.
Jason Lipshutz: Pretty much the same as I felt about it seven years ago: not my favorite JT song, but it’s undeniably catchy, and I really love the sing-along outro. Really, we should be using this space to cry Justice For “The Other Side,” the Trolls World Tour single that demonstrated some nu-disco chemistry between Timberlake and SZA. Should have been bigger!
Andrew Unterberger: Never really need to hear it outside a wedding context, but would be lying if I said I did not get that feeling in my body when it comes on.
Christine Werthman: It didn’t make my personal top songs list in 2016 (lots of Beyoncé, Solange, Rihanna, Drake and Frank Ocean though — what a year!), but it’s a cute track. Was then, is now. I’m sure at the time I was outraged that No. 1 wasn’t something from The Life of Pablo, but you can’t sleep on those family-friendly hits.
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