January 17, 2020
On Sept. 7, 2000, Lance Bass, J.C. Chasez, Joey Fatone, Chris Kirkpatrick, and Justin Timberlake of the beloved boy band NSYNC accepted the award for Best Pop Video at the MTV Video Music Awards. Dressed in an array of early 2000s fashion — Leather trench coats! Double denim! Ultra-fitted turtlenecks! — the group gathered onstage as Timberlake thanked God for His blessings and their respective families for being behind them, “no matter what stupid stuff we did or wore or sang or whatever.”
Twenty years after the video’s release, on Jan. 11, 2000, it’s clear that — clothing aside — their fans found nothing stupid in what the guys did or sang. At the time of publication, the “Bye Bye Bye” music video has over 214 million views on YouTube. So in honor of its anniversary, we called up (most of) the group and a few of their collaborators to reminisce about the video’s making, its feature film-sized budget, the days of TRL (that’s MTV’s Total Request Live , for the youngins), and the story behind one of the most memorable dances of all time.
In the early 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon for music videos to resemble mini-action movies, with high-energy dance breaks, bizarre concepts (we all remember Britney in Mars for the “Oops!… I Did it Again” video, right?) and money to spare. The “Bye Bye Bye” video was no exception. Complete with speeding trains, car chases, rabid dogs, and synchronized choreography on strings, director Wayne Isham created a thrilling four-minute ride that — if you don’t overthink it too much — somehow fits with the lyrical theme of escaping an ex. “It was a fun time to make music videos,” Bass tells EW. “It was all about MTV and how can we outdo each other — but spending $1 million on a video? That was probably stupid.”
With the band’s input, Isham used the guys’ unique traits to come up with the concept. “We had a good run together,” says Isham, who later worked with the group on the “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “Pop” videos. “It definitely was a lot of fun because those guys all had a blast and took a lot of chances. They all have big personalities and we had to make sure we shined the light on everybody. Chris and Joey had the sense of fun, Justin has that smile, and J.C. and Lance had very wry humor about it all.”
The clip kicks off with the guys on strings, being controlled by an evil ex-girlfriend puppetress (played by Kim Smith, who later starred in the “It’s Gonna Be Me” video), before she cuts them loose, just to pursue them some more. “You kind of feel like an action hero for a second,” says Kirkpatrick, “Like, ‘This isn’t a video, this is real life!’ It was such a cool fantasy come true.”
If you don’t know the signature move to the “Bye Bye Bye” chorus, you’re too young to be reading this piece. “I feel like I’ve taught that dance to about 50 people this year alone,” says Bass, who remembers actually breaking his ankle while performing the routine on SNL shortly after shooting the video. “It’s funny how things come back to you so easily, but I guess if you did it, you know, five million times, it’s somewhere in your DNA.”
That unforgettable choreography was the brainchild of acclaimed choreographer (and creator of everyone’s favorite 2001 instructional dance VHS, Darrin’s Dance Grooves), Darrin Henson. Henson — whose résumé boasts names such as New Kids on the Block, Britney Spears, and the Spice Girls — was actually on the brink of quitting the industry after losing out on a VMA for his work on Jordan Knight’s “Give It to You” when he got the call from NSYNC manager Johnny Wright. Henson told Wright he was pursuing acting and no longer choreographing, but Wright wasn’t having it. “He was like, ‘No, no, no, you don’t understand; you gotta do this song,’” Henson recalls. “’This is going to be the pinnacle.’” So Henson hopped on a flight to Vegas where NSYNC was performing at the Billboard Awards so they could play him “Bye Bye Bye” for the first time. “I was like, ‘Man, this track is slamming!” he says.
Excited by the song and the fact that “those white boys could dance,” Henson got to work right then and there in his Vegas hotel room. “I turned the music up as loud as it could go,” says Henson. “I came up with the pumping hand — that’s the black power fist — and the hand going across the front during the ‘bye bye bye’ lyric is the ‘stop talking s—.’ I come from the Bronx, and in New York whenever somebody said something, you’d put your hand up in a talking manner, like open and close, meaning, ‘stop talking s—.’”
Back in L.A., the band convened at Alley Kat Studio to run through the moves. “I gave them the choreography over a few days and we rehearsed, rehearsed, rehearsed,” says Henson. “The guys were always good. J.C. had a lot of energy and Justin always had this laid back kinda cool attitude. Chris, and he’ll tell you this, was probably the one who had the biggest obstacles when learning and distributing the choreography. It was very, very difficult because I incorporated hip-hop, popping and locking, and really put Darrin into it. I put moves in there that other boy bands wouldn’t be able to mimic. That’s what was so special about NSYNC.”
Nailing the moves onstage was one thing, but for the music video, the guys were fastened to bungee cords and asked to dance as if puppets on strings. “It’s not easy, that’s for sure,” says Chasez. “The bungee is where it gets a bit challenging. We’re all supposed to be in sync and we’re fighting with these bungees to make sure our arms are all in the same place. When you’re doing the choreo on those things, it’s certainly challenging. But like anything, with a bit of repetition and a bit of practice, you settle in.”
Is anything harder than mastering moves mid-air? How about doing them in a spinning room? Interspersed throughout the girl-chasing-guys narrative of the video, are scenes of the band dancing in a rotating gimbal room. “The gimbal room goes back to Gene Kelly who did it originally in the ‘40s,” says Isham. “As a filmmaker, these are challenges I want to do. The guys were ready to accept, and Darrin was excited about doing something different.” But Isham didn’t factor in the group’s excitability until he got on set. “They started having fun by jumping around from one side to the other,” he recalls. “Containing their energy was always a challenge and trying to get them to focus on the dance routine when they were jumping from wall to wall to wall… Well, let’s just say that footage alone could’ve been its own video.”
While fun at the time, a couple of days later, Bass was suffering. “I don’t know if the other guys got motion sickness, but I had vertigo for a good two days after that,” he says. “What was crazy was that it didn’t even set in until about 48 hours later.” Adds Kirkpatrick, “I was nauseous before I got into it.”
If the five guys got so stoked about a rotating room, you can imagine how they responded when asked to race cars and run on speeding trains. “They never hesitated at all and did all their own stunts,” says Isham. “Today someone would totally raise a flag about insurance.” Cue Fatone and Kirkpatrick jumping from one moving train car to another (one Steadicam operator wasn’t nearly as comfortable with the risks and had to be replaced mid-scene).
“There was no green screen,” says Kirkpatrick. “Today it’d be like, ‘If Jackie Chan is not in this video, you are not doing your own stunts.’ It was funny because the train I think was going something like 20 miles per hour, but of course they made it look faster.”
The slow speed was probably for the best, since at one point, Kirkpatrick realized he was dangerously close to one of the train’s tires. “Before the train started, I’m sitting there and I realize we’re going to be kicking off the tire,” says Kirkpatrick. “So, if my wire fell off, I would’ve gotten sucked under the train. That made me a little more nervous.” Remembering the same scene, Isham adds, “Yeah, Joey turned to me and goes, ‘Um, there’s big steel wheels right underneath my feet.’ Thank goodness, knock on wood nothing bad happened.”
Back on the ground, Bass and Chasez found themselves contending with a different type of fast-moving vehicle: a red Dodge Viper RT/10. “When we were talking with Wayne in the planning stages, I had mentioned that my favorite car chase at that point in any movie ever was in the movie Ronin with Robert De Niro,” says Chasez. “When I showed up on set, it turned out that he had literally hired the guys that did the car chase scene from the movie to help stunt coordinate and teach us some of the driving. There were certainly one or two scary moments when the car got a little out of control, but it’s kind of controlled chaos. I’d be in the car and the guy with the camera would be like, ‘Go faster!’ and I’m like, ‘Okay!’”
Part of the scene saw Bass and Chasez drop into the car from above, as if landing there after being cut from their puppet strings. “There was an 18-wheeler behind us with his light pole and we were having to hang on to the pole and, as we’re moving, drop into the car,” recalls Bass. “The first time we did it, I missed the car and something on the roof of the car just cracked.” Fatone didn’t get off quite so lucky, sustaining an embarrassing injury he remembers to this day. “I ripped my pants — right in the crotch,” he says. “They had to duct tape them back together.”
As for Timberlake, well, comparatively, running from dogs suddenly didn’t seem so daunting. “J.C. and Lance jumped into a moving automobile, Chris and Joey are on top of a train running, so I think I got off easiest on the stunts,” he said during an interview with MTV’s Making the Video at the time. “All I have to do is run, but I have to make it look good — I can’t look like a dork when I’m running. Gotta be cool.”
Twenty years later, the guys are philosophizing on why the video was so popular at the time. Whether a sign of the times or something more enigmatic, one thing they can all agree on — besides the fact that it can’t possibly be two decades since they shot the thing (“Are you sure it isn’t it the 75th anniversary?” jokes Kirkpatrick.) — is that its success, though initially surprising, took a lot of effort and is something they’re proud of.
“We were working hard to be at a very high level,” says Chasez. “It takes a miracle for it to actually work and we were lucky enough to be part of that miracle in that moment.” As for what he remembers most? “Looking back, it’s in the little moments,” he says. “When I blow on the CD or Justin looks up from landing on the ground and gives you that little laugh, that, to me, makes the video three-dimensional. We allowed our personalities to break the wall and we made a video that’s more than just the song. We made something that’s stretching into the next realm of entertainment, and that’s what I was proud of.”
It all paid off for Henson, too, when he got his moment of glory in taking home the Best Pop Video VMA at the 2000 ceremony. “It was the funniest thing: You go, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough — and then here comes NSYNC with this amazing song,” he says. “It was just like kinetic and spiritual and funky and it spoke to the masses around the world. Winning the MTV Music Award was literally breathtaking. Still today it reminds me to never, ever give up.”
Giving up certainly didn’t seem to be on the band’s radar at the time, given the crazy record sales, world tours, TRL top spots, and many more music videos to follow — all before the group called it quits in 2002. Still, “Bye Bye Bye” remains one of NSYNC’s biggest hit ever. So what is it about this song that keeps its YouTube views escalating even today?
Fatone has a theory: “The song was just visually and melodically complete,” he says. “It was fun, energetic, catchy, and had a dance that went along with it that everyone can do — at least the ‘bye bye bye’ hand move anyway.”