Clarissa Cruz
April 26, 2002 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Yeah, yeah, we know: Breaking up is hard to do. But when you’re the former Prom King and Queen of Teen Pop, picking up the pieces can be as draining as the dance break in ”Bye Bye Bye.” Luckily, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears — the Gen-Y Tom and Nicole — seem to be handling the media storm with aplomb, he on The Rosie O’Donnell Show (”I love Britney with all my heart, and I would never, ever do anything to disrespect or degrade her”) and she on the British press circuit (”[I’m not] in an intense relationship right now”).

But the breakup also comes at a critical moment in the young stars’ professional fortunes—not to mention in the cloudy future of teen pop. ”’N Sync and Britney have a really big decision to make: Do they stay in their demo bubble, the 13- to 16-year-olds, or do they grow with their audience and take some of the new sounds and incorporate that into their music?” says MTV senior VP of programming Tom Calderone, noting that the net’s viewers have been moving away from pop and toward dance music or hip-hop. (Timberlake and Spears declined to comment for this story.)

So far, the 21-year-old Timberlake seems the most poised to take his career to the next, more mature level—notwithstanding tabloid reports involving everything from strippers to whipped cream to a brunet backup dancer. ”When the bubblegum wears off and the cuteness is gone and the gimmick is over, the only thing that’s gonna help you stand on your own two feet is the real talent,” notes singer Brian McKnight, who duetted with Timberlake on ”My Kind of Girl,” the Grammy-nominated track on his latest album, Superhero. ”[Justin] is gonna be able to do whatever it is he wants to do for the rest of his life—he’s got that much talent.”

And that talent involves more than hamming it up in an Elton John video. Timberlake cowrote all three of the hit singles on the quintuple-platinum Celebrity, and, along with former choreographer Wade Robson, wrote and produced ”Man Enough,” a song for R&B stars Dru Hill. Moreover, Justin has already proved adaptable to changing tastes. ”Music isn’t quite where it was three years ago when we had five boy bands on the station,” says Paul ”Cubby” Bryant, program director of NYC radio station Z-100. ”The taste right now is a little more on the R&B side, with the J. Los and the OutKasts and the Ashantis doing well. [Getting] Nelly on the track for [‘N Sync’s] ‘Girlfriend’ has given the song a whole new life.”

Timberlake’s increasing frontman status has inevitably led to talk of a post-‘N Sync solo career, though a Jive spokesman would say only that ”there’s no Justin Timberlake album scheduled” and the group is going into the studio this summer to work on a new album. Still, Robson says, ”I’m sure it’ll happen at some point.”

But what of Timberlake’s former better half? Despite sales of more than 4 million for Britney, Spears, 20, has charted a path as slippery as that snake she embraced at last fall’s MTV Video Music Awards. Oops! None of the three singles released from Britney have cracked Billboard’s top 10—the biggest hit, ”I’m a Slave 4 U,” peaked at No. 27. ”’Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ is a great song, but that song only appeals to a small niche of people, 14- to 17-year-olds,” says Bryant. ”Now she’s talking about being ‘Overprotected’…stuff that might be a little bit more self-serving and not relatable to listeners.”

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