For the past decade, the pursuit of credibility both artistic and ''street'' has been a curse upon the land of pop. Many have wrestled with it, and the struggle is never pleasant to behold. In rock, Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder once shrank into pained fetal positions while trying to bridge the chasm separating their record sales and anti-mainstream, indie-rock ethos; conversely, platinum-selling rappers keep pumping up the thug-life volume to ridiculous levels in order to offset accusations of softness. Either way, the music suffers. When was the last time you played Pearl Jam's No Code? And was there a more absurd sight last year than Puff Daddy going gangsta on the Public Enemy-sampling single ''PE 2000''?
Current teen pop would appear to be immune to the credibility gap, but it's begun creeping into this genre as well. For Christina Aguilera and the Backstreet Boys, cred means gaining respect (and a sales boost) from grown-ups by way of homogeneous, inoffensive lite-FM ballads. The trend continues with 'N Sync's No Strings Attached, on which the gawkiest-looking teen idols ever manufactured attempt to demonstrate they're not well-mannered and groomed careerists but hip-hopping party boyz.
The overhaul began with the January release of ''Bye Bye Bye,'' the first of the album's inevitable string of singles. With its stuttering beat and blasts of laser-gun synths, the song is more robust than anything on 'N Sync, their wimpy debut, and the kiss-off lyrics are meant to exhibit a newfound virility. For the duration of No Strings Attached, Lance, JC, Joey, Justin, and Chris are equally determined to prove their get-downness. On the positive tip as the boys would no doubt say they've made a livelier, more groove-friendly record than have any of their male peers. On the less than positive tip, they do so by adapting a high school locker's worth of hammy, agonizingly contrived African-American vocal mannerisms. In the gauzy funk of ''It's Gonna Be Me,'' they stretch out words like ''babe'' into ''bayyyyb,'' resulting in unintentional parodies of R&B singing. Their cover of Johnny Kemp's '80s hit ''Just Got Paid'' is dutiful, but the sound of 'N Sync crooning phrases like ''lookin' fly'' and ''pump that jam while I'm gettin' down'' only illustrates how white they are. And let's not get started on ''Bringin' da Noise,'' a drip-hop hooray that sports the year's most excruciatingly faux title to date.
As we all saw at this year's Grammys, pop songs are mutating into beasts that are part Broadway production number, part Olympics opening ceremony. Similarly, No Strings Attached is overstuffed with tracks clearly concocted with the concert stage in mind. It's all too easy to imagine choreographed dancers and elaborate sets serving as backdrops during tour performances of the doofy cosmic Western romp ''Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay)'' (featuring a cameo by Lisa ''Left Eye'' Lopes of TLC, another cred move) and the somewhat creepy ''Digital Get Down'' (on which they swap naughty online photos with a woman and ''get to freakin'''). On record, though, these numbers are synthetic-funk spectacles, not songs.
As children of dance and hip- hop culture, 'N Sync may be completely sincere about all these seeming affectations. But they're also products of show business; JC and Justin, after all, were stars of the '90s Mickey Mouse Club. As a result, their street-savvy posing is less about singing than acting and not particularly persuasive dramatics at that.
In fact, the group's best performances on No Strings Attached arrive only when they drop the pretenses. The album's least contrived and most pleasurable moments are its ballads the Richard Marx (!)-penned ''This I Promise You,'' with its earnestly angelic harmonies, and ''I'll Be Good to You,'' which has an effortless, light-R&B swing. Neither is as great as the Backstreet Boys' ''I Want It That Way,'' but at least 'N Sync stop trying to be little punishers and finally revel in their limp-biscuit selves. C-