I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
When I was 13, I was obsessed with the end of the world. This wasn’t just because I was a miserable teen with one large eyebrow and zero friends. My siblings and I had been raised in churches that skewed fundamentalist for most of my life, and we were taught to be on the lookout for signs of the apocalypse. It was coming, our churches and parents taught us, and possibly in our lifetime. We had to be prepared.
My parents were constantly reporting rumors about some new Satanic technology — a bar code stamped on your wrist that could work as a credit card! A microchip implanted in the skin that stored all of your personal data! A mandatory 666 knuckle tattoo that worked as a universal remote! — that would signal that the End Times were truly here. This coming technology was the Mark of the Beast, they warned us, which the book of Revelation explains is the mark received by all of the Antichrist’s followers. If you wanted to be raptured, it was very important to never get the Mark of the Beast. And so any day, we feared, the government would be stopping by to give us our mandatory sin tattoos.
No federal employee ever knocked on our door and tried to trick me into accidentally pledging my fealty to the Lord of Darkness. But one sign that the world was in fact ending came in 2000 when my parents — who were strictly against non-Christian music — let me buy No Strings Attached, ‘N Sync’s genre-defining sophomore album. It was an absolute miracle that they let me purchase 12 entire songs-worth of secular music, but as I would soon find out, the connections to the End Times didn’t stop there.
And that’s how we arrive at “Space Cowboy (Yippie-Yi-Yay),” the third track on No Strings Attached, and arguably the greatest, most unlikely song that ‘N Sync ever recorded.
By topic, the songs on No Strings Attached break down into four categories:
1. I love you, and that is good: six songs
2. I love you, and that is bad/sad: three songs
3. Pump that jam, as I have received a paycheck/the scene is “so so right”: two songs
4. The rapture predicted by certain sectors of classic Christian theology is likely upon us, but we don’t need to worry because we’re going to be cowboys in space: one song
No Strings Attached kicked off just like you’d expect: with a one-two punch of pop masterpieces. The lead single was the instant hit “Bye, Bye, Bye,” immediately followed by the future star of May-based memes, “It’s Gonna Be Me.” Solid start. The usual move at this point would be to throw a ballad in the three-hole, something with a title like “In the Name of Always” or “Girl Until the End of Why.” It’s the prom theme spot. But instead of a love ballad, our boys chose … an alternate path.
If you haven’t heard “Space Cowboy,” then the main thing I should tell you is that it is an absolute bop that happens to open with a voice from space command saying, “The future looks bright, y’all / Especially when we rip in half.” Before we’re able to even begin to consider the Christopher Nolan-esque implications of that horror lyric, J.C. Chasez sings, “Here it comes, millennium / And everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout Jerusalem / Is this the beginning or beginning of the end?” Later, Justin Timberlake continues the theme in the second verse, crooning, “We don’t need all these prophecies tellin’ us what’s a sign!” The whole thing is littered with references to the End Times.
Aurally, “Space Cowboy” is a classic 2000’s boy-band pop song: which is to say it’s tightly constructed, deeply catchy, and vaguely aggressive. Specifically, “Space Cowboy” sounds like the musical equivalent of a muscle-bound cowboy busting through the swinging doors of a celestial saloon pecs-first, then banging on the bar counter in 4/4 time, demanding to know if the barkeep affirms a pre- or post-tribulation eschatological belief system.
In between all of the references to Christian eschatology is the real thesis of the song, which is that you shouldn’t worry that the world is ending — instead, just, uh, be a space cowboy, an occupation that is never clearly defined. “If you wanna fly / Come and take a ride / Take a space ride / With the cowboys, baby / Why-yi-yi-yippie-yi-yay-yippie-yi-yo-yippie-yi-yay” goes the chorus. Those are all of the specifics we’re given, leaving one to assume that a space cowboy may simply be an interstellar Uber driver making a poor attempt at scatting.
Then after the verses, there’s a guest rap by Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, we hit the space cowboy thing one more time, and then fade. Next song.
When I was 13 and J.C. Chasez sang that everyone was “talkin’ ‘bout Jerusalem,” I thought, “Yes, that’s true,” because everyone in my life — from my parents to my pastors to my youth group friends — WAS talkin’ ‘bout Jerusalem.
Today, “Space Cowboy” still leaves me with several questions, such as: “What?” and “Are you … what?” and “What non-traditional eschatological theory do the ‘N Sync boys follow that holds that God is powerful enough to both create and end the world, but not powerful enough to destroy you if you sneak off to outer space and call yourself a cowboy?”
I don’t know the answers. But I no longer think the Apocalypse is around the corner. No one has ever tried to give me the Mark of the Beast, and when I’m alone in a shoe store, my first thought is no longer, “Oh no! Everybody got raptured but me!” Still, I think about this song all the time, because today, instead of my pastors and parents, it’s the scientists who are telling me that the world is ending. And they’re probably right.
So what do we do in a world that is perpetually ending? Eat less beef, recycle more, and call our senators? Well, yes. But if that doesn’t work, ‘N Sync taught me that all I need to do to survive whatever comes next is to get my hands on a spaceship, strap on a suit, and get inside.