I've been thinking about what people mean when they say they do or don't like a particular pairing. It seems kind of self-evident: they mean they do or don't like that particular pairing. But, in my usual fashion, I would like there to be more to it than that, and possibly there even is.
Most people admit they'll read their non-favorite pairings, if they hear it's a particularly good story, or if they trust the author. And I'm sure all of us have read stories in our favorite pairings that we hated in spite of our positive biases going into it. So it's not like a food allergy, or an on-off switch, or some bizarre genetic predisposition toward JoLa. It occurred to me that we don't so much like the pairings (well, sort of, we do, but bear with me) as we like whatever it is we anticipate getting when we hear the story has thus-and-such pairing. Ditto with the reverse; we don't dislike JoLa, we dislike the vibe/theme/type of story that we're accustomed to getting from someone who's tackled writing JoLa.
So I started wondering what my expectations were in different pairings, what "made" that pairing for me, or what problems I'm already having before I start reading. Some of these are genuine character things, but mostly, you know, not. They're my own biases about what's interesting and/or sexy, or they're major trends with writers of that pairing, and sometimes they're things that maybe just one author did, but I read it early enough or liked it enough that I imprinted on it, and now that's part of what The Pairing Is All About in my head. In other words, they're grossly subjective, and that's just how I like it, dammit.
You could probably do this with every fandom and every pairing on the face of the earth, but given that there are 10 pairings in NSync fandom alone, I think I'll just limit myself to that, thanks. I'm doing non-Justin pairings first, roughly organizing by age, and Timbertrick very last, since I'll probably have more to say about that one.
I've always had a big blank spot in my head with this pairing. I find JC hard to write as a romantic character anyway, because he seems to do that whole go-along-get-along thing, and it's hard to wring dramatic sparks out of that, which is why the only Chris/JC story I can think of that I really loved is Jae's "Reindeer Games," because that's actually the whole premise. For the most part, though, I kind of visualize JC nodding and smiling at Chris' weirdness until Chris gives up and goes somewhere else for a more entertaining reaction. Oddly, I've always *wanted* to like this pairing, and I keep reading it, hoping to find one that convinces me. Frequently, it seems like people who write this pairing don't try as hard as I would want or need them to in order to convince me; there's a tendency to declare them in love and that's kind of it, and I'm left thinking...okay, how? why? what would life in that house be like? *why* can't they live without each other, dammit? Interestingly, I think the place that the attraction between them works best is in Helen's Guerrilla universe, because of that Jayne/Simon-esque sheltered boy/rough trade dynamic that exists within the laws of that AU.
This is probably my least favorite pairing, because of an overbalance of boyishness. They're just both such romping kids, which really might be why they're eternally happy together, but for me it's a drama issue. I need someone to push back in some way; for relationships, real or fictional, to interest me very much, I tend to require a challenge, and I have a hard time seeing one with Chris and Joey. I think they might be cute as bugs together, but it doesn't interest me in a dramatic sense.
I think one reason I like this is that it's easier to write Chris in character in this pairing. In order to have obstacles, a lot of people fall into the trap of making Chris a prickly, cynical, defensive, commitment-phobic guy, which I never really felt like he was. I do, however, think Lance is, and he often comes across as the Difficult One in Trickyfish stories, which frees Chris up to be a little more screwball and a little more heart-centered, which is a Chris I really like reading. I think the Trickyfish story that imprinted on me earliest was "Fragile," which is by, who, Julad? I'm not at my own computer, so there's no easy way to check, but. The point is, that's what I somehow perceive as the Chris/Lance dynamic. Mary pointed out that there's a difference in the way Young Lance is written depending on pairing; with Joey, he's often more nervous, less sure of himself, and with Chris he often seems more blase about himself and his sexuality, often while Chris is trying to treat him with kid gloves because he's So Young. In a lot of Trickyfish, Lance's toughness really comes out, and I like that, and I can see Chris admiring that element of calculation and detail-orientation in Lance. I tend to like pairings where they fill in the gaps for each other, bringing stuff to the relationship that the other lacks -- Lance's ruthlessness to Chris' geniality (cf Jae's "Coldhearted") and, conversely, Chris' playfulness to Lance's uptightness (cf "Rumor." Once I'm home, I'm going through my records and updating all of this to get all the authors right. I might link, too.)
This was the flavor-of-the-month pairing when I first got into the fandom, and it doesn't seem to be happening as much anymore. I like them in theory, partially for the same reason I like JoLa, which is that Joey seems to make JC (and Lance) smile and laugh more and more intensely than you see them doing in non-Joey capacities a lot of the time. JC is an eccentric weirdo, and I'm always afraid he'll turn into a Howard Hughes-esque reclusive lunatic; I think Joey is a great pull away from that. JC/Joey stories turn screwed up a lot of the time, which I also like, and I think that stems from the same reason: JC has the potential to be written as such a freak, with so many weird internal issues that he's too in-turned and inarticulate to really discuss, that his natural contrast is Joey, who's very WYSIWYG. JC's, uh, complexity, might be alluring to someone like Joey, but it's hard to imagine Joey having the skills to really figure out how to cope with him. It seems like, little JC/Joey as there is these days, there's even less really troubled JC/Joey, probably because of the Happy Featherhead image of JC that's going around now. I still think the boy seems bent as all hell, and I miss the stories of his looming insanity. I'd like to see more of them. With Joey.
Another sort of blank pairing in my head. I have nothing against it, but really, I don't think I expect anything one way or another from JC/Lance. I think I come to it pretty open to whatever the author's going to do to convince me.
In some ways, this is my OTP, if by "true" we're talking about what I really think is canonically plausible. They act, in real life, just *too* much like a pair for me to ignore. Even if it's not a sexual thing (though I think it *is,* or has been), they vacation together, they're off on their bus together with Joey & Lance's Animal Planet, Lance is the one Joey wanted as godfather to his child, they double date with Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson. I have trouble finding a story really convincing if it doesn't present them as extremely close and very important in each other's lives. I may enjoy the story on an AU sort of level, but on another level, I find it a little jarring. Because I already have the sense of their compatibility established in real life, I don't think a story needs to work as hard to convince me that they love each other. This is my soinlove pairing, because they seem so comfortable together and at the same time so focused on each other (I have a collection of pictures where Joey and Lance, while not standing next to each other, are looking at each other instead of the camera; they have a tendency to do that, just leaning around whoever's in their way to keep eye contact with each other. It's adorable.) and that, to me, is what defines those sort of long-term couples who last -- the balance between obsessive you-are-my-everything and taking each other for granted. Because I think the background work is just *there,* an author can skip straight to the heartfelt junk, and I won't complain about lack of foundation.
Aren't they pretty? I don't know, though, I'm always still looking for my perfect JC/Justin groove. I think there's something there, I just don't know what. What I notice about them is that they're the two who seem most focused on The Music, and who come across as the most control-freaky and tireless in their pursuit of getting whatever they're doing *right.* It almost seems like, if left to their own devices, they'd work until they couldn't think anymore, at which point JC would fall asleep and Justin would go out and run himself into the ground with something active to blow off steam. When would they have time for sex? On the other hand, I can also see them having some of the advantages I talked about with JoLa, in terms of their familiarity with each other and the way I think of them both as deep-seated romantics. I often like them best as background pairings, as in "Reindeer Games" or "Coldhearted." There's a lot of Jae on this list, and I haven't even gotten to the Timbertrick yet.
Remember when I said I wanted more Timbertone? Yes. Still. And plus, I want it the way *I* want it, which is not how I'm finding it written most of the time. A lot of people focus on the Joey-the-refuge aspect, with Joey in his role as the cuddly one who makes things okay for everyone, but especially for Justin, whose youth and the high public focus on him make him more in need of Safe Space. And I do appreciate that dynamic, but at the same time, it has to be handled delicately, or you get that Justin the Lamb problem, where he's a hothouse flower and it's such devastating pressure to be Justin Timberlake. Whereas, I see Justin as thriving on that pressure; one of the things people say about him over and over (like they do about JC) is that he never stops moving, he never stops working, he doesn't or won't or can't give himself a break. I'd like to see Joey *trying* to be the refuge/rescuer, and running up against the fact that Justin doesn't necessarily want that, and is maybe even intimidated by it. There are also monogamy issues here in my head for some reason, and I can actually see them flowing either way -- Joey unable to really trust Justin because of the sheer *volume* of opportunities he has to cat around, or the more commonly used Justin-as-king-of-serial-monogamy and slut-Joey characterizations. Plus, pool boy and stripper. It's just hot, okay?
This is definitely a pairing that I've learned to love, since I've gotten away from seeing them as Lambs. I don't so much like the Germany-era stuff as I like the dynamic they have now, because what enthralls me about them is the way that they seem to be kind of two sides of the same coin. Justin is more extroverted, flashier, more inclined to speak his mind, while Lance is the sort of sardonic, behind-the-scenes one with the ever-present day planner...but at the same time, I have the sense that between the two of them, they run that group, Justin musically and Lance financially. They are both control freaks, I think, and stubborn as hell, which is what makes them such a great combination on a professional level, and what would make them such a volatile and interesting combination personally. I can't see sedate, quiet-household Justin and Lance; they are, in some larger-than-life way, the absolute embodiment of the irresistible force and the immovable object, and that's the joy of them. I like them when they're fighting, when they shove each other to get a reaction, or when they hold out just to prove they can. They strike me as such strong personalities that I want to see them have to adjust to each other, which is why Sandy's "Out and About" is probably my favorite Justin/Lance story ever. Because they love each other, and sometimes they can't stand each other, and sometimes they want to kill each other, and sometimes there's that calm in the eye of the storm where they can just be together. My formative influence in Justin/Lance stories was Synchronik's "Antimatter," definitely.
Okay, I'm trying to break this down into as many bite-sized chunks as I can. I think most of what registers with me as significant Timbertrick issues are either issues of Age/Maturity/Experience or issues of Unexpectability.
1. Well, there's just the age difference. That's interesting, because for almost anybody, a decade is a long time, and particularly when you're Justin's age. I'm ten years older than my sister, and it's always a little reality check to look at her and realize that *this* is the same gap that exists with Chris and Justin. It's pretty significant, and so it's easy to use in one way or another as a source of conflict.
2. Pursuant to the above, I like writing younger characters because I have an interest in the minds of teenagers, which are fascinating and alien places. I've always said that the same things go on in the heads of teenagers and artists: things seem bigger and more important, you're constantly asking questions and placing the burden on bizarre and unexpected things to answer those questions, you conflate image with meaning in different ways, and you get carried away by how clear and right things seem, when they don't seem horribly confusing and random. In that sense, I just like teenage characters, and even when it's not used as a conflict point, Chris from his vantage point makes an interesting lens through which to view him.
3. Another step in the same direction is that one of the common themes in SDB fic in general is the difficulty of maintaining any kind of realistic perspective on the world when your life is that strange. Justin more than any of them had the child-star upbringing (though not your classic child-star upbringing), and more than any of them he's never had a normal life. Chris had a viciously normal life, with all the issues and problems that 99% of the world faces, regarding how to stay safe and secure and what his future is going to be like. I like the dynamic because it's Chris who is most able to lend some perspective to Justin, I think. He's the leveling influence, the one who dilutes Justin's tunnel-vision and his obsessive ambition. His playfulness and his groundedness (he's the one who does *not* have four hundred pairs of shoes and buy new underwear every day; he calls his financial planner if he wants to super-size his value meal) I think of as necessary bulwarks between Justin and total divorce from reality. Thus, they fit into the same thing I talked about with Trickyfish, with both of them filling in things the other needs (Justin brings that sort of forward-driving energy, Chris makes him calm down and play around).
those other issues:
1. "How did a band geek like you land the captain of the basketball team?" Justin is the guy that Chris *shouldn't* be able to have. A lot of romantic plotlines use that out-of-your-league angle, because we like it. We like to identify with the underdog, and we like to imagine that the Head Cheerleader (whomever we use to symbolize that person who is infinitely desirable and can have their choice of anyone) will choose, not the Captain of the Football Team, but the person with the unique soul. Justin is a beau ideal of sorts, and writing him happily with Chris is this nice, cathartic little world where true virtue is recognized and rewarded. It's cheap and manipulative, but it works.
2. And, oh, the angst when it doesn't. The fun part is, it works both ways -- the easiest angle is when Justin really *is* out of Chris' league (cf Amber's "Marry the One Who Gets There First"), but the degree to which real-life Justin is a great big ol' queen and real-life Chris comes across as the straightest man on earth means that you can get some great drama going the other way, too. I like impossible love; not everyone does, but I do. Timbertrick produces some of the most impossible love going.
3. Timbertrick stories, for some reason, tend to go even beyond setting them up as compatible, and go into setting them up as, depending on the story, interdependent or co-dependent. I don't know if that's a vibe I would always have gotten from them as people, or if reading so much good fic along those lines has skewered the way I view their friendship. But there's plently of canonical evidence to support the idea that the central group dynamic is an intense Joey-and-Lance relationship complemented by a similar if not quite as intimate Chris-and-Justin relationship, with JC as a floater/outsider figure, and that's how I generally see them. I'm always attracted, in any fandom, to those pairings where their lives seem to be all bound up with each other, and all the more so with Timbertrick, where it just *seems,* for reasons I've listed above, like it wouldn't happen that way. In some ways, they're the RPS equivalent of the buddy-cop fandoms, where the pleasure is these two people with nothing in common who you'd never think would want to hang around together, but not only do they want to hang around together, but they'd fall apart without each other. Hence, I always like stories where there's an intense vibe surrounding their relationship, even if they're not paired romantically.
Plus, the first Timbertrick story I ever read was Calico's "Affair," which is the most mind-snappingly sexy thing ever, and after that, I was probably pretty much doomed. It's that imprinting thing again.