The Backstreet Boys performed live for the first time ever at SeaWorld Orlando. The year was 1993 and the show took place at Shamu Stadium, the outdoor venue named after one of SeaWorld’s first captive orcas. An orca by the name of Tilikum would go on to kill a trainer in that same stadium nearly two decades after the Backstreet Boys sashayed around onstage. SeaWorld was a popular destination in the ’90s, before people started to come around to the notion that keeping giant orcas (“killer whales”) in tanks was, like, maybe a bad and inhumane idea. In any case, Shamu Stadium was an ideal setting for a Backstreet Boys debut; they too were captive in a sense, though they wouldn’t realize it until much, much later.
AJ McLean, Howie D., Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, and Brian Littrell were brought together by the entrepreneur-slash-producer-slash-mogul-slash-manager-slash-Ponzi-schemer Lou Pearlman after he auditioned various youths in the Orlando area for a spot in a new pop group he hoped would make him a lot of money. Pearlman saw the success of the OG boy band New Kids On The Block, who were modeled after the black R&B band New Edition, and hatched a plan to build an empire off of a new teen sensation. New Kids On The Block were big, but they weren’t great performers, and Pearlman gleaned a simple idea from watching their rise: What if we had a boy band that could actually sing AND dance? Backstreet Boys could do both, and they did in fact make Pearlman a lot of money, because he wrote himself into their contract as a member, taking a massive chunk of the profits before the band ousted him in the mid-’00s. Pearlman used the money he made off of Backstreet Boys (and N*Sync and LFO) to funnel funds into his various ridiculous Ponzi schemes. He went to prison for it in 2008 and died there just last year.
To put it mildly, Pearlman was a complicated figure, but he did help launch a new era of teen consumption. While MTV and the rest of the mainstream was busy peddling (and co-opting) grunge, a subset of industry people were already looking ahead to the next phase. A band like Backstreet Boys makes money because there is something for everyone: the young smarmy guy, the all-American, the badass, the one who looks like he is too old to be in the band. Who’s attracted to these types? Tweens and teenagers. The demographic with the most expendable income, the ones who will need to purchase an extra ticket in order for a parent to accompany them to the show and stand in line for overpriced merch afterward.
The minutiae of the Backstreet Boys story is analyzed in John Seabrook’s The Song Machine, a book that investigates the small number of producers and songwriters behind the biggest pop hits of the past 20 or so years. Backstreet Boys’ rise is synonymous with the rise of Sweden’s Cheiron Studios, helmed by Denniz PoP and his protégée Max Martin, the latter of whom remains one of the biggest names in the business to this day. Together, the producers at Cheiron essentially invented the sound of contemporary American pop music, and it all started with Backstreet Boys.
Knowing that the Backstreet Boys originated as a lunatic’s scam to fund a nefarious business plan makes what the band lacks in truly great songs worth thinking about. The Backstreet Boys that turns 20 tomorrow is not exactly their debut. The band’s actual debut was originally released in 1996 everywhere but the US, due to the fact that they were mostly popular in Europe. Backstreet Boys did pitiful numbers in the US from the year of their foundation up until ’97. It was only after “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” climbed to #2 on the Billboard charts that Backstreet Boys really had any footing on their home turf. From there, they re-released Backstreet Boys in the US, which came out one day after the band’s sophomore album Backstreet’s Back was released globally. And the version most people who came of age in the ’90s are most familiar with is the 1998 re-re-issue, which included the already massive single “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” If you really want to parse the (extremely confusing) logistics of how this happened, go read the Wikipedia entry for nine hours and get back to me. The point is: We’re all here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the boy band insurgence in these great United States. Backstreet Boys were one of the first, and they were (and remain) the biggest by an insurmountable margin.
An album like Backstreet Boys sounds old as hell in 2017. Nothing ages faster than a product originally designed for teen consumption, and this album sounds exactly like my childhood, which is not really a good thing if you’re hoping for longevity. That’s OK, though, because what Backstreet Boys does do is unveil origins of the pop landscape we’ve come to know and love and hate and love again. R&B mashed with rap mashed with dance music mashed with a sample of some old song your mom loves. All of it produced on synthetic machines, the harmonies clipped together to hit the sweet spot and manipulate you into liking it, then loving it, then buying it. This is Max Martin’s first real foray into producing Top 40 hits, and though his greatest Backstreet Boys achievement is “I Want It That Way” (off the band’s next album, Millennium), he’s got a few others worth shouting out.
You only really need to watch the video for “We’ve Got It Going On” to understand exactly what the Backstreet Boys aesthetic was all about: sideways basketball hats, big pants, matchy-matchy outfits, cool stuff like motorcycles and sports. The Backstreet Boys were not exactly what I would describe as “hot,” but they had a certain everyman quality to them that made their appeal a little more universal than rock bands of the era who mostly just looked good if you preferred your dudes unshaven and dirty. The whole Backstreet vibe was designed to suggest that you might have a Backstreet Boy sitting behind you in homeroom. In the clip for “As Long As You Love Me,” the boys harmonize innocently while a group of buttoned-up female secretaries film them. It’s amazing what the industry can sell as “sexy” when enough money is thrown behind it.
Backstreet Boys remains one of the best-selling debut albums in history. Investigating it 20 years on will at first make you question what it was that made you feel extremely in love with Nick Carter when you were six years old, and then it will make you think about why you even had a crush on anyone when you were six years old. Good marketing is good marketing, and Backstreet Boys had a little something for (almost) everyone when they broke into the US market all those years ago. Backstreet Boys set a precedent that pop music wasn’t about authenticity, it was all about presentation and showmanship. It asks fans and casual listeners to question what’s authentic about a band and what isn’t and whether or not we should buy into the artifice of it all. It’s certainly a lot more fun if we do.