The Week In Pop

Backstreet’s Back, But It’s Not Alright

In the Backstreet Boys’ video for 1998 mega-hit “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” the group’s tour bus breaks down outside what turns out to be a haunted house. Reluctantly, they decide to stay the night, after which “Thriller”-style horror hijinks ensue. The boys in the band appear in costume as various kinds of ghoulish creatures. If you watched MTV at all at the dawn of the TRL era, you remember this video. If you were alive that year, you’ve certainly heard the song: “Everybody! Yeah! Rock your body right! Backstreet’s back, alright!”

Two decades later, Backstreet really is back, not as werewolves or vampires or mummies but possibly as zombies, their once-dead career now reanimated. At the turn of the millennium, they rivaled NSYNC at the forefront of a thriving teen-pop scene. Two #1 albums, 1999’s Millennium and 2000’s Black & Blue, moved 30 million and 24 million copies worldwide respectively. Millennium went Diamond, which means it surpassed 10 million copies in the US alone, and then it went Platinum three more times.

Weirdly, they never landed a #1 hit on the Hot 100 — not even “I Want It That Way,” which only made it to #6(?!) — but they did tally six top 10 singles and sent video after video to the top of TRL. And then, along with every other male star from their era not named Justin Timberlake, the Boys saw diminishing commercial returns in the years following Y2K. Their music continued to be gobbled up by core fans all throughout the aughts, but their singles kept charting lower and lower until they weren’t charting at all, and their album sales dwindled such that even going Gold now seemed like a reach.

The group has been slowly making a comeback over the course of this decade. They played arenas around the world as part of nostalgic package tours with the likes of New Kids On The Block. Some of them starred in a zombie western from the makers of Sharknado alongside members of NSYNC. Two years ago, BSB collaborated with Florida Georgia Line in hopes of scoring one of FGL’s patented pop-country crossover hits. Although that didn’t pan out, last year they landed a single on the Hot 100 for the first time in 11 years. That song, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” only made it up to #63, but I heard it on the radio with my own ears, the first time I consciously remember hearing a new Backstreet Boys song in the wild since high school (Westerville North class of ’02, baby).

Last Friday they released a new album called DNA, their first in five and a half years, which Billboard projects will debut at #1 with more than 200,000 equivalent album units. That number doesn’t just dwarf all the rest of Backstreet’s recent success — it’s easily the biggest week for an album in 2019 so far and would have ranked among the 20 biggest debuts of last year.

The majority of those units are copies of the album bundled with the purchase of concert tickets. It’s a common strategy among legacy artists these days: a way to expose fans to your fresh material ahead of a tour, but also a way to leverage the popularity of your old music to create the illusion of popularity for your new music. But most bundling deals don’t equate to 200,000 copies. Who knows, maybe Backstreet’s 2013 album In A World Like This would have put up similar numbers had album-ticket bundles been the industry standard back then.

Even if the stats don’t necessarily indicate a full-scale BSB revival, they definitely suggest there’s an extremely large fan base still eager to see the group in concert. And perhaps with the big chart debut will come heavier promotion for new singles from DNA. They are trending up. As a person who sometimes postured against pop in high school but now enjoys fond nostalgia for BSB’s pool-party jams of yesteryear, I’d be happy for these guys under normal circumstances. Instead, their resurgence ain’t nothin’ but a heartache.

In late 2017, Melissa Schuman of former Bad Boy Records girl group Dream accused Backstreet Boys’ Nick Carter of raping her back in 2002, while they were working together on a TV movie. Carter denied the charges, and LA’s district attorney declined to prosecute him. It’s not the only such allegation against Carter, though; in 2006, he was investigated for a reported sexual assault at a Wisconsin house party. Furthermore, Carter’s fellow Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell dismissed Schuman as a “fame seeker” and suggested she was trying to capitalize on the group’s resurgent popularity, which at best was a clumsy way to discuss the situation.

This new cloud of uncertainty already made the prospect of a new Backstreet Boys album pretty uncomfortable, but actually hearing it was a tipping point for me. Did Carter do these horrible things? I don’t know. What I do know is that DNA is full of lyrics that sound foolish and cruel coming from an artist accused of sex crimes. “New Love,” for instance, begins like this: “Who are you, the sex police? My sex ain’t got no rules.” The hit single begins with a bit about “the kind of love that leaves you battered and broken,” a description that takes on ugly connotations coming from Carter’s own mouth. On “Passionate,” the various Boys carry on at length about how they cannot physically resist the urge to put their hands all over lovely ladies — because they’re just so passionate, you know? That one goes, “I never listen to the voice in my head/ You know, it’s like I got no brakes in my car/ I’m on a mission, gonna sleep when I’m dead/ And it’s impossible to stop when I start.”

Musically, it’s slightly better than you’d ever expect a 2019 Backstreet Boys album to be, country crossover bid “No Place” notwithstanding. Rather than a cover of the Elton John/Kiki Dee duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” is a glossy synth-pop jam that reminds me of M83 and could almost be one of those productions Daft Punk whipped up for the Weeknd. It’s a hit for a reason. Beyond that, DNA only merits faint praise such as: The a cappella “Breathe” may not be Boyz II Men quality, but I’ll take it over Pentatonix. “Is It Just Me” is decent adult contemporary lament. The shimmering “Chateau” proves a boy band ballad can work with a trap beat. “The Way It Was” is an ’80s pop-rock easy rider that reminds me of Don Henley. You could easily slide the competent love song “Just Like You Like It” onto one of the group’s early LPs. Snappy acoustic closer “Ok” is something BSB’s evolutionary descendants One Direction would have recorded near the end.

On balance, no musical flourish on DNA sticks out as much as those tone-deaf lyrics. The album’s paperback-romance pap feels awkward enough with the lingering suspicion that one of these guys is a creep, but to so flagrantly reference the allegations against Carter in song — to not just make light of them but to repurpose them as something sexy? It’s sleazy. It’s gross. It certainly suggests these guys aren’t the sensitive dreamboats they play on TV. None of these words are meaningless gibberish on the level of “I Want It That Way.” The friendliest possible explanation is that the Backstreet Boys are so oblivious they don’t realize how flippant their lyrics sound, which itself raises questions about how everyone in their entourage could possibly be so stupid.

Maybe I’m the only one who is rubbed the wrong way by this. Another lyric from the end of the album is proving prophetic: “Bad things’ll happen, but none of that matters.” Doritos just put Backstreet Boys in a goofy new Super Bowl ad alongside Chance The Rapper, who really ought to think twice about who he associates with. The new single, “Chances” (no relation to the rapper), is beginning its climb. DNA is heading for an emphatic #1 debut. The Backstreet comeback is full speed ahead, and this time we must consider the possibility that there really are monsters among them.

CHART WATCH

Three months ago, Ariana Grande didn’t have any #1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100. Now she has two, and they both made their debut on top. Following her seven weeks at the summit with “thank u, next,” Grande’s “7 Rings” now enters at #1 as well. It’s her 12th top 10 hit and the second #1 from her thank u, next album, due out next week. Some trivia from Billboard: “7 Rings” is the 33rd song in the chart’s 61-year history to debut at #1. Grande is the fifth artist to have multiple songs debut at #1, joining key influences Mariah Carey and Britney Spears plus A-list pop peers Drake and Justin Bieber. She joins Carey and Drake as the only artists to have two #1 debuts off the same album, and she’s the only artist whose first two #1s have both been #1 debuts.

The arrival of “7 Rings” bumps Halsey’s “Without Me” to #2 and Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse)” to #3. At #4 is Grande again with “thank u, next,” while Travis Scott (and Drake)’s “Sicko Mode” is at #5 — meaning all of the top five comprises current or former #1 hits this week. At #6 is Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes,” while Marshmello and Bastille’s “Happier” is at #7. Post Malone’s “Wow.” reaches a new #8 peak.

Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You” is at #9, tying Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” for the third longest tenure in the top 10 at 31 weeks. (Another week would pull it into a tie with LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live” and the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” for second most top 10 weeks. And by hanging on for two more weeks it can tie Ed Sheeran’s record 33-week stint.) And closing the top 10 is Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Drip Too Hard.”

Over on the Billboard 200 albums chart, Future claims his sixth #1 album with 126,000 equivalent album units and 15,000 in pure sales of The WIZRD. He racked up those six chart-topping albums in three and a half years, starting with July 2015’s DS2, which Billboard notes is the fastest rapid pileup of #1 LPs since Elton John released seven in just three years between 1972 and 1975.

Debuting at #2 with 49,000 units is Maggie Rogers’ first album Heard It In A Past Life. With 37,000 in pure sales, it’s the top selling album of the week. From #3 to #8 are A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, the Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse soundtrack, 21 Savage, Meek Mill, Post Malone, and the A Star Is Born soundtrack. Country singer Cody Johnson’s debut album Ain’t Nothin’ To It becomes his first top 10 LP with 35,000 units/23,000 sales. And Travis Scott’s Astroworld rounds out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Dua Lipa – “Swan Song”
“What is the point of my lips if they don’t make noise?” is an especially relevant question when you have a voice like Dua Lipa’s. “Swan Song,” from the heavily promoted new movie Alita: Battle Angel, is a different sort of track for Lipa, harder-edged in a way that reminds me of Lorde’s own soundtrack offering “Yellow Flicker Beat.” This will never be Lipa’s wheelhouse, but again, I like hearing her powerhouse alto translated into new contexts. (Relatedly, I’m super intrigued to hear what she and Tove Lo came up with.)

Troye Sivan & Lauv – “I’m So Tired…”
Sivan recently released Bloom, a lush and lusty ‘80s synth-pop collection. Lauv is the guy behind last year’s inescapable “I like me better when I’m with you” song. It’s kind of crazy how much this song’s aesthetic seems to shift when Sivan takes over from Lauv halfway through, as if it inhabits the sonic universe of whoever’s singing it. I like Sivan’s verse better, but Lauv is proving adept at worming his way into my mind.

Billie Eilish – “Bury A Friend”
Like most Eilish songs, this is more interesting than good. It’s hard to take her teenage rebel shtick too seriously, but you should absolutely consider her a force to be reckoned with.

PRETTYMUCH – “Blind”
A boy band song beholden to Post Malone and Juice WRLD is truly something to behold. Also: It’s not bad!

Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1 EP
I can’t pick just one. You guys, our girl is back on track.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Cardi B and Offset are officially back together according to TMZ. [TMZ]
  • Super Bowl halftime performers Maroon 5, along with Interscope and the NFL, announced a $500,000 donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters Of America. [People]
  • J. Cole, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Meek Mill will perform at the 2019 NBA All-Star Game — one of these things is not like the other! [NBA]
  • Lukas Graham removed their XXXTentacion cover from Spotify, writing that they “had no knowledge of his violent history.” [Instagram]
  • Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson brought “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart” to Ellen. [YouTube]
  • Also on Ellen, Christina Aguilera became the latest pop star to announce a Vegas residency. [Ellen]
  • Marshmello says he has an all-hip-hop album ready to go. [Billboard]
  • Britney Spears filmed a secret cameo for the horror-comedy Corporate Animals (which I guess isn’t a secret anymore). [LA Times]
  • At his latest parole hearing, Manson killer Bobby Beausoleil mentioned how Lady Gaga used his music in a documentary. [TMZ]

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