Backstreet Boys’ US Debut Turns 15: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
“New heartthrobs, huh?” the newscaster said. “What do the girls have to say about this?” Dressed in identical motorcycle jackets, Orlando, Fla.’s Backstreet Boys shrugged until Howie Durough said, “They like it.” Apparently though, Florida’s Channel 6 didn’t need to ask. Later on, all five members stood before about 30 female spectators with their heads lowered, ready to sing “Loverboy.” AJ McLean mumbled some lines about wind-up toys. Girls screamed. But, given the audience’s tame claps, their yelps sounded as realistic as a sitcom laugh track.
Going into its segment, dated 1993 on YouTube, Florida’s Channel 6 had already written its story: Backstreet Boys were the next New Kids on the Block. (The newscaster even refused to say the group’s name out loud, as if afraid to jinx it.) But in 1997, Backstreet Boys ushered in a brand new era of teen, and even preteen, hysterics with its US debut — a mishmash of older songs that had been test-driven abroad and radio singles written by Cheiron Studios in Stockholm, the outfit behind the decade’s early breakout act, Ace of Base. Backstreet Boys spent more than two years on the Billboard 200 and peaked at #4. And 15 years after its initial release (the record hit American record stores on Aug. 12, 1997), the album conjures up distinct memories of young fandom: the Total Request Live rankings, the Teen People covers and the debates over which Boy was your first, second and third favorite.
Backstreet Boys, “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”
After “Loverboy,” Backstreet learned to be far more succinct. “Jam on this precious body / Come on now, everybody,” they instruct in “We Got It Goin’ On,” a minor stateside hit. “Am I sexual?” Nick Carter asks in “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” — a question that still doesn’t make any sense. But as Cheiron Studios figured out, the Boys’ greatest asset was blatant cat-calling with its youngest member’s voices at the forefront.
Producer-songwriters Herbert Crichlow and then-newbie Max Martin took this precise approach when they wrote the album’s second US single “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”. I’s easy to see why it became the Backstreet Boys’ first real breakout: Brian Littrell sings, “Even in my heart, I see / you’re not being true to me,” his honeyed voice sighing with hints of blind optimism. If that woman apologized, he would run right back to her.
From there, the Boys kept singing of unconditional devotion: “I don’t have a fancy car / to get to you, I’d walk a thousand miles”; “Don’t care what is written in your history / as long as you’re here with me”.
Backstreet Boys, “As Long As You Love Me”
The album is almost neatly divided between those simplistic singles and other songs, carefully borrowed from male vocal groups before them, that mine more complicated emotions. The best song that wasn’t a Top 10 hit, “I’ll Never Break Your Heart,” reminds of Boyz II Men for two reasons: the impassioned begging between the sweeter Littrell and dramatic McLean, and how Kevin Richardson evokes one-time Boyz bass singer Michael McCary with his own spoken interlude: “Baby, I know you’re hurting. Right now you feel like you can never love again…” Is it overly cheesy? Yes. Is it still comforting? Like the best of Boyz II Men, of course.
What’s more unexpected, even 15 years later, is the fivesome’s cover of P.M. Dawn’s Hot 100 #1 hit, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”. While the Boys sing a distilled version of the original, they still express far more specific feelings — “Reality’s replaced you with the biggest empty void I’ve ever had in life” — than their pop Svengalis ever wrote for them. After all, so many lyrics are difficult to memorize.
Backstreet Boys, “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”
“I wish that people would realize that we have the goods and we are legit,” Richardson told Rolling Stone right before the release of their second US album, the record-breaking Millennium. At the time (especially since Carter was only 17) Backstreet’s indignation seemed trite. But in retrospect, the songs that weren’t singles help to make sense of their insistence to be taken seriously — and to even start writing, as Littrell did on Millenium single “Larger Than Life”.
For four years after that Channel 6 interview, the group toured abroad and returned home to little fanfare. Backstreet Boys, the album, changed that. It was a thorough introduction to both the kids singing the songs and to the industry machine that fueled them. The rabid fanaticism surrounding them wouldn’t reach a fever pitch until years later, when Millennium debuted at #1, selling more than a million copies in its first week. Right before that release, about a hundred squealing, screaming and crying fans encircled the Boys for their “I Want It That Way” video. Considering Backstreet Boys’ chart takeover, the crowd seemed entirely too small.