Backstreet Boys’ ‘Millennium’ Turns 15: Backtracking
Barring the whole Y2K-will-kill-us-all thing, the turn of the century was a great time to be a teen. There was something exciting and a little scary about being so conspicuously young at a time when the world was getting so conspicuously old. Fin de siècle fears didn’t stand a chance, however, against the unstoppable forward momentum of young hearts and the pop music that propels them.
The fizziest year of that sugar-rush resurgence of teen pop, 1999 gave us constellations of era-defining stars — within those 12 months, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson and Mandy Moore all debuted. (Say What? Karaoke.) The biggest act of ’99, however, was Backstreet Boys, who released their masterpiece Millennium on May 18 of that year. Nominated for five Grammys, it became the year’s best-selling album with almost 10 million copies sold. One of — if not the — most iconic sonic snapshots of its pop cultural era, Millennium to date has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide.
So read on as we celebrate the landmark LP, which turns 15 on Sunday.
“It was the perfect title and the perfect storm,” says Lori Majewski, co-author with Jonathan Bernstein of Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and the Songs That Defined the 1980s, as well as a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Teen People. “Backstreet Boys were at their height, TRL was at its height, teen pop was at its height, and nobody had a bigger record at that time.”
It’s true. With *NSYNC ascendant but not yet at the peak of their “this must be…pop!” powers, BSB were teen pop’s unquestionable kings, effortlessly marrying their trademark smooth vocals to jams both slow-n-silky as well as spiky-n-(safely)-sexy. Around the world, Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, A.J. McLean and Kevin Richardson smoldered wholesomely down from millions of bedroom wall posters as fans voted obsessively on TRL, discussed the merits and minutia of each Boy and, of course, gave the oh-so-futuristic-seeming Millennium a spin on their (yikes) CD players.
Kicking off with A.J.’s bad-boy cackling, opening track “Larger Than Life” seems surprisingly aggressive at first, with its “Scream”/“Spice Up Your Life”-inspired video and Brian panting that he’s “wishing I could thank you in a different way… come on!” (Cue a thousand slumber-party squeals.) The kicker for the song, the album and the Boys’ appeal, however, is that they aren’t singing about being “Larger Than Life” themselves — they’re honoring their fans for being so. (Cue a thousand birthday-shopping moms and grandmas approvingly sighing, “What nice young men!” as they toss another CD into the cart.)
Polite? Yes. Pandering? Perhaps. But with enough pelvic thrusting and boyish enthusiasm, Backstreet managed to have it both ways. That was key in the pre-Twitter era, where young fans made their voices heard one tearfully shrieked TRL testimonial at a time: “Myname’sAllisonandI’mvotingforBackstreetbecauseAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!”
“We always said it was a golden age for being a teenager. It was a time when there was a lot of pride in being young,” Majewski says. “Today, things like Bieber’s behavior gives teen pop culture a bad name. But back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were dealing with artists who were grateful, talented and hard-working. I want to defend Backstreet and these guys because they truly never took a day off.”
As the crowd noise from “Larger Than Life” fades out, a melancholy guitar leads into the second track, “I Want It That Way.” As manufactured as BSB and their ilk could be — both at their best and worst — everything about this song seems achingly genuine and built to last, from the fact that each Boy gets a restrained, passionate solo to how surprisingly sad and universal it felt then, today and for always.
“It’s one of the best pop songs, ever,” Majewski adds, “but it actually had different lyrics the first time I heard it when I was with Backstreet Boys in Orlando. I think Jive CEO Barry Weiss insisted they change the lyrics, and when I heard it again, I was like, ‘You want what that way and how exactly do you want it?’”
The enduring mystery of the lyrics, she says, is reminiscent of Meat Loaf’s similarly massive “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That),” where, once again, no one ever finds out exactly what “that” is.
“Of course, at the time, many people were saying it must be about anal sex,” laughs Majewski. “But the beauty of ‘I Want It That Way’ is that it means whatever you want it to. I don’t think Backstreet Boys know what it means. I don’t think Max Martin knows what it means. And that’s why it’s genius: it means anything you want it to.”
Neck-and-neck with Britney’s “…Baby One More Time” as the ultimate anthem of the TRL era, “I Want It That Way” also inspired the through-line of Blink-182’s iconic parody video. (Bonus points for the emotional, naked “I Want You That Way, Baby!” male fan.)
The album’s third track is the mournful, mature “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely.” Steeped in loss and pain — coloring the entire cut are the deaths of Howie’s sister and Max Martin’s mentor Denniz PoP, not to mention Brian’s heart surgery — the song and video showcase a depth not usually associated with acts of the era.
“I thought it went farther than any of those boy bands had gone before and it became my instant favorite,” Majewski says. “Everyone said that *NSYNC got Backstreet’s leftovers, but I don’t think that was necessarily the case — the next track, ‘It’s Gotta Be You,’ is from the same people who brought you *NSYNC, so what did they do a couple years later? *NSYNC’s ‘It’s Gonna Be Me.’”
While that *NSYNC song would be the only Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 by one of that era’s main boy bands — unless you count Mariah Carey taking pity on 98 Degrees and letting them, Joe and everyone and their dog feature on the chart-topping “Thank God I Found You” — overall, Backstreet’s output seemed the most polished of their contemporaries, exemplified by the glossy professionalism of Millennium. No track sounds rough or unfinished, and even sweet but forgettable fluff like the pair of songs from Star Search alum Andrew Fromm — “I Need You Tonight” and “Spanish Eyes” (sadly not this far superior cut) — seems masterfully calculated to appeal to the mothers of Backstreet fans. That’s not to say, of course, that moms didn’t enjoy the group for other reasons.
“You’d think that Nick Carter would have gotten all the youngest teenybopper fans, but the truth was he had a lot of MILFs writing in to Teen People about him. Here’s why: in concert, Nick was a performer beyond his years,” says Majewski. “The first time I ever saw Backstreet was at a grad night at Disney World, and I couldn’t believe — Nick must’ve been 16 at the time — how he was moving his hips in a way that would make Elvis blush!”
Some of that swagger comes across in the pulsing “Don’t Want You Back,” most notably in the cleverly inserted “Backstreet’s back, all right!” callback, but what’s most interesting about a lot of the set’s pleasant but filler-y jams is how you can hear the DNA of later teen hits: “Don’t Wanna Lose You Tonight” is an ancestor of Britney’s “Sometimes,” the whisper-thin “Back To Your Heart” and “No One Else Comes Close” could totally have had a child who had a child who had a child who grew up to be *NSYNC’s “(God Must Have Spent) A Little More Time On You” and the gratitudelicious “The One” surely potato-sack-raced Celine Dion’s “A New Day Has Come” at various family reunions. (Maybe it’s the Willa Ford in me, but the less said about the painfully sincere tribute to the Backstreet moms, “The Perfect Fan,” the better.)
Although its shadow is far-reaching, over the past 15 years, Millennium hasn’t quite received its rightful due. Critics and fans seem to view the turn-of-the-century teen pop revolution as a first-love, summer romance: fun at the time, nice to reminisce about, but quickly forgotten and never meant to last. True fans of music, however, realize that “first-love, summer romance” epitomizes the power of pop music itself: the ability to freeze forever in time a memory, an emotion, a moment. For everyone who grew up loving music during the crazy bridge between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries — or at least wants to discover how it felt to listen and love and live, at least a little, back then — Millennium is for you.
“I went the other day to the VH1 Big Morning Buzz studio to promote Mad World and I realized it was the old TRL studios! I looked out the window and remembered what it was like to look down and see the thousands of fans who would gather in front of the studio, to gaze up and wave signs and scream for their favorite songs and singers,” Majewski says. “When you’re young — or young at heart — you respond to music viscerally in a way that you aren’t a willing participant. It swallows you up. Good music is good music, no matter the decade, so I hope readers will give Millennium a re-listen.”
What’s your favorite Millennium memory? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to pick up a copy of Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and the Songs That Defined the 1980s by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein, available now on Amazon.
And for the next chapter in the BSB legacy, check out Nick Carter talking about Nick & Knight below: