I Wanted It That Way: A Retrospective of Backstreet Boys Fanatacism
|April 3, 2013||Posted by Jess under Adventures in Real Life, Celebrities, Music, Tweendom|
I used to be a Backstreet Boys fan.
Wait, let me rephrase that. I am a Backstreet Boys fan, though I’ve only listened to their most recent couple of albums once or twice through each and I didn’t go to see them on tour with New Kids on the Block. I’m still fond of those fellas. I still listen to their old stuff. I, um, still have a Google Alert set up for Brian Littrell.1
But when I was sixteen, I was a Backstreet Boys fan. I ate, slept, and breathed Backstreet. I spent money on them like it was going out of style.2 I got grounded for the only time in my life for them. I was totally that girl crying over them on MTV.
I recently realized – thanks to an announcement about their upcoming new album, world tour, and documentary – that this is their 20th anniversary.3 And since I’ve been thinking about documenting The Crazy Years in blogpost form for a while now, what better incentive than that?
So here it is: my misspent youth as a Backstreet Boys fan.
I’m sure it will shock you all to find out that I was a musical theater nerd even as a small child. I didn’t really listen to popular music (well, popular music of the second half of the 20th century) until middle school, when I started riding the bus to school and became a third party to my bus driver’s love affair with Jock Jams. It helped, though, that middle school – 1995-1998, for me – fell during The Great Pop Renaissance of the 90s. First came the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe.” Then came Hanson’s “MMMBop.” Then came the Backstreet Boys.
I didn’t care.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” BSB’s first single in the US.4 But aside from purchasing and obsessively listening to Spice, I was content to listen to pop music as it came up on the radio, and not pursue it beyond that. I remember listening to Backstreet Boys at a friend’s house in eighth grade and making up (terrible) choreography to “Everybody” (and wondering why it was called “Backstreet’s Back” when they hadn’t gone anywhere5). I remember hearing “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” for the first time and thinking it was astonishingly beautiful. (I still do.) I remember compiling a list of celebrity hotties with my friends in a Lisa Frank notebook (yup) and including Nick Carter on someone’s suggestion. But I didn’t really care.
The summer between middle school and high school, I moved from Brooklyn to suburban New Jersey – and from girls who listened to hip hop and grunge to the Backstreet Boys-loving-est school in America. (Seriously. Our state championship-winning football team used “Larger Than Life” as their entrance music.) BSB released “I Want It That Way” in April of my freshman year and the record-shattering Millennium in May. I remember my classmate Jamie getting a copy before anyone else and the whole class, myself including, passing it around to gaze at the album art. I remember that summer at camp when the cabin next to mine played “I Want It That Way” and “Larger Than Life” seemingly 24 hours a day.
I still didn’t care.
Sophomore year, though, Jamie and I became friends. And to know Jamie was to know the Backstreet Boys. I heard songs of theirs that weren’t on the radio. I discovered that Brian was the funny one and that Nick loved the ocean. I learned to tell AJ and Howie apart. Apparently they were people? Who knew!
Just before Christmas break, I went to my first concert: Jingle Ball ‘99, an annual event hosted by a local radio station. The lineup was a hilarious time capsule of The Pop Music of 1999: Jessica Simpson (who got sick and canceled), Jennifer Lopez in her “Waiting for Tonight” era, Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, Robbie Williams, Smashmouth, and the headliners…98 Degrees. As the later, bigger acts finished their sets, audience members left, which allowed me and my friends to move up closer and closer to the front. By the time 98 Degrees came out, we were in one of the first rows.
“They are so hot,” my friend Mimi said as Nick earnestly informed us that we were his sunshine after the rain.6
It was late, and it was loud, and we were so close to them, surrounded by girls screaming their names, and we’d been screaming in general all night, and my adrenalin levels were at an extraordinary high, and though I’d never thought much about 98 Degrees before – and though I still didn’t really know what “hot” meant to me – all of a sudden, yes, they were so hot.
(This, though I didn’t realize it until…I started to write this post, actually…was my first experience with what I’ll call the Beatlemania Effect. More – much more – on this later.)
Jamie had a boy band she loved and she seemed to get a lot of enjoyment out of it. Maybe 98 Degrees could be my boy band? Maybe that could be my thing?7
So I would sleep until two in the afternoon, wake up and spend time with my dad and little sibs, then go back to my room when everyone else went to bed and watch MTV until four in the morning. Aside from seeing every single episode of Undressed nine times, I watched avidly for anything featuring “my band.” My diligence was not particularly rewarded; their Christmas video, “This Gift,” was in fairly heavy rotation, but not in the wee hours.
However. The Backstreet Boys had done a number of MTV specials to promote Millennium earlier in the year, and that was what MTV pulled out to fill that crucial 2 a.m. slot. So pretty much every night for a week I watched the Boys shooting the breeze with Carson Daly, singing acoustic versions of their hits, and, most importantly, goofing off. They played dumb trivia games with fans, they argued over who had the messiest bunk on the tour bus (answer: everyone except Kevin), they ragged on each other. They weren’t just a boy band; they were a boy band who were friends and had fun.
Note to anyone who might be reading this post in hopes of forming their own boy band: that is the key. Failed boy band Svengalis lean way too hard on the “look how hot they are!” angle, but hotness without personality can only take you so far. (“So far” = “a profile in J-14 that nobody reads.”) “Are Friends and Have Fun” was also what gave Nsync their charm, and was essentially the tagline of the Spice Girls, who have always been marketed more like a boy band than a typical girl group. Today, with YouTube and social media giving fans an unprecedented level of (somewhat artificial) access into celebrities’ private lives, it’s more important than ever: see One Direction’s success for a perfect example. Nickelodeon has made a whole (wonderful) TV show about this: Big Time Rush might as well be called The Are Friends and Have Fun Show.8 Are Friends. Have Fun. It’s important.
And it made me a Backstreet Boys fan.
I didn’t know it had happened at first, not really. My (10-year-old) sister had gotten Millennium as a Christmas gift, and I used my privilege as oldest sibling to demand that we listen to it pretty much non-stop for the rest of my visit. I made my first forays into looking for pictures of them online, a tricky proposition in the pre-Google Image Search days. And MTV was airing a big New Year’s Eve special that included the premiere of the “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely” video (Ring in the new year with the most depressing video of all time! Toast the new millennium to shots of Brian struggling for breath in a hospital bed and Howie being haunted by the spectre of his dead sister! Good choice, MTV.), so I invited a friend over to watch it with me. (Yes, I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 sitting in my living room with one other person watching MTV. I was a Kool Kid, let me tell you.) We watched the video, and yes – I totally cried.
When school started up again, I hammered Jamie with questions: How many albums did they have? Did she want to go to the mall that weekend so that I could pick them up? How could I watch their old music videos? What songs did Brian sing lead on (because it was important that I knew for when we TOTALLY GOT MARRIED)? How could I get the rarer songs?9 I think Jamie was a bit unpleasantly surprised to find out that I was horning in on her Backstreet-loving turf, but she accompanied me to FYE to pick up Backstreet Boys (the US version) and Millennium anyway.
Thus began the obsession that would eat two years of my life. I suppose it could’ve been worse – I could’ve become an Undressed fanatic. Yikes.
Stay tuned for the good stuff: thousands of dollars spent on stupid crap, running through Times Square in a mob of screaming girls, and being ordered out of a building by the police! Man, I hope my mom never reads these posts.
- It’s very, very boring. Sorry, B-Rok, but I keep it real. ↩
- Which, um, it was. Too soon? ↩
- Sorry I made you feel old. ↩
- They formed in 1993, when the market for boy bands in the US was on the decline. By the time they released their first album in 1995, DJs in America wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. They went to Europe, where they made it big, then tried again in the US in 1997. This time it worked. ↩
- The US debut album, Backstreet Boys, was an amalgamation of their European debut, also called Backstreet Boys, and their European follow-up, Backstreet’s Back. The more you know! ↩
- Also, the cure for all his fear and his pain. ‘Cause he’s losing his MIND when WE’RE not aROUND…sorry. ↩
- I convinced myself I was a Jeff fan. I was also a JC girl. Basically, find me the second most popular member of any given boy band and I shall lust for him in my heart. Except for One Direction, because they are babies. ↩
- I haven’t talked about Big Time Rush here all that much, but man, if you love pop music and you aren’t watching this show, you are missing out on a very affectionate but very, very knowing and hilarious send-up of the whole industry. ↩
- This was pre-Napster, kids! ↩