I Wanted It That Way, Part IV
|July 1, 2013||Posted by Jess under Adventures in Real Life, Celebrities, Music, Tweendom|
The last leg of the Black and Blue was kind of the last hurrah for the Backstreet Boys as a cultural juggernaut. Around the same time it ended, they released their Greatest Hits album, along with a new song, “Drowning.”1 It went platinum several times over, but things weren’t the same. Nick was working on a solo album, Brian was soon to become a father, and Kevin was nearing his what? 70th birthday? 80th?2 Their compatriots were winding down and branching out too: Justin went solo, Britney went crazy, and the lesser ranks of late 90s bubblegum pop artists were fading along with the big stars.
I was changing, too. I started at Barnard College in the fall of 2002 and was suddenly an adult! In New York! I was discovering comics and internet communities and the joys of independence. I was busy with classes and work and new friends, both online and off. I didn’t have time to obsess over a mostly-defunct boy band.
Which isn’t to say that I didn’t care. I drove to Atlantic City with my old Backstreet buddy Jamie to see Nick in concert. I saw Kevin on Broadway as Billy Flynn in Chicago, a role in which he was surprisingly sublime.
And I paid attention to the increasingly rare interviews and quotes from the band. They hadn’t broken up, they promised. They were working on new music, they promised. They would have a new album out this year, they promised.
It infuriated me.
They were obviously broken up. They were all off doing their own things. They didn’t really seem to get along very well anymore. The music industry had moved on. Why did they keep lying? Why couldn’t they just admit that it was over? After the years I’d spent on them, the tears I’d shed, the money I’d shelled out, didn’t they owe it to me to at least be honest?
And then, just when I’d all but forgotten them, I got a call from Holly. It was the summer after my junior year of college. The Backstreet Boys were, shockingly, actually releasing a new album. Moreover, they were giving out wristbands at Virgin Megastore the day the album dropped. Get a wristband, go to an album signing. Did I want to go?
I might have changed a bit since my boy band-chasing high school days, but I hadn’t changed that much. Of course I wanted to go! So Holly and a couple of other old high school cronies and I drove into the city and we set up camp on 43rd Street, and I do mean camp: picnic blankets, lawn chairs, snacks, reading materials. No longer were we excitable teenagers, hopping up and down all night, needing nothing to sustain us but adrenalin. We were women, and women waited for their boy bands calmly, sitting down and eating Bugles. I even took a nap, which, uh, I don’t super recommend sleeping on the street in Times Square, but at least I was surrounded by people I knew? The point is, the alchemy of the line was totally different. I wanted to see them, yes, but that feeling that I would die if I didn’t – and possibly die even if I did – was gone.
Bright and early the next morning, we were given our albums and wristbands and set loose upon the city to kill time until the signing. After lunch, sleep-deprived and slightly smelly, we returned to the store, where we were let in in a line that snaked through the CD racks.
And then, one by one, we went up to the table and met the Backstreet Boys. Hugs weren’t allowed, since it would involve too much time and breaking formation, so I exchanged a few words and a businesslike handshake with each one before getting their John Hancock on my CD’s liner notes.
Look, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t get excited; that I didn’t scream with everyone else when they came in; that I didn’t babble and stammer and embarrass myself when I met them. I did. I jumped up and down after we left the store. I held that CD in sweaty, shaking hands. It was a big deal.
Relatedly: they are very handsome up close.
But there were no tears. There were no hysterics. No one was carted away. No bras were flung at their heads. As jubilant and excited as we all were, we met them like, you know, rational young women. Maybe we were too old, maybe they were, but the Beatlemania Effect was not in evidence.
And you know, as desperately as I wanted to meet them when I was 16, I’m glad I did it when I was 21, and able to process it better.
A friend of mine once described that album, Never Gone, as “full of love songs by the Backstreet Boys to the Backstreet Boys,” and it’s the most accurate description that ever descripted. About half of the songs are about regretting a breakup, but overall the album is bouncy and joyful. Like, “I was wrong! I missed you! But now we’re back together and it’s great!” Subtle. It’s actually my second favorite BSB album after Millennium, which feels like a bit of a betrayal of their glory days, but oh well.
Anyway, regardless of what the artists intend, the albums we love mean what we need them to mean at the time we most love them. For me, Never Gone was about closure:
Are you still the same or did you change somehow?
What do you do
At this very moment when I think of you?
And when I’m looking back
How we were young and stupid
Do you remember that?
Why yes, Brian, I do remember that. And how kind of you to ask!
Never Gone is an album about goodbyes, but not sad ones. It’s an album about regret, but a tongue-in-cheek, fond, “boy was I stupid” kind of way. It’s an album about growing apart but not forgetting. I mean, the title is Never Gone, you guys.3
I had been so angry a couple years before at the Boys, so hurt by their refusal to admit that things were over and what felt like a betrayal of my loyalty. Time had mostly healed that wound, but Never Gone – and growing a few years older – finished the job.
Never Gone was, to my surprise, not their last album. Kevin left in 2006, but the remaining four members released Unbreakable in 2007 and This Is Us in 2009.4 Everyone but Kevin has released a solo album; Nick has two, including the one from way back in 2002.5 They toured with New Kids on the Block as the NKOTBSB supergroup in 2011, and announced Kevin’s return to the band last April. They’re releasing their eighth album in July and are currently in the midst of a world tour.
At first I was a bit put-off by this disruption of the narrative. I got my closure! Why are they keeping on keeping on?
But that’s the thing about closure. It lets you let the other person live their life, without feeling like you owe them anything, or are owed in return. It allows you to let go.
I’ve said before that the Spice Girls were my best friends in middle school. The Backstreet Boys got me through high school. Not in a dramatic “they saved my life!” kind of way, although I’m sure for some people they did. But they gave me something to care about, to be passionate over, even to, yes, fixate on. They gave me the dizzying highs and lows of a starcrossed romance without any of the mundanity of actually knowing them. They gave me a way to make friends and understand my place in an entirely new setting, not to mention some great stories. They helped me define my adolescence, and myself by extension.
Yeah, I spent a lot of money. I shed a lot of tears. I did some stupid things in the throes of my obsession. But looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
- In fact, they first publicly performed “Drowning” as an encore at that very concert that I’d left early in order to stalk them. Ah well, hindsight is 20/20. ↩
- Jess Plummer: Taking cheap shots at Kevin’s age since 1999. ↩
- The title song is actually a heartbreaking song about the death of, depending on which interview you read, Kevin’s father or Kevin and Brian’s grandfather. Either way, it’s a tearjerker, but a very joyous one. ↩
- …Neither of which are very good. Sorry Boys, I still love you! ↩
- …Which is the only one of their solo albums I’ve heard. I am the worst fan. ↩