Backstreet Boys at


Why the Backstreet Boys are Cool

Backstage at the Spring 2001 TV Guide Cover Photo Shoot -- shamelessly ripped from

    It seems there has always been -- and there may always be -- much dissing of the Backstreet Boys (BSB) musical group. And what is it that they did wrong, exactly--?!? I'm guessing that it's because they beat the odds and are currently one of the most popular singing groups in the world. But the way everyone talks, you'd think that it was just handed to them, and that all they had to do was accept it. It was and is hardly that simple! The BSB lineup was finalized in 1993, with a decision that they would sing pop songs that had more than a little rhythm & blues (r&b) feel. They would sing. They would dance. They would be all-around entertainers. So what was the problem??

Well, for starters, it was 1993, and grunge was the rule and order of the day in America. Hey, I was feeling Kurt Cobain & Nirvana, and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, too. Nearly treason for a Michael Jackson fan, I was cool with Nirvana's Nevermind replacing MJ's Dangerous as the number one album in the winter of 1991. I loved "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (although like everyone else that dug it, I wasn't quite sure what Kurt was singing, but he sounded so passionate about it!). Frankly, I wasn't all that crazy about the leaden, robotic production on the Jackson record, and appreciated and valued Kurt's (and Krist Novoselic's and Dave Grohl's) pure rage. It was time for rock to be angry again, and grunge gave us that in spades.

But it meant that the fun and soothing sounds of the Backstreet Boys had no chance in the USA. So it was off to Europe, where their harmonies and dance energy would be fairly heard. And heard it was! The Backstreet Boys became Europe's biggest sensation -- and even indirectly inspired the formation of the Spice Girls (according to an anecdote appearing in "Ginger Spice" Geri Halliwell's memoir, If Only). But it meant that its members led dual lives; while the names of Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean, and Kevin Richardson elicited wild shrieks overseas and sparked pure chaos in European airports, their names meant nothing here in America, and their presence in US airports sparked ... nothing (as member McLean once explained).

I still remember watching the MTV News report back in the late 1990s, which informed me of the boy band craze happening in Europe and where I first heard the phrase, "Backstreet Boys." The phrase stuck in my head -- because it seemed to me a very American-sounding name for a bunch of British guys (which is what I had assumed the band was!). Then later, I heard the Backstreet Boys would be appearing on one of my favorite TV shows, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." I thought: Oh, what a cool opportunity for those guys! They're going to try to break them over here. Why not? -- I mean, why not indeed--? Grunge had died, fading out exponentially with Kurt Cobain's 1994 suicide. I was crushed over it -- and it seemed so was everyone else. Not before had I heard so many rock songs which sounded more like funeral dirges as opposed to anything else.

So I watch the "Sabrina" episode -- and am immediately struck by how American-looking the group is as well! Not until the guys say a few lines does it begin to dawn on me that a band with an American-sounding name and such an American look might actually be American!!

From there I was intensely curious. I could barely believe that a group that was making Europe go absolutely crazy could be so unknown here in America, especially since they were from America!

In time, all of that was left behind, as BSB began to have the kind of success in their home country that they already enjoyed nearly everywhere else in the Western world. But with their success came controversy -- and only someone naive would think that most of this controversy does not continue to this day. Questions are asked -- Who do these five white guys (although Howie & AJ each have one Latino parent) think they are? Isn't this just New Kids on the Block -- which was just a white version of New Edition -- all over again? Aren't they just manufactured? Isn't this Corporate Pop at its best -- or rather, worst? Do these guys even really sing -- is this a white Milli Vanilli as well?? They don't play their own instruments or write their own songs -- why should we even pay attention to these guys?! And it's crazy that all these little girls are screaming over them, because there's no way these guys aren't gay; Backdoor Boys, anyone??

So it's been a long road for these five guys. For every new fan, there's been a new foe.

For the record, BSB has been no more "manufactured" than anyone else out there. Five young men came together to work hard to excel in the kind of popular music they love performing, in hopes that they can have a music career and be paid for their work. This is hardly different from anyone else that enters the music business, from Diana Ross to Limp Bizkit. Even before BSB broke in America, their concerts would briefly feature Nick playing drums, Kevin playing keyboards (as he did in a band before BSB), AJ playing bass, Howie playing guitar, and Brian playing guitar and singing -- sometimes singing a song he wrote himself, "That's What She Said." Another staple of BSB concerts is their performing a song a capella, using just their voices to present the tune. BSB have always cited Boyz II Men -- perhaps the most successful pop/r&b harmony group of all time -- as an important influence to their work. From the legendary Temptations, BSB heard words of advice to not forget to concentrate on the business part of show business, and then they later took steps to separate themselves from their original management, including Lou Pearlman, so as to better control their own destiny. Not just one but two of the members have gotten married, perhaps ending forever that notion that only single pop stars are successful (and somewhere, maybe Ricky Nelson is smiling over it; decades ago, one of pop star Ricky Nelson's tours was mortally wounded when his marriage was announced and scores of female fans returned their concert tickets!). BSB's latest effort, Black & Blue, is the first release to feature songs that the band wrote together as a group, but some individual members have been collecting songwriting credits since very early on in the group's success.

Despite all this, there are still those who don't want to believe.

There's no mistaking that the Backstreet Boys have been a major force in the current popular music. Once they began to take off, it opened the door for the near onslaught of young vocal pop groups which dominate the music scene today, including *NSYNC (a group with whom BSB maintain a complex love/hate relationship, mainly because former manager Lou Pearlman formed this second five-member group behind BSB's back, using many of the same marketing techniques to catapult them into the limelight, and which at this point has resulted in this "little brother" band often surpassing even BSB's impressive career highs). This is especially clear when looking at the pop music scene through the eyes of cable channel MTV's live daily music video countdown program, TRL (Total Request Live), which is usually hosted by Carson Daly. In the entire history of the show, which began in the late 1990s, it's been the rare day when neither BSB nor *NSYNC nor another young group or solo artist hasn't been at the top of the list of most-requested videos for the day.

As it stands, many think BSB still has something to prove. It's as if people want them to apologize for their success, and then go away. What utter nonsense! The Backstreet Boys have already proven that they have the talent, perseverance, and ability to succeed and even thrive in the music business. All artists have career highs and lows, but there's little reason to suspect that this group won't last as long its members want to continue it.

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