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Pop Music

Backstreet Boys


When I was in seventh grade, there were three fantasies that controlled my romantic daydreams. There was the future husband fantasy, about a man with gray eyes who would play the piano, belong to Greenpeace and love Jesus.

Our first meeting would be in a college marine biology course. We would fall in love and spend our lives studying dolphins and whales in never-ending marital bliss. Then there were the boys I had crushes on: Fred and Malcolm, Rudy and Kevin. I ranked them in my journal, and updated the list frequently, crossing out the names of those who were mean to me.

Both those dreams were mild, though, compared to my famous actor/singer reveries. I just knew that if I met pop idol Shaun Cassidy in my hometown, that he would love me. He would see beyond my awkward 12-year-old exterior and recognize the beauty I had inside.

Today’s teen girls aren’t so different from those of 20 years ago. They look for love around them, and turn to the beautiful and famous when those close to home disappoint. Sometimes I think the sole purpose of that strange musical phenomenon, the boy band, is to give girls hope that someday they will find someone to love them, someone not afraid to show his feelings.

It’s not adults, after all, who are the primary fan base of these groups, or teen boys, who run screaming from mushy love songs. No. Girls are the power -- and money -- behind the boy band movement.

One of the hottest boy bands today, the Backstreet Boys, does little to differentiate itself from the romantic crooners I loved when I was a teen. Sure, they sport updated clothes and hairstyles, and their songs pound with a ’90s edge, but the lyrics haven’t changed much. Love songs seldom do. Why mess with success?

Their latest album “Millennium” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, breaking a previous first week sales record held by Garth Brooks. Nearly five months after its release, it’s still No. 2 on the Billboard charts. Their “Millennium” tour sold out in one day, most of the concerts in less than an hour, setting speed sales records in many venues and causing 13 additional concert dates to be released. Not surprisingly, some teen fans camped out for days in hopes of getting tickets.

No matter that the group’s oldest members are long past boyhood and too old to be logical objects of adolescent fervor. They sing a good love song. This alone will keep them going strong, at least until the early part of the next millennium.

There are five “boys”: Kevin, 27; “Howie D,” 26; “A-J,” 21; Brian “B-Rok,” 24; and baby Nick, 19. In “Millennium” they’ve made a pleasant album, with a nice mix of fast and slow songs and an abundance of soaring, passionate harmonies. There is nothing discordant, disturbing or jarring here, nothing not to like. Sadly, there is nothing especially inspiring either.

The album’s first single “I Want It that Way” topped out at No. 6 on the Billboard charts with a lyric line that’s pleasing but predictable. “You are my fire/The one desire/Believe when I say/I want it that way.” Of course “fire” would rhyme with “desire.” Just as “try” and “goodbye” go together in “Back to Your Heart,” which says, “It’s not that I can’t live without you/It’s just that I don’t even want to try/Every night I dream about you/Ever since the day we said goodbye.”

All the songs run along this predictable road, with familiar themes and word combinations. Other offerings include “I Need You Tonight,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You Now,” “No One Else Comes Close,” and “The One,” where the boys take on God-like properties. “I’ll be the one/Who will make all your sorrows undone/I’ll be the light/When you feel like there’s nowhere to run/I’ll be the one/To hold you/And make sure that you’ll be all right/My fear is gone/And I want to/Take you from darkness to light.” No self-esteem problems here. It’s a catchy tune, one that almost forces you to dance. And isn’t this what everyone wants? Someone to be “the one, the light” in their lives? Except that’s what Jesus is supposed to do for us. Maybe the Backstreet Boys can, too, since they are so cute and ’90s hip.

None of the songs on “Millennium” veer far from the formulaic. Perhaps the closest is “The Perfect Fan,” co-written by group member Littrell, because of the song’s intended recipient. Unlike every other piece on the album, which is sung to some vague “you girl” out there, its focus is a boy’s first love, his mother. “You showed me/When I was young just how to grow … Everything that I should know … Just how to walk without your hands/’Cause Mom you always were/The perfect fan.” Isn’t that special?

Another current album single “Larger Than Life” acknowledges the group’s fan base with a strange sort of tribute. Even though the boys may be surrounded by security guards and unreachable, even though they “run and hide/When you’re screamin’ my name,” they want the girls to know that their “love’s affecting our reality”: “Everytime we’re down/You can make it right/And that makes you larger than life.”

The boys themselves are feeling larger than life now, if the rambling thank yous in the CD liner notes are any indication. “Howie D” cites the dictionary definition of “millennium” and then says that in their case, the word “takes on a new meaning which I define as: the coming of the new Backstreet Boys album to the world. To be heard for another thousand years to come, God willing, since it is He who gave us our talents to spread peace and happiness to everyone through the harmonies in our music.”

Somehow, I doubt this. Which doesn’t mean that the boys aren’t talented or nice guys. Four of the five make religious references in their thank yous. A.J. thanks Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior. Brian quotes the Psalms and thanks “JESUS” for “MERCY and GRACE.” Howie mentions his Heavenly Father, and Kevin says the album is a “blessing.” It also doesn’t mean that their music isn’t likable. It’s a fun listen, good for dancing or driving or cleaning. It’s just not millennial material. When the year 3000 rolls around, the Backstreet Boys won’t be on the critics’ “best of the ages” list; they’re not even there now. Folks will forget about them, just as they’ve already forgotten about that earlier boy group sensation New Kids on the Block.

One of the good things about getting old is gaining perspective on current fads. You remember when you wore bellbottoms and orange. You remember when you loved Barry Manilow and Air Supply with the same fervor that today’s fans bestow on the Backstreet Boys. If I were 12 today, I’m sure I’d love Nick and Howie D, with his pretty eyes. Thankfully, I’m not. Truth be told, I think A.J. looks weird, with his earrings, sideburns, thin beard, dark glasses. Kevin looks overly serious, even threatening. None of the boys smiles in the jacket pictures. Which runs against the “how I love you, girl” current in the songs. If you love me, sweet Backstreet Boy, can’t you smile, just once?

It would be nice if the music of the next millennium brought us something new. It would be even better if girls of the future had different dreams from the ones I had as a teen, where something more than marketing and the right look determined who they fell in love with, where their hopes were set on Jesus, the ultimate reality. Don’t bet on it, though. As long as young girls dance alone in their bedrooms, groups like the Backstreet Boys will rule the airwaves. When they fade, another group will take their place.

This, then, is one certainty of the new millennium: The way the world is now, fantasy man will be part of it. He dies hard. Sometimes, he lives forever.

Robin Taylor writes from Salt Lake City.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999