I don’t know if there are any good teen pop records.
I don’t even know what that means, or if it even matters. I don’t know how to apply “good” here. For me a “good” album has always meant an album with good songs from beginning to end. The Beatles Stones Radioheads et cetera. Pop music primarily marketed to teenagers, by its very nature, does not work well in this framework. Because who cares about teenagers? Singles plus filler. Sometimes only filler. That is the name of the game.
This is a problem for me because I love pop music for teenagers. I love it in all of is test-marketed, overproduced hot-hunky-boy glory. I love songs with five swarthy buddies in white jackets singing in sweet harmonies. I love pointless Irish Spice Girls knockoffs that nobody asked for. I love poorly choreographed dance routines, awkwardly oversexed lyrics and Chris Kirkpatrick’s dreadlocks. I love it all and I want to live it all, all the time.
I can frame this blog as an attempt to analyse and understand records viewed by most as tawdry, promotional throwaways, to see if there are any great records in the murk. This is not a lie. But the real truth is that this blog is my excuse to devour every teen pop record I can get my hands on, to fully ensconce myself in this world of tanny hunks and smoochy ladies until I can’t escape, until I lose contact with every friend I have and feel good about it, proud. Until I drown like a dog and die in teenager pop. Maybe in the end it won’t even be worth it. But why would I care.
Why would I care.
So I want to talk about the Backstreet Boys.
The Backstreet Boys are described by venerable Allmusic.com scribe Stephen Thomas Erlewine as a group “comprised entirely of white middle-class Americans… ironically, success in their native land did not follow until , when teen pop enjoyed a commercial explosion in America.” So the first self-titled Backstreet Boys record, released in the US in late ’97, is actually a compilation – a mishmash of singles culled from their first two Europe-only records, with a bit of refuse left over. What we are left with is a record that was likely given even less consideration than a standard teen pop record; a slapped-together combo pack engineered solely to capitalize on their sudden American success.
So maybe we’re getting off on the wrong foot here??
But I need to talk about the Backstreet Boys and I need to talk about them first. I do I do. They are the archetypal American male vocal pop group of the late 1990s – or “boy band,” a term that I am so used to that I am going to keep using it even if I know in my heart that its origins are dismissive and mean-spirited. They were together for six years, had a bunch of megahits, and died a surprisingly quick (and vague) death sometime in late 2001. They generated zero solo stars (Nick Carter tried, failed); their 2005 semi-reunion generated almost zero interest, with their comeback record earning a notorious 1-star rating in Rolling Stone magazine; and they are still together today, recording new music and performing, likely the only American group of their kind that this can be said of (with the exception of New Kids On The Block, who they are currently touring with). Unlike rivals *NSYNC (or, more accurately, Justin Timberlake) they couldn’t find a way out of their god-forsaken boy band black hole once that whole thing became passe around 2002. Their status in the public eye transitioned from Kings of Pop to pathetic cultural artifacts so fucking quickly that most didn’t even notice it happened. Probably because most people didn’t care.
But hey. Hey. It’s ok. While they were around the Sweetback Boys churned out some of the best and tightest cookie-cutter radio pop to bless the late 90s/early 2000s. And on Backstreet Boys they are at their youngest and freshest. I could take a second to talk about each Boy individually right now – I mean, that would probably be the right thing to do – but instead I’m going to talk about the boy genius in the Boys’ corner responsible for 90% of their success and maybe the sole reason the group was On Top Of the Heap for such a long time:
The pictured Shark God above is Martin Sandberg, aka Max Martin. Please remember his face and name because I am going to be bringing him up a lot in the future. He is the guy that wrote and produced every Backstreet Boys hit that anybody should care about, and that is barely an exaggeration. And while the guy has written more Billboard hits for more pop megastars than every combined God (including a couple here and there for archrivals *NSYNC), the Backstreet Boys were his most special of all pop boys. His most precious of projects. He was the Backstreet Boys’, and the Backstreet Boys were his.
So what would the BSBoys be without Max??
Well, they’d be half of this album. Boring young men with boring songs.
But before we get to that, there’s the first three tracks! Also known as-
Well, alright. I’m not making a great case for Max here out of the gate. Pretty generic song.
What is this, a jock jam? For jocks??
No, alright. Alright. “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” is ludicrously dated piece of work, but it’s solid. It was their first single, after all, so you can’t judge too harshly. These were young little men and Max gave them a young little song. A dippy one to dance to. I will always love that last “we’ve been waiting so long verse” were the vocals layer in that ominous God-fearing way, but everything else is, well.
But it gets better.
“Quit Playing Games With My Heart” and “As Long As You Love Me” are what could be called the Backstreet Boys‘s Big Huggable Hits (BHHs). They’re catchy, ingratiating, a little schmaltzy but not TOO much. AJ doesn’t rap over anything. Big chorus hooks. Middle school buddy hugs in music form. These are the songs Max Martin writes well, and while neither of them exude the confidence of their later singles, they both signal the beginnings of the most reliable producer/pop act relationship of the late 1990s.
And that’s it I guess! Phew!! Review over.
Or wait, n-
OTHER SINGLES TOO
Well ok. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” is another big dance number (that lyrically makes zero sense appearing on their debut record); “All I Have To Give” is a smooth ballad written by former R&B vocal group Full Force, who had a brief run of boy band songwriting success around this time (and popped in as guest vocalists on the Bob Dylan track “Death Is Not The End,” strangely enough). “Anywhere For You” bugghhhhfff fffffffff bored.
But if there were one non-Max Martin Backstreet Boys single worth real discussion, it would be “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”:
“I’ll Never Break Your Heart” is not just the schmaltziest track on this record, or the schmaltziest song in the Backstreet Boys’ catalog. No. “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” is iron-hearted superschmaltz. It is a laser-guided schmaltz crush. It is a song that reaches down into your throat removes your heart places it on a table and massages it oh so gently while it continues to beat. It’s by-the-numbers 90s R&B cooing in the Boyz II Men vein, and devoid of almost any personality, but that chorus will swallow you whole. It will!!
So. Those were the singles. And now, there is death.
OTHER GARBAGE POOP OUT OF BUTTS
Filler. No unearthed gems here. “Hey Mr. DJ” barely qualifies as a song. “Darlin'” is a generic ballad poorly sequenced after the GOD WILLED POWER SCHMALTZ CRUSH of “I’ll Never Break Your Heart.” “Get Down (You’re The One For Me)” and “If You Want It To Be Good Girl” BOTH ripoff “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” with sad, sad results. And there is one cover – PM Dawn’s “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss.” It’s OK, but who asked for this? America??
The Backstreet Boys presents the Boys as your standard middle-of-the-road 90s R&B pop act. Songs remain strictly in Boyz II Men mode here. Personalities have yet to come to the forefront. Ace-in-the-hole Max Martin threw them a few good singles that helped distinguish them, but only a few. He had yet to fully hone his pop-god skills. He and his Boys would soon dominate and become Kings of All Pops. For about a year.
But until then!!