I want to admit something. I have approached the idea of reviewing the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium this early on in Digital Get Down‘s lifespan with some trepidation. This is one of the Big Ones, after all – perhaps THE biggest and most recognizable boy band album ever released – and I’m worried that it could all be downhill from here. Blowing my wad early. Screwing the pooch. Because how many other boy band records even come close to replicating the all-encompassing success of Millennium? If this is the Biggest Boy Band Album Ever (TBBBAE), why talk about any other boy band albums at all??
But no. I choose not to believe this. In fact, now that I think about it, I’m actually looking forward to getting The Biggest Boy Band Album Ever out of the way so we can get down to teen pop’s nitty gritty. Boy Band History after Millennium is mostly just malaise, earth-tones and soul-crushing anonymity. And what’s more fun than that??
I also want to tackle Millennium for personal reasons, because I feel like I owe something to the Boys themselves. My review of their self-titled American debut didn’t really give them the introduction I feel they deserved. I guess I can chalk that up to it being the first Digital Get Down post ever – a rookie mistake, if you will – but considering the in-depth intro I gave ‘N Sync, I feel like it’s more than fair to even the score. Even if the Backstreet Boys never had the sheer force of personality as many of their contemporaries, they still remain the archetypal American boy band. And that, to me, is an important thing!
I also feel like I owe these guys a better group introduction because, despite being arguably the biggest boy band of all time, they contained not a single member that stood out from the pack. Not a one. While ‘N Sync were clearly all about Justin and JC’s lady-killing baby faces, the Backstreet Boys’ personalities were so finely attuned to each other that nobody could steal the spotlight for long. I have no idea if this was intentional or not – designing a group of perfectly-matched boy buddies as part of Lou Pearlman’s master plan of Teenage Girl Domination – but nevertheless, the Backstreet Boys remain easily the most even-handed boy band I can think of. Even in their dying moments, it never felt like any single member was being awkwardly groomed for eventual breakout stardom. They were the quintessential Boy Band Democracy.
(Oh sure, plenty would argue that Nick Carter was BSB’s breakout star, but that’s just ’cause he was the young cute one. Don’t believe their lies. A cursory glance at Carter’s post-2001 career will dispel that myth right quick. Let us never speak of this again.)
But there is a downside here. A lot of people confuse the Backstreet Boys’ even-handedness with a bland lack of discernible personality. “They’re so BORING,” they say. “Boring boys with boring faces. Where’s the charm? Where’s the plucky young star we all grow to love, like our sweet Justin T? I hate these boys, and I hate Sean Rose.”
This is fair. I am not going to argue with you here. The sad truth is that the Backstreet Boys’ “Let’s Give Everyone A Chance To Sing!” philosophy was probably what ultimately doomed them in the end, after the great Boy Bad Purge of aught-2. In fact – and this is all heresay, mind you – I would go as far as to say that none of the Backstreet Boys were specifically primed for solo success simply because their management didn’t think any of them were interesting enough. Harsh words, but true words. What the fuck can you do with a boy band you can’t break apart??
But fuck me, I still find it endearing as all hell. The Backstreet Boys’ on-record camaraderie is the one thing I like most about them. After hearing a Backstreet Boys single I can’t shake the mental image of the five guys shaking hands and patting each other on the back. “We did it, team! Another big hit in the bag! Now let’s drive down to Friendly’s and stick five straws in a chocolate malted. We deserve it.”
So in the true spirit of the Backstreet Boys, I would like to give each Boy their own little blurb before moving on to Millennium, to get a feel of who these guys are. Now, none of the personality traits I’ve assigned to them over the years could be accurate in any way – I might just be writing my own special brand of Backstreet Boys fanfiction here – but who cares. I think my perspective on them is as valuable as anybody’s. Including their friends, families, and loved ones.
THE BOYS (PRESENTED IN THE ORDER EACH MEMBER IS GIVEN A SOLO IN “I WANT IT THAT WAY”)
Oh, sweet Brian. Brian is your standard nice-guy boy band member. The most huggable BSB member, if you will. Loves his mommy. Christian to the bone. Probably the safest, most inviting member of the group, which is why his voice is likely the first one you’ll hear on a major Backstreet Boys single. He’s the guy that eases you in and fills your heart with pop buddy warmth.
Sadly, despite having a heckuva nice voice, Brian’s also responsible for some of the schmaltziest and most vomit-inducting moments in the Backstreet Boys’ catalog (which isn’t a shock in retrospect, considering his only solo venture to date has been a Christian rock album). One of those moments is on Millennium. We’ll discuss it later.
Oh also, he was my sister’s favorite, so I always tended to think of him as the J.C. of the group. Which he isn’t. Sorry Noelle.
The cute one! The blond one! The one with that terrible kid brother!
Yeah, we all know Nick Carter. As I mentioned earlier, he was the one BSB member to approach actual solo stardom, to point where his 2002 solo debut was released in direct competition with Justin Timberlake’s. Didn’t pan out, though, because like his fellow Backstreets Nick never could really cut it on his own. Despite being the youngest member of the group by some years and having a cutesy lady-slaying mug, the sad truth is that Nick’s personality is just as middle-of-the-road as everyone else’s.
Actually, it could be argued that Nick has the worst voice in the group. Kind of a nasal, forced whine. It’s distinct, sure, and blends in well with the rest of the dudes, but it’s only tolerable in small doses. Which might be the real reason why Nick Carter, Solo Artist never became a thing.
The prototypical boy band “bad boy.” The tough dude. The unhappy-looking one. The guy who kinda-sorta tried to inject some “hip-hop funky flow” into the Backstreets’ sound early on, but thankfully dropped it. Wears sunglasses a lot. Likely the main instigator in the group going on hiatus in 2001 due to his various drug addictions.
I can’t call AJ the most tolerable member of the group by any stretch, but despite his obnoxious image I do like his voice a lot. Actually I might go as far as to call him my favorite singer in the group! Shock! He’s got an obvious flair for the dramatic, which is why he usually gets the last crucial line on almost every BSB single. He’s like the epilogue. The closing credits. Good for you, AJ. I like it when you don’t sing like an idiot like in “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” AJ.
You were inexplicably on an episode of Nickelodeon GUTS when you were 14, AJ.
The mature one. The old fogey. Was 28 years old by the time Millennium was released in 1999. For context, Joey McIntyre – considered an old-salt boy band veteran by Millennium‘s release – was 27 at the time. Sheez! Who invited these skeevy old men to our Hunky Boy Barbeque??
But naw. I’m just joshin. Kevin’s neat. He’s got pronounced facial hair. Most likely guy in the group to wear a trenchcoat. Not exactly the most distinctive vocalist, but his croons fit his personality – low, cool, dignified. Usually sings the bridge of any Backstreet Boys single that needs a quick dose of world-weary reality. When Kevin’s voice pops up, you know shit is getting real.
Also, weirdly enough, the first and only member of the group to actually leave! In 2006, of all times!! Nice timing there, Kevvo.
OK, I’ll be honest here. I don’t know a fucking thing about Howie. He fits no discernible boy band “type,” doesn’t say much in interviews, and doesn’t have a very distinctive voice. He’s the second oldest member of the group, but looks like the second youngest. He has done almost nothing to distinguish himself from the rest of the group, maybe intentionally. When I look at Howie’s face, the only thought that comes to mind is “Here is a human being.”
I’m sorry, Howie. I don’t want to dismiss you. You seem like a nice guy. Tell you what – I am making a solemn vow to learn more about you, Howie. Right here, right now. For every Backstreet Boys review that I write from now on, I promise to learn ONE new fact about you. I will! And I promise I won’t just deal them from Wikipedia. I won’t!
Might as well start now. This week’s Howie Fact: “Howard Dwaine “Howie D.” Dorough (born August 22, 1973) is an American singer-songwriter, dancer, musician, entertainer, actor and member of American music group Backstreet Boys.”
The more you learn, ladies and gentlemen!!
And there you have it. Those are Our Boys. Now let’s talk about the record that made them Our Gigantic Popmen.
THE FIRST EIGHT TRACKS ON MILLENNIUM (AKA BOY BAND DOMINATION)
The first eight tracks on Millennium are the sound of total domination. They were designed to consume the pop music world in one gulp, and for a brief period in mid-1999, that is exactly what they did. In fact, they are so powerful that listening to all eight tracks at once is enough to induce dreaded Pop Death Spasms.
There is a reason for this. Millennium was the first Backstreet Boys album recorded after they had already become a massive success in America (in fact, their American debut was still in the top 40 by the time this one came out), and it shows. Everyone involved knew full well that this one was going to be a huge hit – it was just a matter of how big of a hit it was going to be. Thankfully, this confidence also led to a full-fledged improvement over their debut: no more jock jams, no more AJ raps, no more out-of-place covers. Everything here is bigger, bolder, catchier, stronger.
What do I mean by this? Can we look any further than the aptly-titled opening track “Larger Than Life,” which opens with AJ laughing maniacally like a mad scientist??
If that isn’t “Fuck you, world! We’re HUGE!” laughter, I don’t know what is.
“Larger Than Life” is supposed to be the Backstreets’ tribute to their loyal fans, but we all know better. It’s about them. You don’t start your record off with a gigantic pop crusher titled “Larger Than Life” to give your fans a pat on the back, for fuck’s sake! These are conquering men, gorging on the pop world and wiping the dribble from their chins. No remorse.
The important thing to note here is that “Larger Than Life” is basically a modified, vastly improved “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”. Everything about it is better. There’s a rockin’ guitar solo and a huge HUGE chorus and the most expensive music video ever produced up to that point. It still stands to date as likely the most self-indulgent boy band track ever, but it works so fucking well that it deserves to be.
And then you follow up with “I Want It That Way.” The Song. The jewel. Likely the main reason anybody cares about the Backtstreet Boys anymore. Victim of some of the worst parody songs in the history of novelty music (in case you didn’t notice, “way” rhymes with “gay”). Maybe the definitive boy band hit single.
I failed to mention this earlier, but 7 out of the first 8 tracks on Millennium were produced and at least co-written by Swedish Godmaker (and king of sharks) Max Martin. Those seven tracks include every hit song on the record. If Millennium makes the case for the Martin/Backstreet partnership being the most fortuitous songwriter/boyband partnership in the history of popular music, then “I Want It That Way” is its thesis statement.
It’s so simple, isn’t it? A simple song. “I Want It That Way” pulls the same trick as “Larger Than Life” in that it takes the “Quit Playing Games”/”As Long As You Love Me” and improves it. “I Want It That Way” isn’t too schmaltzy, too overproduced, or too goofy. It is a perfectly measured pop song, and one that effortlessly plays to the group’s strengths, somehow managing to find time for every memeber to get a vocal solo. Right down the line. Precision.
It’s the only boy band track I can think of that has actually managed to be a critical favorite, too. You can’t deny craft like this. “I Want It That Way” might not have the emotional honesty of Robyn’s “Show Me Love” or the aggressive modernity of ‘NSync’s post-2000 hits, but it’s everything a pop song should be. For better or for worse, it set the mold.
SIX MORE TRACKS…
Max’s boys continue their domination. “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely” is likely the moodiest and best ballad they had produced up to this point, along with “Don’t Wanna Lose You Now.” “It’s Gotta Be You” and “Don’t Want You Back” aren’t amazing, but solid and keep the momentum going. And track eight, “The One,” is easily my third-favorite track on the album.
The worst song in this bunch would be “I Need You Tonight,” a corny ballad that Max did not write. It’s not awful, though, and sounds tolerable enough when surrounded by steel-fisted Max Martin powertracks. You might not even notice it was there! The first eight tracks of Millennium are abnormally consistent for a boy band record. Almost uncomfortably so. It might lead you to believe that, hey, this whole album is solid! Solid as hell! A solid boy band record – who knew!!
No no. No. Wait. There’s still-
FOUR MORE TRACKS (AKA THE GAPING MAW OF POP HELL)
Oh, you jerks.
You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? You had the best fucking boy band streak in history. You could have ended with the excellent “The One” and been done with it.
But then… “Back To Your Heart.” “Spanish Eyes.” “No One Else Comes Close.” Corny ballad boresville. The snooze cruise. Songs that are not interesting to listen to.
And then – THEN. Once all unsuspecting teenagers are lulled into a deep, schmaltz-induced coma, you whip out the worst song in American History: Brian Littrell’s vomitous tribute to his mother, “The Perfect Fan”:
Millennium‘s last four tracks tragically turn the record into maybe the most poorly sequenced album in history. I mean, maybe if they were placed strategically in-between better songs (and if “The Perfect Fan” was not included or recorded), they would have been tolerable filler like “I Need You Tonight.” If Millennium ended with “The One,” it would at least feel like a better album. But nope.
I’ve tried my best to ignore these tracks, to force them out of my brain so I can convince myself that Millennium is the best boy band album ever. But I can’t. They’re there, and they stink butts. This is what happens when Max Martin does not write a song for you, Backstreets. Why not just give him the whole album? Where was he? Where are you, Sweet Max??
(One quick note: as horrible as “The Perfect Fan” is, I love the fact that despite it being clearly designed as a Brian Littrell solo, every Backstreet Boy gets a solo anyway. They’re all such good friends!!)
I’m sorry, Backstreets. I don’t want to take this victory away from you. As terrible as those last four tracks are, you deserve to have your Big Moment, and Millennium is that moment. I will gladly excise the filler and point to the first eight tracks here as the definitive Boy Band Statement. “I Want It That Way” is perfect.
Millennium is the perfect teen pop follow-up. Backstreet Boys 2.0. Upgrade. It is the one record that made boy bands a “thing,” and the one to temporarily assert their position as the biggest male pop group on the planet (enough to push ‘N Sync briefly out of the limelight). Listen to it with me, and know what it feels like to be a teenager in 1999.