Oh no. This is a shame.
Honesty is important. I love the Backstreet Boys. Maybe I don’t say it enough. I have nothing but sincere, deep-down true love for these five duders. They’ve all got handsome faces and nice voices that leap right out of their hearts and into ours. And they’ve sang so many songs that are good. Great, even. They’re an American pop institution, if you ask me. I mean it. I really do.
And 1999 was such a primo year for them. Oh, how proud I was. Millenium. “I Want It That Way.” Diamond album sales. Best selling record of the year. Huge tour. Most expensive music videos ever produced. Howie visits Lake Compounce for the first time. The biggest boy band to ever exist touring behind the archetypal boy band record. Band happy. Record label happy. Fans happy. Me happy. A big, beautiful, fuckable year as far as the Backstreets were concerned.
And so it continued into the new millennium (pun intended!!). By mid-2000, the Nick Carter Corral was riding higher than the highest high balloon. Millennium was still notching hits, with “The One” ripping TRL to shreds. Teen pop was a big as it would ever get. AJ wasn’t in rehab yet. Y2K didn’t destroy the world. Spritis were high.
But there had to be a follow-up. Of course there had to be! Gotta keep those young fans happy! Gotta keep ’em gyrating awkwardly at middle school dances! High expectations!
And there was no way the Backstreets could upset their fans. Of course not! America’s youth loved them so. Just summore sweet “I Want It That Way”-esque ballads, fellahs. That’s all you need! Maybe another dance-rocker like “Larger Than Life” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”? Sure. You guys can punch out groovers like those in your sleep. In a five-man coma. Please. Get Max Martin back in there, he knows what he’s doing. He’s your friend. Have Nick flip his hair back and push his whiny vocals to the forefront. Have Brian sing about God and his mom. Have AJ shake his finger at the camera in a music video while tantalizingly unbuttoning his blazer. Have Kevin grow out his mustache and sulk like a brooding angstghoul. Have Howie wash the dishes. You guys know the drill!
It should have all been so simple. It would have been. But then, there was *NSYNC.
Goddamn, those sexy sons of bitches.
*NSYNC were never a problem before the year 2000. They weren’t! Sure, they had their hits. “Hits.” But their first album was nothing more than a pallid Backstreet imitation. That’s all they were! And all the hilarious music videos and Gloria Estefan collaborations in the world weren’t going to change that. Millennium thoroughly eclipsed the Sinks in every way imaginable, pushing them squarely into second place for most of 1999. The pecking order was established. Where’s your hot classy white suits and unstoppable Max Martin rockers, *NSTINK? Justin PIMPLElake? JC BLASE? Lance IDIOT? Joey FatSUCKS? Chris KirkFART??
But in 2000 came No Strings Attached. *NSYNC reinventing themselves as sexy New Jack pop assassins. Attitude. Sass. Even funnier music videos. An even better Max Martin single. The best selling album of 2000 – more than Millenium. The game was changed.
How could the Backstreets not look quaint in comparison? *NSYNC dominated, through and through. No Strings was, by every measure, a better record than Millennium. Even the dull crappy ballads were better! And it sold more, to boot!
I wonder if it scared the boys. I wonder. I can imagine the biopic in my head now: the five boys hanging out in their Monkees-esque flat on a lazy Monday afternoon. Nick is drawing a bubble bath in his Alf swim trunks. Howie is in the kitchen preparing waffles with each of the boys’ faces on them made up in blueberries. Brian is staring out the window, wondering if God is as handsome as his dad. AJ is sleepin’ in late ’cause he’s a lazybones. What worries could they have? They’re on top. Livin’ the life.
Cut to Kevin. Kevin is cuddled up on the couch in a warm blanket, sipping a Powerade. He turns on the TV to MTV’s “Total Request Live” program with cheer. “Let’s see which video of ours is #1 today!” he says, an audible skip in his step. “I bet it’s ‘The One’ again!”
The TV turns on. He drops his sweet nectar beverage to the floor.
“BACKSTREETS!” he shouts. “GET IN HERE!”
The boys rush in one by one to see the glistening bodies of *NSYNC dancing hard to “It’s Gonna Be Me.” The teenage crowd goes wild. Roses and hundred dollar bills are thrown at Chris Kirkpatrick’s handsome sweaty mug. Their music is electric. Carson takes them aside after they finish, mouth agape.
“Guys,” he says, crawling on all fours towards the five glistening gods. “Guys. It looks like your new video for ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ has debuted at #1. It’s beautiful, boys.”
“You got – THAT right!” says Justin Timberlake, sneering at the camera and rubbing himself hard. “Looks like we’re the only hunks that matter!”
His gaze catches the Backstreets’. They fall back, stunned.
“No…” stammers Nick, hand reaching for Justin’s face only to scrape hot glass. “They’ve beaten us. It’s over…”
AJ and Brian hug and cry. Nick falls into a fetal position, shivering. Kevin raises his hands to the air and mouths “why?” But Howie stops them.
“Guys, c’mon! We’re not licked yet! Hey – we’re the Backstreet Boys! The biggest and bestest boy band of all time! Sure, those ‘In Sink’ fellas might have the edge on us now. But this isn’t a setback. It’s a challenge! Why, I bet if we put our Backstreet heads together, we can make an album that’ll make Millennium look like Willennium! There ain’t nothin’ we can’t accomplish!”
“You… you think so?” AJ says, wiping tears from his Oakleys.
Howie puts a loving hand on his shoulder. “I know so.”
The boys put their hands together for a “BACKSTREET!” shout, and on they go, ready to face a new Boy Band Dawn. A follow up to Millennium that will prove, once and for all, that they’re still top of the heap. One that takes their tried-and-true hit sound and pushes it forward in exciting ways. New sounds. New beats. New collaborators. Better singing. Better songwriting. Everything great about the Backstreet Boys amped up to the maxx.
They work. They sweat. They bleed. They cry. They learn. And after pouring their hearts and souls into their new masterwork, they create a record of timeless pop power, one proving the Backstreet Boys are here to stay.
…or, no. Sorry. They create Black & Blue, a boring album with two good songs on it.
I’m not going to mince words. Black & Blue was, in more ways than one, the end of the Great American Boy Band Era. The sad, boring, wincing end.
You could say I’m exaggerating. That it’s a claim that doesn’t make sense. Maybe it doesn’t. Black & Blue sold 1.6 million units in its first week, making the group the first to have two million-selling first-week album sales in a row. Money was made. TRL #1s were notched. Radio airplay was ubiquitous. The usual stuff.
But none of that mattered. Black & Blue was the end because it was absolutely nothing new. Pure stagnation. Painful, dull formula. A cynical, upsetting exercise in teenage manipulation.
Now I know nobody is expecting anything but stagnation and formula out of boy band records. They’re built to please teenagers by giving them a dose of the same thing over and over. That’s the name of the game. But Millennium and No Strings Attached were both bigger, bolder and better than the records that came before them. Excitement! Energy! New twists on the old formula! Black & Blue is none of these things. It’s Millennium without the top-of-the-world gusto, the five Backstreet Boys lazily feasting on the fat of their success. The worst possible answer to No Strings Attached. Sad. Oh, so sad.
Am I being mean? I don’t think I’m being mean! I’m a nice guy! Just to prove it, let’s start with the things I like about Black & Blue. Let’s accentuate the positive, for a moment.
Black & Blue does start off strong. There is a good reason for this. The reason is that Black & Blue‘s first three tracks are co-written by Max Martin.
Yup! I’m gonna post the picture again!
Aaaah. Like ice water on a hot summer’s day.
Listen, there’s a reason why this guy keeps coming up and why I like talking about him. Mr. Martin is better at writing pop songs than most humans alive, and the Backstreet Boys were his pet project. His main boys. Most of the his best, well-known hits were recorded by the Streets. And, true to form, his contributions are the best songs on here.
“The Call” opens the record. It’s not a fabulous Earth-swallowing rocker like Millennium opener “Larger Than Life,” but that’s ok. This is something else. It’s a jittery, tense, nervous piece of work detailing the first-person exploits of some dude at a club who cheated on his lady, and called her and lied about it. I assume it was AJ, because just look at that guy.
“The Call” isn’t a great single, but I admire it for trying some new things. There’s a real sense of tension and paranoia that you would not expect from a Backstreet track. Cell phone sound effects. Weird stop-start verses. Chorus lyrics that clumsily emulate the titular “call” – hearing “What’s that again? You’re dropping out / My battery is low!” sung with boy band vocals and a big Max Martin chorus is strange, strange indeed. There is not another Backstreet Boys single that is quite like it, which is more than I can say for the rest of Black & Blue.
And then we have our lead single, “Shape Of My Heart.” Aww shucks.
I often refer to “Shape Of My Heart” as my favorite Backstreet Boys song, and it is hard for me to explain why. This is a rarity for me. Most songs I love on Digital Get Down I can rationalize easily, but it is hard for me to rationalize loving “Shape Of My Heart” more than any other Backstreet track. You could easily argue that it epitomizes Black & Blue‘s stagnation better than another other track here, when you think about it. It’s a Martin-penned Backstreet single very much in the vein of “I Want It That Way.” It’s essentially “I Want It That Way Pt. 2”, it’s so similar! The most predictable lead single you could imagine.
But I like it better! It’s a little more pensive and thoughtful. It digs inward a little more. I like AJ’s “youUUU – CAAaan’t.” I am pretty sure the word “tragical” is in there somewhere, which is not a word. The chorus soars beautifully. The obligatory final chorus key change is even better than usual. It’s everything solid and dependable about the Backstreets, honed and buffed to perfection.
And I just like it, is all.
“Get Another Boyfriend” is a Martin non-single. It is a decent funky powerjam. Ugly verses, big fat strong Martin chorus. Nothing shocking.
Honestly, “Get Another Boyfriend” would not be notable if it weren’t Black & Blue‘s one and only shot at beating No Strings Attached at its own game. You can tell the Boys were itching for their own “It’s Gonna Be Me,” and “Get Another Boyfriend” is an obvious stab at the same kind of song: an aggressive dancefloor-crusher with a huge chorus.
Yes, it’s nice to hear the Backstreets go for a more agressive sound. But the sad truth is that “Get Another Boyfriend” is like “It’s Gonna Be Me,” only not as good. *NSYNC gave “It’s Gonna Be Me” real personality, verve, and Justin Timberlake beatboxing. “Get Another Boyfriend” has none of these things. Their one attempt at one-upping *NSYNC, and it failed. This is not a good sign, folks.
Not a good sign at all.
Here’s where it gets upsetting. Out of Black & Blue‘s 13 tracks, only 4 of them have any Max Martin involvement. The one I didn’t mention, “It’s True,” is an atypically hogshit boring ballad buried in the second half of the record.
You see where this is going.
Most of Black & Blue is retrograde filler. Boring, lesser songs that would not even cut the mustard on their first record. This is its primary flaw.
I mean, “Shining Star,” guys? What is this, 1997? This is not 1997. We’re living in Bush’s America now. This will not fly. “Yes I Will.” Are you trying to put me to sleep here, Backstreets. You guys have sang some killer ballads in the past – is “I Promise You (With Everything I Am)” really the best you can do, here? For real? “I promise you / as a lover and a friend.” Shut up, stupid! No! You dopes! You’re not this boring! Stop being boring when you aren’t. Jeesh. A bunch of dullard ballads shoved at the end of the record. Have you guys learned nothing from Millennium?
This isn’t Millennium 2.0. It’s Millennium 0.7. Good lord. The bulk of Black & Blue‘s tracks are so depressing that even “More Than That” – easily the dullest single of Backstreet’s glory years and their first to chart well outside the Billboard top ten, ending a six-year streak – sounds symphonic by comparison.
But the aforementioned non-songs are not the saddest songs on Black & Blue. No. That honor would go to “Everyone.”
“Everyone” is pathetic. It is the only Backstreet Boys song I can think of that actually upsets me more and more every time I listen to it. It’s another “message to our fans” track in the vein of “Larger Than Life,” only not as good.
But that’s a given. That isn’t even the problem here. The problem is the bullshit self-congratulatory lyrics. Ohhh god, it’s infuriating. “Larger Than Life,” if you recall, was 100% about their fans and how great they are. “Everyone” is about themselves, and how great they are.
“We’ve been inside the circus / We take the pleasure with the pain / I guess there’s something about us! / Whatever comes around, we’ll always stay the same.” Fuck you, AJ! No! Cut it out!
There’s the problem, right there. Those four lines sum it all right up. Navel-gazing bunk words. You don’t have time to reflect on everything you’ve “accomplished,” circa-2000 Backstreet Boys! You’re a pop group! Stop picking at your belly button lint and make impressive music that is good. Or, at the very least, music that sounds like effort went into it. “Everyone” does not sound like effort went into it. “Everyone” is lazy and reductive. It’s a shrug. It’s nothing.
You’re not kids anymore, guys. “Larger Than Life” was enough. Not it’s time to fucking grow up.
…THE OTHER THING
Is this getting a little bitter? It might be getting a little bitter. Ha! Ha!
I have one more track to highlight, one I feel like that I have to before I get so mad and sad that I have to lie down for a couple hours. Black & Blue is notable for featuring songwriting contributions from the Backstreet Boys themselves, more than any other Backstreet record before or since. While Millennium boasted a couple of co-writing credits from one Mr. Brian Littrell, Black & Blue takes things one step further and includes not one, but two tracks written entirely by the Boys, and only the Boys.
Now, this isn’t a shock. Lots of later-day boy band records pull this trick, most notably *NSYNC’s Celebrity (which we will talk about somewhere, someday). It is a kind of cheap way of proving that, yes, these so-called “boy bands” are legitimate artists, thank you. Go stuff a hog, critics! You think they’re just producer puppets? Check out those songwriting creds: “Carter, Dorough, Littrell, McLean, Richardson.” UMMM YEAH.
It almost works. Almost. One of those two tracks, “Time,” is another navel-gazing garbage ballad that is not worth talking about. The other one, though, is “The Answer To Our Life,” a perfectly enjoyable Max Martin knockoff so seamlessly produced that I have to assume Martin ghostwrote it. It’s like a good B-level Martin track, good enough to make up for Martin’s lousy “It’s True.”
You did it, boys! You knocked your five hunky heads together and came up with one halfway-decent song! I’m so proud!!
Hoo boy. Let’s talk, friends. Let’s talk.
I want to reiterate what I said up top. I love the Backstreet Boys and I want nothing but the best for them. Remember when I analyzed them boy by boy in my Millennium review? Sure you do. Pop sensations. In them, I see myself. They are my brothers.
More than anything, Black & Blue just makes me sad. Having not heard it before a couple of months ago, I had always assumed it didn’t replicate the massive success of Millennium due to nothing but boy band fatigue and overexposure. Changing trends. You can’t stay on top forever, right? Teenage pop music fans are so fickle. Maybe they just had enough. Maybe No Strings Attached was so huge and dazzling that any Backstreet record, no matter how good, couldn’t hope to follow it. Maybe Black & Blue was a hidden gem that just got a bum rap.
This was my sincere hope. It was. But Black & Blue did not get a bum rap. It got exactly the rap it deserved. It is Millennium with worse songs. Maybe we should give America’s teenagers a little more credit! They saw a stinker and gave their money to *NSYNC instead, who were making better music. Intelligent, wonderful teenagers who I am sure are now brilliant adults. Let’s give them a round of applause.
Gosh, Boys. How much work did you put into this thing? Don’t tell me “a whole lot” because I won’t believe you. I won’t. That is a lie. Damnit, you guys were America’s pop group. So much promise. And here you are, following up your best album with your worst album. How could you? Don’t give me that hangdog look, Nick! Don’t give me those glossy puppy eyes! I’m out of here!!
It didn’t have to end this way. But it did. Black & Blue was released during the last year of total boy band supremacy, and then it was gone. Forgotten. Pathetically, their follow-up record would be a greatest hits record stupidly titled The Hits: Chapter One. And that was it. They would not release another record for five years.
And America did not weep for them.
Oh I forgot! I was supposed to have a new fact about Howie, wasn’t I? Don’t worry guys, I haven’t forgotten. Here’s the Howie fact for this review:
“Dorough guest-starred in the television series Sabrina, the Teenage Witch in the episode ‘The Big Head’ as an egotistic rock star named Strum.”