And so, at the turn of the millennium, teen pop died. And the Backstreet Boys disappeared.
It was a rough time. In the wake of 9/11, teen pop’s former kings and queens were forced to un-teen themselves in a desperate attempt to survive the anti-teen onslaught. Christina got dirtied up, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson became reality TV stars, and Justin Timberlake cut his losses with *NSYNC and kicked up a solo career. These guys survived.
But what of our poor old Backstreet Boys? What did they do?
Nothing. They didn’t know what to do. They had nowhere to go. Boys without a home. And so they were gone.
Gosh, these poor boys. Backstreet had two or three years of unassailable success. More success than 99% of music groups in the history of mankind. And then… nothing. It fizzled out so fast.
I wonder if they saw it coming. If they knew their number was up.
I can see why they wouldn’t. Black & Blue‘s artistic merit aside (as you might remember, I wasn’t a big fan), the thing sold 1.6 million units in its first week alone, surpassing even the boy band touchstone Millennium. There was no reason NOT to believe that the Backstreet Boys were an unstoppable pop music force. By any reasonable standard, Black & Blue was a monster success, and the Boys – along with their management – should have given themselves a firm back-patting for their beyond-comprehension pop victory.
But no. Instead there was panic. Misery. Paranoia. Because the standard our Boys were measured against was no reasonable standard. It was the *NSYNC standard. No Strings Attached sold 2.4 million units in its first week just months before Black & Blue hit the shelves, knocking the Boys off their platinum throne and never letting go. Black & Blue‘s (completely sensible) failure to exceed that unrealistic standard was viewed as just that: a failure. A total failure. A death knell. The endpoint.
The Backstreet Boys did not release a record of new material in 2001. *NSYNC consoldiated their victory over teenage girls’ hearts with the fabbed-out Celebrity that July, crushing the charts once again while winning long-deserved critical respect in the process. And what did our favorite Boys counter them with? Nothing. Just… nothing.
I’d always wondered how this happened. Black & Blue paled next to the Syncs, but it still sold like crazy, and nobody in their right mind would call the Backstreet Boys washed up in 2001. Teen pop was alive and well. Celebrity and Britney’s self-titled record were huge. You’d think BSB would be chomping at the bit to toss off the lackluster saminess of Black and strike back at the *NSYNC monolith. Taking a year to cool off is a certified death wish for a teen pop group – you’re gone for one year and your core audience has already exchanged your old CDs for the new American Hi-Fi record. It’s guaranteed obsolescence. Why. Why would you do this, Backstreets!
Of course, there were plenty of reasons. Sad, complex, not fun reasons. This New York Times article written shortly after the boys’ disappearance confirms a lot of my suspicions, and adds some that I didn’t even factor in: competition, shoddy management, fatigue. Oh, fatigue. The Boys were tired. 8 years on the road. 8 years of endless “just say no” school assemblies and shitty TRL interviews and limb-aching dance moves. So so so much dancing.
Jesus, an inhuman amount of dancing. None of us lowly weak thin-boned losers have the physical endurance to be in a boy band. It’s a shock that our Boys managed to even limp along the teen pop finish line in 2001. By all logic they should have all simultaneously died of exhaustion in… what, ’97? Man.
It wasn’t just that. Jive Records were hedging their bets on *NSYNC to be the Champions of Teens Everywhere, promoting them over our favorite Boys. Rumors flew around that the members of America’s most Harmonious Pop Group were “not getting along,” that they were dissatisfied with Black & Blue but forced to put it out to make the Christmas deadline, that they weren’t relentlessly promoting themselves as hard as their competitors. It all came to a head when their management company, terrifyingly known only as the Firm, sold BSB concert tickets later than the competition at overinflated prices, leading to a lull in sales and forcing the Boys to scale their tour down to arenas instead of stadiums. An embarrassing downgrade for a group considered the biggest in the world just a year earlier.
Our Boys were broken. Battered. Bruised. Stuck with a lackluster tour, a lousy management company and a jaded fanbase, what were they to do? Nothing. Nothing but politely leave one last single – the tender-hearted “All Or Nothing” soundalike “Drowning” – on the laps of America’s teenagers and slowly slink away. Away into the deep night.
It was not a quick recovery. It took years. Years of snags. Just when the Boys were finally ready to release themselves from their contract with the Firm, they discovered that sweet blonde Nick Carter wasn’t going with them – as the youngest and cutest member, he was priming a solo career, and the Firm was going to promote him. Crushed, the remaining Boys worked on new material without Nick.
Nick’s solo record, Now Or Never, was released in late 2002, right around when Justin Timberlake’s Justified saw released. Justified crushed Now Or Never the same way No Strings crushed Black & Blue just two years before. Oh well. The verdict was in: Backstreet was done, even in solo form. America’s teens had moved on.
It’s hard to say what brought the boys back together after this. Information is scarce. I assume Nick’s crushing failure to make any headway with his solo career must have forced him to come crawling back to his older brethren. What I do know is that, in late 2003, AJ Maclean appeared on Oprah to hash out his issues with drugs and alcohol – another pretty big factor in the group’s disappearance from the public eye – and was surprised by a pop-in from the rest of the Boys, their first public appearance together since their 2001 heyday. Re-energized by the publicity surrounding the event, the Boys set aside their differences and finally got to working on some new material.
But God, what were they going to do? For all intents and purposes, the brightest starts of millennial teen pop had been in deep creative freeze since 2000. By the time they awoke, it was 2004. The world had moved on and left them behind. Their old glitzy teen pop song-and-dance routine wasn’t going to cut it anymore. What were they going to do?
It was a dilemma that speaks to a bigger question, one that will arise more and more the more we talk about teen pop artists: what does a teen pop act do when their audience grows up? When they grow up? How does a teen pop act not be a teen pop act?
It seems impossible. Teen pop acts are designed to die. That is their function. Handsome young boys and girls are picked out of a stable of hopefuls, forced to dance shake ‘n sing for teenage screamers, funnel their lunch money into the pockets of record execs for a few years and are promptly thrown in the garbagebin once they get too old. Gotta make way for the newest young stars. Rinse and repeat.
The idea of a teen pop act continuing to make records into their 30s and 40s is, by the laws of nature, an aberration. An abnormality. If nature had taken its proper course, our favorite Backstreet Boys would have died the moment Black & Blue undersold and they outlived their usefulness in 2000. The time bomb planted in their stomachs in 1993 should have fucking exploded the second one teenage girl stopped screaming at the idea of Brian Littrell smiling at them.
That didn’t happen. The bombs were duds. The Boys should not have survived, and they did. And here they were in 2004, in a music landscape that viewed the very notion of a boy band as antiquated and silly. A world that viewed them as a joke that refused to die. So what the heck were they going to do?
The answer, of course, is Never Gone.
Never Gone was released in June of 2005, almost a solid 5 years after Black & Blue. It is, for all intents and purposes, not a teen pop record. It is the textbook example of a teen pop act doing everything they can not to be teen pop. It is a record for adults.
Heck, do we need any more proof than the album cover image of our five hot to trot idols decked out in tasteful suits and ties, posing for what looks like a funeral? No. No, we need no more proof than that.
A five year gap between records. That is a long album gap for any band in the world. For a teen pop act, it is an interminable chasm of time. It’s a fucking wormhole. Those 13 year olds who used to love you are now 18. They are legal adults. How in the heck are you gonna appeal to them? Can you? You can try, can’t you?
The buzzword here is “maturity.” Oh, that ever-elusive idea. Maturity. Never Gone is chock full of it. The Backstreet Boys are trying to be mature. They’re trying to be legitimate. They’re trying to be real musicians.
The proof? Nothing but live instruments here. No pre-programmed synth beats. No more tepid dance anthems or tributes to their teenage fans. No more raps from AJ. No more “Larger Than Life”-esque barnstorming rockers. No more odes to DJs. No more funk. Very little R&B. Never Gone is not fabulous. It is slow. Mellow. Considerate. Respectful. Mannered.
Opening track and comeback single “Incomplete” makes the change clear. Pianos, acoustic guitar, foreboding vocals leading to a gigantic power-rock chorus. Slower than even the slowest ballads of their teen pop years. Live drums that almost feel distracting once that chorus kicks in. Yes, this is an adult hit for adult radio. The Backstreet Boys are Backstreet Men.
(The official hallmark of a Mature Boy Band – a music video where they all hang out in a desert, near a burning thing)
Gosh, we can mourn all we want and call this a mistake, but we shouldn’t. “Incomplete” didn’t exactly burn up the charts, but it was exactly the kind of song the Backstreet Boys needed to release in order to stay alive. Teen pop might have been in sorry shape by 2005, but atmospheric, mannered adult pop was dominating. Coldplay, the Fray, James Blunt, Keane, Daniel Powter, KT Tunstall – these folks owned radio around this time. “Incomplete” was an obvious jump in this direction, and it made sense. It fit right in.
And heck, this made sense for the Backstreet Boys. So, so much sense. Even during their biggest crest of fame, the Boys were never the glitzy dancefloor assassins that *NSYNC were. When they tried to be, like on Black & Blue, they failed and they failed hard. The Boys were always, at their core, a sweet warm nice band of feel-good guys who sang lovely harmonies and wrote songs about their mothers. The boy band that let all 5 members sing a solo on almost every single they released, never letting one member hog the spotlight. (Take a guess as to why Nick Carter’s solo dabblings didn’t pan out.) Take a long, hard second look at their biggest teen hits: “Quit Playing Games With My Heart.” “I Want It That Way.” “The One.” “Shape Of My Heart.” The best Backstreet Boys hits combined skittery teen dance beats with friendly, heart-tugging balladry. Never Gone ditches the former and goes full-on into the latter.
I want to make this clear. Never Gone is not a departure, or a weird experiment, or a strange confused mistake. Exactly the opposite. In an unusual turn of events, it’s maybe the first Backstreet Boys album that sounds like they’ve got things figured out. The first one that doesn’t sound awkward or muddled or inconsistent. The first one that sounds like our Boys have found themselves.
I might be embellishing. Never Gone was obviously a calculated attempt to farm the adult market. You can hear that. What’s appealing about it is how confident and assured the Boys deliver this material. Easygoing adult pop with big choruses just makes sense for them, and they manage to pull it off without sounding too anemic or samey. Tracks like “Crawling Back To You” and “Lose It All” follow the “Incomplete” mold and do just fine, but their new “adult men singing with a live band” persona allows them to try out some new stuff. Case in point: “Weird World,” a friendly, uppity piece of piano pop written by Five For Fighting’s John Ondrasik, reigning king of adult radio. Not only does it sound like a solid later-day Hanson track, it sports what has to be the most likable Nick Carter vocal in the history of his career. He’s not a bratty jerk kid anymore – here he sounds like a pleasant adult man, singing a pleasant adult song! Hey hey hey! Gosh, isn’t that nice?
But despite Never Gone‘s attempt to scrub away all remnants of the Backstreet’s teenage-pleasing past, they were wise to retain a little of their old magic. And what better way to do that than to once again enlist the help of their original guru, the pop genius responsible for every beyond-the-beyond amazing song they ever recorded – the legend himself, Mr. Max Martin?
Yikes, Max, those SHARKS are RIGHT BEHIND you! Move out of the way bud!!
Yes, the boys brought Max back to co-write four tracks for their comeback record, and they caught him at a good time. Not unlike the Boys, Mr. Martin was forced into pop exile after the teen pop bubble burst, aimlessly writing tracks for the likes of Celine Dion and generally staying out of the limelight. No longer the True King of Pop. But he struck gold in the summer of 2005 when his Kelly Clarkson anthem “Since U Been Gone” blessed the airwaves, shooting the kind of critical and commercial acclaim his way the likes of which he hadn’t seen since… well, the Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” It was only natural for him and the Boys to tearfully reunite, and they were lucky enough to catch him during a creative rebirth.
And it’s nice, because Martin doesn’t oversell it here. His tracks boast those throat-grabbingly huge choruses we all know and love, but they’re masked in a pleasant adult pop sheen. “I Still,” “Climbing The Walls” and “Siberia” all fit right in with Never Gone‘s smooth adult vibes. But Mr. Martin was clearly not content to sit idly by and not bless his boys with a soul-crushing hook – not after a five-year drought of material. Oh no. For the good of Humanity, Mr. Martin delivered to the Boys Never Gone‘s one an only attempt at a modern pop hit: the superpowered love anthem “Just Want You To Know,” one of the Backstreet Boys’ best singles and a suitable boy band foil to Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Good on you, Max!
And it’s worth noting: in the spirit of trying new things, 2005’s reinvigorated Backstreet Boys decided to break form and try making a funny, charismatic, supercharming music video that Sean Rose would enjoy instead of their usual dour sourpuss sleepy videos of yesteryear. The result is quite possibly the funniest boy band music video of all time. Don’t take my word for it!!
So to recap: Never Gone is an assured, melodic, likable, surprisingly consistent set of songs that found the Backstreet Boys moving into the 2005 radio world in the smoothest possible way. To my ears, it’s the most consistent record they’d recorded up to this point, and while none of its singles topple Gods like Millennium‘s I get the impression that wasn’t really the point, see. This was intended as a nice, warming return to the music world for the Boys, and it works. A better record than the sadsack Black & Blue that’s for sure. No contest!
The result? Decent sales. Horrible, horrible reviews. Metacritic average: 40. Entertainment Weekly gave it a C, Blender gave it two stars, and Rolling Stone – the folks who drop a five-star kiss ass review to every codgery old rock coot that manages to poop out an album every few years – gave it one lonely, solitary little star. Tough stuff.
The truth is hard to face. Nobody wanted the Backstreet Boys back. (Alright.) It was 2005. 90s nostalgia wouldn’t kick in for another five years. The Boys’ move to adult pop would be popularly viewed as a mistake, but still a move other teen pop acts would duplicate with bigger rewards in the future. For America’s grown up teens, the Backstreets weren’t a fond memory. They were an embarrassment from their dumb teen years. An embarrassment that should have died when Bush took office.
But they didn’t. Jesus, here they were, still alive. Heck – they were never gone in the first place! They were ALWAYS there!
God, what a fucking statement to make. Never Gone. Never irrelevant. Never outdated. I’m going to give these boys credit and not call this delusional (which it most likely is). This is confidence. Moxie. Despite being designed to fall apart, to fail, to become immediately irrelevant once one member turns 30, the Backstreet Boys didn’t. They never even officially broke up! They stayed together. They stuck it out. And despite Never Gone‘s undeservedly lukewarm reception, they kept on keepin’ on. We need to respect them for that.
The Backstreet Boys are teen pop survivors. I’m glad they made it. So many did not.
So, so many.