ONLY NOISE: Backstreet’s Back

An email has landed in my inbox. It is an arrow, shot from my childhood – and aimed at my heart. Piercing deeply, it stings me with eight simple words:

Backstreet Boys Las Vegas Residency Starts Next Wednesday

I am reeling, as if a long gone relative has risen from the dead. Backstreet’s back?! ALRIGHT!

To be painfully honest, I was already planning on writing about Backstreet Boys eventually. The email plugging their Vegas comeback was a serendipitous bonus. But was it really a bonus? Or a sign?

A friend recently asked me what the first record I ever bought myself was. I hesitated to answer. While I’d like to join the tradition of music journalists at least claiming to be born with good taste, my first record was not by The Smiths, or Stereolab, or even the fucking Beatles. Sure, I had an older sister down the hall – but she wasn’t exactly listening to The Jesus and Mary Chain, and even if she were, she wouldn’t have let me in on the secret.

I was a victim of Top 40 radio like all pre-internet, rural eight year olds. Despite a few quirks like an aversion to Beanie Babies, Pokémon, and sports, I pretty much liked what everyone else liked. Yes. I too loved Boy Bands. The first record I ever bought myself was not by The Dead Boys, or The Beach Boys, or The Pet Shop Boys. It was Backstreet Boys, by The Backstreet Boys.

I was an avid supporter of BSB. So much so that when fellow Floridians NSYNC cropped up on the scene slightly after, I leapt to the Boys’ defense. It seemed that they had invented the boy band, and I’d be goddamned if some nobody named “Justin Timberlake” was going to steal thunder from my beloved Nick Carter. My loyalty to BSB over NSYNC was an amalgam of childish polarity, Scorpion dedication, and a fear that giving in to NSYNC would count as some sort of infidelity to the former.

This feud didn’t just live in my head. The BSB vs. NSYNC debate was a very real thing, and a quick Google search will liquefy any doubts you have of its existence. I managed to get into several heated disputes regarding the matter in second grade. It wasn’t that I didn’t like NSYNC’s music – I now acknowledge its superiority – but I felt BSB had been flat ripped off. The five-man structure? The cute blonde, the “freaky” one, the sensitive one, the semi-normal-looking brunette, and the one no one will ever be attracted to? NSYNC had photocopied the pages of BSB’s playbook, and like all eight year olds, I hated copycats. But it was ok. I knew in my heart that BSB would rise to legend status. NSYNC would end up in the novelty hall of fame. That guy Justin Timberlake wasn’t going anywhere, so I wasn’t too worried.

When I wasn’t busy asserting BSB’s superiority over all boy bands (don’t even get me started on 98 Degrees!), I was listening to their music – namely, that first record. While my taste was nothing to brag about, my habits as a music listener were well-formed by then, and Backstreet Boys was on heavy rotation on the boombox. Favorite songs included “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” “As Long As You Love Me,” and “If You Want to Be a Good Girl (Get Yourself a Bad Boy),” which in its defense sounds like an off-brand Prince song. Not the worst thing. Oh but there was so much more! “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) with that unbearable “spooky” music video, or “I’ll Never Break Your Heart,” which an eight year old could really relate to. When Brian sings, “Ooh when I asked you out/You said no but I found out,” it was just like the time at school when I labored over a hemp necklace for Jake Allen, but then he gave it to that bitch Katie Summers. At least BSB understood my pain.

The truthful hero of my boy band days was my dad, however, who sat through every spin of my Backstreet Boys’ CDs and not only tolerated the music – he pretended he liked it. My mom and I lived in a much larger house than the tiny log cabin my dad and I inhabited. At my mom’s I could tuck away into my room to rehearse choreographed dance moves to “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” out of sight and earshot. She was also smart enough to not have a CD player in her car. But dad had to hear it all. I have one distilled memory of us sitting in his car one winter morning before school, waiting for the windshield to defrost, and playing “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” off of 1999’s Millenium. He claimed to particularly like that song.

Although I remember purchasing Backstreet Boys more vividly than Millenium, I recall their equal significance. This presents me with an odd internal struggle I am embarrassed to admit. In weighing the importance of these records, I’ve uncovered a shameful desire to appease the “cult of cool.” Translation: for a split second, I somehow created a hierarchy of Backstreet Boys albums. As if their first LP – their early stuff – has more clout in the same way say, the first Wire record does. Jesus.

I’m learning more and more that in order to write about this kind of music, or simply to fess up about it, you have to suspend disbelief like you would at a play. As much as I am tempted to prescribe critical analysis, or nostalgic rose tinting to the music of Backstreet Boys, the best thing I can do is flatly say that I enjoyed it, and that I still enjoy it. This isn’t just nostalgia at work. Nostalgia didn’t preserve a fondness for Nickelback or P.O.D., both of whose CDs I owned. There is simply no logical explanation for why some music tugs at well-hidden heartstrings. It’s the magical pop alchemy we spend our careers trying to understand. I mean –Backstreet Boys actually have a lyric in their arsenal claiming, “You hit me faster than a shark attack.” I can’t rationalize that! It just is. It just, is very bad. And I love it.

And yet, my snobbery is almost as deeply ingrained as my unabashed enjoyment of BSB. I long to tell you that during my Backstreet Boys phase, I was at least more into AJ. I’d love to tell you that I didn’t just want Nick like everybody else. I want to say that I was the quirky, original girl who dug Howie. But I wasn’t. I wanted to be Baby Spice, not Ginger. I wanted things that were blonde and pink. I wanted Nick Carter. Twas his face, torn from the pages of Tiger Beat, lining my bedroom walls in carefully arranged clusters of blonde mushroom cut. I was just like everybody else.

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