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Wednesday, Feb 17, 2010
Backstreet Boy takes time out to talk about his group’s latest album, his “rocker” status, seeing his band mature and what may lie ahead for his mega-selling pop outfit.

If you are a Backstreet Boy, what’s the only thing worse than waking up with a throbbing headache, stuffy nose, sore throat and every other symptom that can be associated with a day-ruining case of the common cold? Having to be interviewed by someone with the exact same condition.


But that’s what happened when I spoke with A.J. McLean, the shades-wearing, hat-donning, sometimes bearded badass of the group. “Oh, I’ve seen better days,” he mumbled over the phone an in almost inaudible tone after I initially asked him how he was doing. As it turned out, he probably wasn’t faking, either. Later that day, wire services blew up with reports that fellow Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell had been diagnosed with H1N1, more commonly known as the Swine Flu. As a result, the group was forced to cancel various promotional appearances throughout New York City that were centered around the release of its new album, This Is Us. It was yet another obstacle on the way back to the top for one of the biggest pop groups of all time. That’s okay, though. It’s not like these boys haven’t been faced with adversity before.


Remember the Lou Pearlman situation? You know, the impossibly greedy manager that tried to use the group for all it was worth before heading to prison on conspiracy and money laundering convictions? How about when McLean himself admitted to his stunning drug abuse habit, and went on national television to confront it? Or even when Kevin Richardson, a longtime member of the group, decided he wanted to distance himself from the band, leaving to “pursue other interests in his life?”


Like I said, a little case of the sniffles, and hell, even the occasional case of H1N1 couldn’t bring these guys down. Not after nearly two decades of rollercoaster ups and downs.


“You have to stay positive,” McLean told me when I asked him about how any group could survive in today’s ever-changing, fickle world of pop music. “(If we were starting over again) we’d have to know to set goals. It has to be difficult for new artists. But after all this time, we have learned that we have to stay true to ourselves. You just can’t let anything or anyone get in the way of who you are.”


Who are the Backstreet Boys these days, anyway? The group opted for live instrumentation and Adult Contemporary dominance with 2005’s Never Gone. That acoustic/piano driven style continued for the most part with 2007’s Unbreakable. But now, in 2009, what exactly is the sound the four-part band is attempting to achieve with its latest release, This Is Us?


Well, for starters the band recruited top-notch hip hop collaborators such as Lil Wayne, Jim Jonsin and T-Pain to help craft the album. And while other pop mega-producers like One Republic’s Ryan Tedder and the legendary Max Martin offered a hand, McLean is quick to point out the difference between the group’s past experiences making a record with that of their latest.


“We had a real interesting team of people to work with for this record,” McLean said. “We had a lot of hip hop cats come in, so it was different. In the end, it worked out perfectly, though. We couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out.”


How it turned out is decidedly more mature than ever before. The acoustic guitars have been ditched for the most part, and the electro-fied beats that helped propel them into legendary status in the mid-1990s return on This Is Us. Why the group sounds more grown-up than ever, though, has nothing to do with its sound. That aspect can be attributed to lyrics that see the Boys in a new light.


A song like “PDA,” with its aggressively sexy feel and suggestive verse, is the perfect example. “Kissing and touching with my hands all over your booty,” sets the lyrical tone for a record that clearly isn’t aimed at the 14-to-16-year-old demographic the pop stars once famously aimed for with songs like “As Long As You Love Me,” and “Larger Than Life.”


“Lyrically, we aren’t kids anymore,” McLean told me. “It’s not like we can’t talk about booties. We wanted to push the envelope with this new record, and I think we did that.”


Pushing the envelope is not a foreign concept for McLean. Clearly the bad boy of the group, the singer cemented his reputation when he checked into rehab in 2001 for cocaine abuse and alcoholism. If that wasn’t enough, earlier this year, TMZ reported that McLean’s sobriety was in doubt after video surfaced of him appearing intoxicated.


Realizing his reputation precedes him almost anywhere he goes, McLean noted that he understands he is the “rocker” of the group. Though he has a soft spot for rhythm & blues music (Prince and Teddy Pendergrass, to be exact), he explained that he’s not like the other guys for more than one reason.


“I’m the kind of guy who grew up listening to Three Dog Night and Lynyrd Skynyrd,” he said. “A lot of the other guys aren’t really into that kind of stuff. Right now, the new Muse record is phenomenal. They will definitely break in the states soon enough. The other guys (in the band) tend to go with the catchier stuff, but I’m a rocker. That’s what I bring to the group.”


What the group plans to bring to the public is a tour supporting This Is Us. The tour, set to stretch across nearly the entire globe, is something McLean is especially excited about.


“It’s going to be an amazing show,” he said as his voice perked up from the sickness he was battling. “Each show is going to be like a live movie. It’s something the fans have never seen before - like a rock opera. We plan on going for about an hour and 45 minutes each night and doing around eight of the 12 songs from the new record, along with a bunch of the classics. Everybody’s going to love it. We are really, really excited about it.”


So with a new album, a new tour and a rejuvenated attitude toward his group’s career, McLean’s head cold seemed to be the last thing on his mind as our conversation wound down.


“We are going back to the old Backstreet Boys sound on this record,” he said before taking a few seconds to let out some coughs and a muted sniffle. “I think people are going to see what we have become. This album is a declaration of who we really are.”


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Tuesday, Feb 16, 2010
We wanted a follow up to How I Do and now we have it. Res shares the stories behind some of the highlights on Black.Girls.Rock!

“When is your next album coming out?” Ever since How I Do (2001) introduced Res to music audiences craving a progressive blend of rock, pop, and soul, the Philly-based rocker has regularly fielded that question. Finally, she has a definite answer: “Now.” Black.Girls.Rock! is the album that was intended to follow How I Do, but it got tangled in Geffen Records’ executive turnstile. Amidst many current projects, including Idle Warship (her group with Talib Kweli and Graph Nobel) and a solo mixtape, Res is offering the previously unreleased Black.Girls.Rock! as a free download on her website www.the1res.com. She recently shared her thoughts about five of the album’s numerous highlights with PopMatters. (Note: watch for an extended interview with Res on PopMatters later this winter.)


“On My Way”
The opening song on Black.Girls.Rock! that, for many listeners, is a “Res anthem.”
“Every artist has a song that represents them. I think this song represents what Res is to people, what people think Res is. I wrote most of it. I didn’t have to compromise for it. It was written by me and this girl Jill Cunniff from Luscious Jackson. For me, I felt like it was a great album opener because it bridged the gap between How I Do and this album.”


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Monday, Feb 15, 2010

Look at that guy. You know which one I’m talking about. You’ve got three surfer dude boys in the band and the frontman with the thousand yard smirk.


You know that guy. So do I. He’s the dude who always had a copy of the exam beforehand, always had a parent’s note (that he wrote) each time he was late for school. The guy that never kicked in for the keg then left the party with the best looking girl. The guy who would end up wearing his high school letter jacket after graduation, unless he happened to become a millionaire. And the big difference: that guy in your life doesn’t have the redeeming value of writing a transcendent pop song that gets inside of you like herpes simplex and never leaves. Doug Fieger was that guy. And now he’s gone.


Rest in peace, you rascal.


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Monday, Feb 15, 2010
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” - Isaac Hayes
Written by Jimmy Webb
From Hot Buttered Soul, (Enterprise, 1969)


“By the Time I Get to Arizona” - Public Enemy
Written by Carlton Ridenhour, Cerwin Depper, Gary G-Wiz, Stuart Robertz, and Neftali Santiago
From Apocalypse ‘91… The Enemy Strikes Black, (Def Jam/CBS, 1991)


These two songs are bound together, musically, lyrically, and spiritually, by the inventively funky vision of the artists, and by both artists’ commitment to civil rights. In 1969, after taking a break from music in the wake of the death of his close friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Isaac “Ike” Hayes took a country/pop hit performed by Glen Campbell and turned it into a striking, 18:40 soul-sermon about love and leaving. Twenty-two years later, Chuck D of Public Enemy (PE) borrowed the title of Isaac’s tune, swapped a state for a city, and lit into that state’s racially-charged refusal to acknowledge the holiday for Dr. King. Isaac Hayes and Public Enemy are both unabashedly funky, strong, cerebral-in-a-good-way, and multi-dimensional in their approach to conveying their desired message.


Hayes’ version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” begins with a hypnotic ride cymbal and organ (courtesy of the Bar-Kays), and Hayes’ stretched-out rap exploring the meaning of the song. He gives it an incredible back-story, expanding on Webb’s emotionally detailed lyric. He also breaks into little melodic moans every now and then, but for the most part, he sustains a very compelling, spoken-word-only intro for about nine minutes or so. Many old-school R&B songs have brief, spoken explanatory intros or interludes (e.g., the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?”, Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “All About Love”, )—but Ike really shows off here, digging deep and coming up with a fascinating narrative to complement Webb’s song. His “sermon” is packed with details about the protagonist’s “love blindness”, the nonchalant emotional (and financial) exploitation of the protagonist at the hands of his partner, sexual betrayal, and the dangers of mistaking a kind heart for a weak constitution.


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Friday, Feb 12, 2010

Some people might think that linking the inherently profound nature of Meshell Ndegeocello’s music to her sexuality is profane, but I think the link is damn near sacred. Only a handful of pop stars sing about anything other than sex not love, money not real power, and heartache to lament over relationships where neither partner initially respected themselves, let alone the other. Screen stars mimic the same, as violence, female subordination, and vilification of the poor permeate so much of our pop imagery. We can still easily count the number of female leading roles in Hollywood, and the absence of women from the corporate leadership behind our multi-billion dollar music and film industries attests to its antiquation.


Granted, the world is not as two-dimensional as straight/gay or black/white, so initially these sweeping generalizations might insult. For example, consider the number of queer people co-opted into reproducing the straight hegemony, and for this the fashion industry is exemplar. See all the fags creating stick-figure clothes and ho-heel shoes for real-world women?  Can you say eating disorder and diminished self-confidence?


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