Backstreet Boys. These are words that inspire hate, that cause self-aware 15-year-olds to spit venom and curse their car radios. But why? The Backstreet Boys have stood, for almost 10 years now, at the helm of the 1990s boy band explosion, a movement that, with the rise and demise of colleagues ‘N Sync and imitators like 98 Degrees, seems to have ended. But after a long hiatus, Backstreet’s back, and they’re not going to let go of the dream.
Trying to listen to Never Gone was difficult, because to me listening to a boy band is like trying read a text book: I just can’t focus on it. Hearing “Incomplete”, the first single, pumping through my speakers at top volume was like an out-of-body experience. Never have I played Backstreet Boys in my room, and the old concern came to mind: What if someone I know hears? The most disappointing thing about Never Gone, however, is that it’s not a guilty pleasure. After one listen it’s apparent there’s no pleasure involved in this album, neither in process or product. It’s the same old thing, as are the liner notes with the Boys in suits and contrived poses, heads cocked just so, fedoras askew, facial hair stenciled like fishing line.
While the music on Never Gone is an attempt (by the many, many pop maestros credited in the liner notes) at variety, the lyrics were probably written by someone in their sleep (or a machine). Songs like “Just Want You To Know” and “Crawling Back to You” test the limits of every cliché in the history of pop music. Just as you become thankful that a song will be shallow, fun, and sans strings, you’re eventually disappointed. “Weird World” is the closest the Boys get to good old-fashioned fun (à la “I Want It That Way”), bringing a splash of Jamiraquai and actual enthusiasm to the album. What this does, however, is only emphasize the lack of enjoyment throughout the other songs. Most of the time the Backstreet Boys have no idea what they’re singing, and why should they? The words they’re singing mean nothing, as do the voices they use. It’s pretty difficult to distinguish between any of the Boys, and not worth the effort. It’s the Britney Spears, nasal, gulping style of singing used by this and other boy bands that makes the songs so completely dull. They’re singing how they’ve been told to sing by people with no vocal talent themselves.
What stops the Backstreet Boys from being any fun is, I think, their inability/refusal to wink at their audience. Everything is dead serious, from the earnest quotations of Bible verses in the liner notes, to the photos of the Boys playing a good ol’ game of cards, in white suits, in the middle of a field. To acknowledge the ridiculousness of this performance would not be to lose their fans, but it would perhaps bolster their music with a sort of ironic value. Even ‘N Sync knew enough to do this, dancing as marionettes in the “Bye Bye Bye” video, and even calling their album No Strings Attached. But the Backstreet Boys keep striking in the same spot, and the iron has long since cooled. They’re older and unenthusiastic and they’ll do what they can to keep riding the wave, but that’s it. That smooth, prepubescent tone still stings in their voices; tunes about losing love and beating down some poor woman’s door still glide by on a wave of Diane Warren-inspired stings. Never Gone has not offered anyone a reason to like boy bands, and the Backstreet Boys seem content to fade into top forty hell with so many others. But they could at least have the decency to show us their strings.