[17 February 2010]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
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.”