Reflections on the Backstreet Boys: From A to NYE

I imagine that most of you had the time-honored Dick Clark countdown special on at some point during your New Year’s Eve. And, unless you were studiously avoiding Mr. Clark right around that all-important midnight hour–perhaps starting on your midnight amorousness early? — I imagine also that you caught the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys joint performance, intended to advertise their upcoming tour together. Perhaps you watched out of the corner of your eye, amused. Maybe you cracked a joke to a friend or partner about the increasingly inappropriate moniker of “boy”, suggesting the word was starting to lose all meaning for you. I doubt that, for most of you, you thought about the Backstreet Boys very much more after that. But speaking for myself, and for a certain special contingent of ladies out there, the performance marked yet another stop in a very strange tour of duty.

Take it from a former super-fan: watching the Backstreet Boys perform after all these years is weird. Down one “boy”, the remaining four 30-somethings soldier on, having been unable to forge successful solo careers, and clinging somewhat remarkably to the decaying specter that is the boy band (even as I type the latter, the 12-year-old zealot in me cries foul at my once-unthinkable betrayal). On New Year’s Eve, watching, cringing, at the less-than-stellar performance, I recognized that what I was watching was a show of relics going through the motions; it was as if something mummified had been raised from the dead, only to sing (croak) and dance (stagger) about the stage for some unknown purpose.

An anecdote: a friend of mine was unironically dragged to a Backstreet Boys concert a few years ago by a prospective girlfriend. As he tentatively swayed to the familiar music and swore never to call her again, he took stock of his surroundings. No one around him was over the age of fourteen. The music of his youth was no longer his, nor hers, nor for most of the fans who had once been so devoted. These legions had been replaced by new ahistoric droves, apart from the initial formation and progression of the Backstreet Boys.

And what a progression, eh? Bursting onto the European pop scene in 1996, the BSB became internationally famous after only a few short years toiling in anonymity. “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” climbed the charts. In 1997, they returned home to a loving public; hence, “Backstreet’s Back”. I, a ten-year-old girl, was part of that public. Having first joined the fanhood in order to fit in at my new suburban Texas elementary school, I quickly took to the enterprise with great zest. What follows now you will have to forgive me for.

I started a BSB club with my friends; only five members were allowed, and we all were required to have different Boys as our favorites (we never did find that fifth “Howie” member). Mine was the now-defected Kevin Richardson, who to this day I will argue is clearly the best one. Licensed scuba diver, pilot, and ballroom dancer? Where do I sign up? I held sleepovers on Kevin’s birthday–10/3, a number that seems to follow me around even now. I began a website named in his honor, the cringeworthy “Kevin’s Heaven” (yes!). Later, I would become more amenable in my thinking and expand the name to “Backstreet Heaven”. I knew more HTML at that age than I know now; as one entered the site, sparkles followed your cursor, because of course they did. I was twelve. Alas, dear reader, the Gurlpages server does not hold storied memories forever, and this vital webpage has been dissolved into pixels and lost from the archives. I attended several concerts, which my mother lovingly and patiently took me to, holding a strained smile as I screamed myself hoarse. I watched the music videos and documentaries and specials a hundred times each. And yes, though I hesitate to admit it even in these impartial halls, I wrote fan fiction.

Fan fiction! I merely dabbled, though dabbling meant hundreds of hand-written pages spread out over approximately ten stories. Each Backstreet Boy was given his own story, naturally, so as not to have the other Boys overshadow his narrative (A.J. McLean’s, ominously enough, involved a trip to jail). The rest were group stories, with one particularly interesting foray into horror, featuring a crazed ex-girlfriend and a silencer for a chainsaw, as my grasp of weaponry at 12 was somewhat . . . lacking. If you can venture to believe it, every story where Kevin had a girlfriend, her name was something like Natalie, Tasha, Talia, Nat–a similarity to my own I strove furiously to deny as mere incidence. Writing the stories was, pure and simple, wish fulfillment.

I was obsessed. My devotion knew no bounds. I scoffed at those who didn’t know that the Backstreet Boys were formed in 1993, that their greedy manager was Lou Pearlman, that Brian Littrell had a hole in his heart (perfect romantic song fodder, n’est-ce pas??). I wrote furious epithets on the *NSYNC message boards. I waited outside closed stores in order to snag Millennium and Black and Blue.

But, reader, every obsession must meet its inevitable end. One normal-seeming day, I came into school to find my best friend in tears. “Brian and Kevin proposed to their girlfriends!” she wailed. I wept also and rent my garments; Hamlet’s gloomy castle had nothing on the hallways I darkened with my mourning. Though I eventually re-swore my allegiance tenfold, that was the moment when the bloom fell off the rose.

I moved to New York the next year. I went to one last concert. I stopped wearing my shirts and pins. No more fan fiction issued forth from my tween hand. I looked on sullenly as BSB, *NSYNC, 98 Degrees, and their ilk all dissolved and went on their merry ways. Those not fated to be as successful as Justin Timberlake (12-year-old Natasha still hates him and his stupid hair and refuses to recognize the allure of “SexyBack”), former members moved on, grew up, married, came out (fan-girls wept, Lance), and were for the most part happy to let the phenomenon that was the ‘90s boy band die out.

But not the Boys. A few years went by, and then they reunited in early 2004. A 16-year-old me had let enough time pass, as one must after a break-up of sorts, to hear of their comeback with a tolerant smile, even goodwill. Hey, “Just Want You to Know” was pretty catchy! In college, I pre-gamed to “Everybody” and “Hey Mr. DJ”, co-opting the music that reminded me of my former naïveté before nights of ensuing debauchery. After my first real heartbreak, I listened to “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” and “Don’t Want You Back,” with, I told myself, a bittersweet mixture of belief in the simple lyrics and mature distance from the cloying material. But really, I maintained my stubborn loyalty to them over all those years, despite them becoming Backstreet Men, even going so far as to defend their continuing arc. Eventually, however, their former aficionadi had to grow up, and the five-part harmonies and whispered intros just couldn’t speak to us as they once had, not even ironically. I left the Backstreet Boys. Last year, I found buried at the bottom of an old box my first-ever tour shirt, dusty and mildewed.

Over the years, I’ve watched A.J. go to jail, Nick’s family be torn asunder by a father Michael Lohan could take lessons from, Brian and Kevin get married, Howie do nothing, the group announce cruises and new albums and tours with the New Kids on the Block, filling those legions of fans with their own existential doubt, I’m sure. It has been awkward to grow up past the point of their target audience, and though I maintain they were, once-upon-a-time, the best of their kind, the glory has long since faded. I watched the performance on New Year’s Eve like a fugitive, glancing at my fellow revelers as if they would find me out. But it was truly their inattentiveness, their puzzled bemusement, that demonstrated the hard truth: no one cared one way or the other. Our revels, now, had ended. The boy band is dead! Long live the boy band! And send me a review of the NKOTB/BSB tour when you get a chance. That is, if you remember.