Over the past few days, MTV's "Total Request Live" e-mail ticker requests
for the Backstreet Boys' new hit, "I Want It That Way," have
contained some sharp rock criticism. "A.J. has such hot moves," writes Beth
(OR). "I have loved BSB since the first time I saw them," opines Traci (TX),
while Kathie (MS) weighs in with "I love Kevin the best and they kick 'N
Sync's Ass!" But along with this fulsome praise, one vaguely sour note was
struck by Carmen (N.J.). "Hi Carson! I love you and your show!," Carmen
writes excitedly. "So please play the Backstreet Boys''I Want It That Way!'
I love that video and the BBoys didn't disappoint their fans this time!"
"Disappoint their fans?" Has the globally phenomenal quintet reached a
developmental stage at which fan disappointment is even conceivable? Maybe.
The BSB fan base possesses a neo-classical perspective with a vanishing
point that lies somewhere around age 19, and by that yardstick the Boys
might be a bit long in the tooth. Indeed, the band seems to be alluding to
these intimations of mortality with the epochal title of their new album,
and in particular with the back cover photo, which shows all five boyz
dressed in fly/ angelic baggy white suits, photographed from behind and
walking toward some vague point of light in the distance. Can a "B-Rok is
dead" scam and an ill-advised experimental album be far behind?
That would be an unhappy career turn, if it happens. If the Backstreet Boys
bring anything to the table of popular music, it's a genetically engineered
sense of place, so flawless and uninflected that it makes you wonder what
happened to the raw, edgy trailblazing of Menudo. Teen idol musicians tend
to be fairly generic and undistinguished, but even in this milieu BSB stands
out as more generic and undistinguished than most. That's probably the key
to their success.
It's also elemental to the fans, who act out the same devotions their
mothers and older sisters once performed for NKOTB or Sean Cassidy. Where do they all learn to be fans, in exactly the same way that other
teenyboppers were fans before them? The bands you can explain: They're
cobbled together by shrewd managers who can read the popular mind like
surfers read the waves. But where do the fans learn their moves? More
important, why don't adults appreciate the excitement -- this last vestige
of pure pop music love, before they move on to become followers of punk,
alt.rock and other self-serious art forms, with all the cliquishness,
pretension and contempt for outsiders that such fandom entails.
If the fans are getting a little more attention in this review than the
Backstreet Boys themselves, it's because they deserve it. The band is as
lazy as its fans are devoted. For a CD that is essentially critic-proof to
begin with (a negative review would have roughly as much fiscal impact as a
thumb-down for The Phantom Menace), this one still manages to
disappoint. Its synth-string surges and bland guitar licks create a
room-temperature sameness in which even the intended hits, like "I Want It That Way" (RealAudio excerpt)
and the in-your-face "Larger Than Life" (RealAudio excerpt), can't be distinguished
from the rest of the pack. You'd be hard pressed to keep the sound of any
specific song in your head for more than three seconds. It's also worth
noting that, even by teen-idol standards of harmlessness, the Backstreet
Boys come off as a fairly G-rated bunch. BSB tries to bring a kind of
televised grittiness to their image, what with A.J.'s phat tattoos and the
group's rough-and-tumble name (for reasons that are not entirely clear,
"back streets" have traditionally been considered more urban and real than
"front streets.") In any event, these boys from Orlando can't even muster the
disembodied faux-riskiness of Ricky Martin or the New Kids. The closing
track -- a song called "The Perfect Fan" (RealAudio excerpt), which sounds like it should be a
come-on to budding stalkers -- is actually a paean to strong families.
In the vacuum left by such underperforming bandroids, the rabidness of the
fans is the only thing you can cling to. These girls deserve a better object
for their boundless energies. The Backstreet Boys are no Hanson, and America
should be ashamed that it can't give its teenagers something better. Still,
the fans do their best, and God bless them for it. Eat 'em up, girls!
Someday you'll be embarrassed that you ever listened to the Backstreet Boys.
You shouldn't be.