Give Yourselves A Hand

We're waiting for the movie.

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.

Yeecchhh!

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.