Backstreet's back, all right
If the names AJ McLean, Howie “D” Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell do not give you fuzzy, hyper-saturated flashbacks of heartfelt harmonies and curtain hair, then you officially weren’t a 90s kid.
The quintet, better known as the Backstreet Boys, first joined forces in 1993 in Orlando, Florida, after responding to an advert calling for a group with a “New Kids on the Block look with a Boyz II Men sound”.
Taking their name from the Backstreet Market, an outdoor flea market in Orlando that was a teen haunt in the 1990s, the five members quickly gained a devoted following who swooned over their boyish good looks, synchronised dance moves and peppy personalities interspersed with rakish, bad-boy vibes.
They may categorically be more of a grown-man band now, but their phenomenal record sales show that the BSB have still got it. The “DNA World Tour”, which will thrill fans at The Venetian Macao’s Cotai Arena on October 19, is part of the band’s biggest arena tour in 18 years.
It follows the release of the Backstreet Boys’ latest studio album “DNA” – which features songs written by Andy Grammer, Stuart Crichton and Mike Sabbath – and made its debut at number one on the Billboard 200 Chart in January this year. The tour kicked off in Europe with a concert in Lisbon on May 11. The Asia leg begins in October with two concerts in Japan (Saitama and Osaka). After playing Macao, the band will hit Taipei, Bangkok, Manila and Singapore, before heading back to the US for four final gigs in Honolulu in early November.
The Backstreet Boys are the first boy band to top the US charts in three different decades. They are now the biggest-selling boy band of all time, with sales of some 100 million records (that’s 25 million more than the Jackson 5).
Given these accolades, it’s somewhat ironic that the Backstreet Boys have never identified themselves as a boy band, preferring instead to be referred to as a vocal harmony group.
“We were fans of New Kids [On the Block], but were we really modelled after them?” Littrell asked Entertainment Weekly in a 2011 interview. “No. We looked at ourselves as Shai, Jodeci, Boyz II Men, the true vocal groups. That is who we listened to and who we really wanted to be like.”
Dorough also touched on the topic in a 2018 interview with the entertainment publication, Vulture . “At first, we weren’t excited about [the name ‘boy band’] because we thought, why does it have to be labelled? It sounded like we could only be teenybopperish. Boys, to us, always just meant that we’re boys, we’re homies. We never thought it would transcend to mean a group for young girls. Now it’s funny because we’re still called a boy band, but we’ll take it. We’re always trying to remain as youthful as we can.”
The band’s successful self-titled debut international album dropped in Europe, Japan, Canada and Australia in 1996 and was swiftly followed by “Backstreet’s Back” the following year, which continued the band’s upwards trajectory.
However, it was 1999’s “Millennium” that finally cemented their place as global superstars. The album, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, was their first to be released in the United States and internationally at the same time. The lead single I Want It That Way , a soaring ballad ostensibly about the pains of a strained relationship, boosted anticipation for the upcoming album and became a worldwide smash hit.
Bolstered by its legendarily melodramatic and much-parodied music video set in an airport, I Want It That Way has gone on to become the band’s signature record and a cultural yardstick for the late 90s. The meaning of its ambiguous lyrical content is a cult pop-culture debate, but the song was met with critical acclaim – Rolling Stone called it a “genre-transcending classic”. Entertainment Weekly referred to the track as “the bubblegum ballad of the year”, with critic Jim Farber adding: “It’s so likeable, it does not matter that the group’s voices are the sonic equivalent of warm milk.”
“Millennium” spent 10 consecutive weeks at number one and became the bestselling US album of 1999; gaining a slew of Grammy nods, including album of the year, with successive singles Larger Than Life , Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely and The One all meeting commercial and critical success.
The band’s 2000 follow-up album, “Black & Blue”, reached similar heights; the record, which features singles Shape of My Heart , The Call and More Than That sold more than 1.5 million copies in the US in its first week, making Backstreet Boys the first band to reach million-plus sales in the US within a week with back-to-back albums. The album also saw the band flex their songwriting muscles more than ever, with seven of the album’s tracks featuring lyrics written or co-written by the group.
But true superstardom is rarely rosy – as the Backstreet Boys were in the process of finding out. In 1998 and 1999, the band brought a series of lawsuits against manager Lou Pearlman (who also managed BSB’s contemporaries and erstwhile rivals, NSYNC) and his company Trans Continental Records. It later transpired that, while the band had made some US$10 million between 1993 and 1997, it had only received US$300,000 – Pearlman had siphoned off the rest. He was later jailed for 25 years for his part in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history.
There were other issues to contend with, too. The “Black & Blue Tour” was put on hold in mid-2001 after McLean checked into a rehabilitation centre for depression and alcoholism. Amid internal disagreements fuelled by various members’ desires to record solo material, the band decided to put their new album on hold and go on hiatus. It took an emotional surprise reunion on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2003 to prompt the band to return to the studio and start recording their next album, “Never Gone”. It was the last album to feature all five band members.
In 2006, Richardson announced he was leaving the band, again breaking thousands of teen hearts that had only just healed.
“I just wasn’t feeling inspired,” he told Vulture in 2018. “I was burnt out, and my wife and I wanted to start a family. I also wanted to explore some other passions of mine, so I walked away.”
The remaining Backstreet Boys recorded two more albums as a foursome, “Unbreakable” (2007) and “This Is Us” (2009). Richardson continued to make occasional appearances with the group on stage.
“I started sitting in with a buddy of mine’s band and singing again,” Richardson said. “I realised how much I loved music all of a sudden, I felt like I got the passion back. When I commit to something, I commit 100 per cent. It’s always been that way.” By 2012, just ahead of BSB’s 20th anniversary, Richardson announced he was rejoining the band.
“The timing was right,” he explained. “Now that I’m older, I see things differently.” In time for the 20th anniversary, the band released their first independent album, “In a World Like This”, in 2013, followed by a documentary called Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of in 2015. In 2017, the band launched Larger Than Life, their first Las Vegas residency, at Zappos Theater, in Planet Hollywood. More than 185,000 fans watched the show during its run of 80 performances.
In November 2018, the band dropped a new single, Chances , written by Shawn Mendes and Ryan Tedder, ahead of the launch of “DNA”.
The official 2018 statement announcing the news of the mega arena tour quoted some of the band’s members on the significance of the new album.
”When this group started 26 years ago – and through all the highs and lows of our career – we’ve had to learn it wasn’t about us as individuals but about what’s best for the group,” said Dorough.
“That is what I love about this album,” added Richardson. “We were able to bring all of our influences and styles into one coherent piece of work. These songs are a great representation of who we are as individuals and who we are as a group. It’s our DNA. We’re really proud of that.”
“The journey is ongoing with us, and there is so much left to do,” said Littrell. “We’re living the next chapter that has not been told yet, and that is exciting.”
Whether you’re a 90s kid or not, don’t miss this chance for a spot of synchronised dancing to BSB’s 20 years of solid gold hits. We could say Backstreet’s back – but they never really went away.