The Boys are Back in Town
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by Jennifer Graham
As boy bands go, they're practically veterans. But with a new tv special and a hot summer tour, the Backstreet Boys prove they're man enough to stay on top.
Hanging with the Backstreet Boys may result in death by accidental trampling, high-speed car wreck or murder. Put another way: Their fans might kill you. On the bright side, the evening will include lounging in the Boys' candlelit, muslin-draped dressing room — such as the one tonight, backstage at Buenos Aires's Riverplate Stadium in Argentina. And later there will be dancing until 5:30 am in the VIP section of a hip nightclub — champagne flowing, ambrosial steak at a finger snap. So, of course, it's worth the risk.
The afternoon begins with a hair-raising car chase from their hotel to the stadium. Five vans — each ferrying a Boy, a bodyguard and various friends or family — tear across the city, with dozens of taxis in pursuit, swerving perilously close as screaming girls lean across sunroofs and pound dainty fists on Backstreet windows. Police escorts on motorcycles zoom in between.
Meanwhile, Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, 21, from Jamestown, New York, talks calmly over the sirens. "It's extreme, but that's Backstreet fans," he says casually. Frankly, he has seen fan hysteria more dramatic than this. Last year his former girlfriend, aspiring singer Willa Ford, was the target of a spate of Internet hate sites and death threats. Her crime? She was dating a Backstreet Boy. "I think everybody should just relax," says Carter. But in case they don't, he will not be disclosing the last name of his current sweetheart, Tiffany, a mild-mannered 20-year-old college student. Thankfully, tinted windows prevent the fans from seeing her here, reclining in his arms.
The rest of the Backstreet Boys are as follows: Kevin Richardson, 29, from Lexington, Kentucky; Howie Dorough, 27, from Orlando, Florida; Brian Littrell, 26 and Richardson's cousin, also from Lexington; and A.J. McLean, 23, from West Palm Beach, Florida. On May 30, they will be singing, dancing and, sideways-glancing in a CBS concert, Backstreet Boys: Larger Than Life. High ratings are practically guaranteed. There are those who love this group (mostly kids and teen girls) and those who loathe them (critics who dismiss their music as disposable jingles penned by hired writers) — but no one can dispute their impact on pop culture. "They opened up a door that wasn't there before, one that made pop music mainstream," says Mandy Moore, a pop singer and MTV host. "They helped young artists like me."
Doors began swinging in 1997, when the group released their self-titled American debut CD after four years of touring overseas. Backstreet Boys sold more than 13 million copies. Their follow-up, 1999's Millennium, broke Garth Brooks's record with first-week sales of 1.13 million and went on to sell 14 million. Their latest release, Black & Blue, is hovering in the 8 million range.
And with such numbers they have become bona fide arena fillers. Upon arrival at today's 70,000-seater, they rehearse, goof off, shoot hoops and eat soggy eggplant parmigiana in their dressing room. McLean changes his pants (underwear: Calvin Klein) while good-naturedly explaining that, fame and fortune aside, paving the way has its drawbacks. "There's so many freakin' groups now, it's a damn shame. It's like a car [assembly] line," he says. Adds Carter, "The O-Town thing — I can't stand it!" (That "thing" is the creation of a Backstreet-like group on an ABC reality series, Making the Band.) To the Boys' minds, the most successful by-product of their success was 'N Sync — who were masterminded by the Backstreet management team. "When we would turn down a TV show because we were worn out, they would book 'N Sync to do it," says Richardson. "They were like, 'If we can't get paid from the Backstreet Boys, we can get paid from 'N Sync.'" The Boys have severed ties with that management company (after a legal dispute over earnings that culminated in an out-of-court settlement). But they have been unable to shake 'N Sync, who jumped to the Boys' label, Jive Records, last year. To this day, jokes Littrell, "we're running for our lives!"
Take this year's Super Bowl: Madonna was scheduled to perform at halftime; the Backstreet Boys were booked to sing the national anthem; Madonna backed out; and 'N Sync, among other artists, took her spot. Or the dueling fast food chain TV commercials: 'N Sync's McDonald's spot hit the airwaves just a few weeks before the Boys' Burger King endorsement. "It was like, 'Can we ever do our own thing?' " says Dorough.
Such doubled-up performances and duelings ads have enhanced public perception that the groups are locked in a musical horse race, with the Backstreet Boys trailing behind. In fact, just months after they broke Garth Brooks's record, 'N Sync went one better, racking up 2.4 million in first-week sales for their No Strings Attached CD. Next up was the Boys' release of Black and Blue, and again the media reported on the competition. That's when, says Richardson, "A.J. made a comment to the press that backfired in his face. He said we were gonna outsell 'N Sync." No such luck: Black and Blue sold 1.6 million copies that first week. "I'll have to be honest with you," says Dorough. "There's that feeling of 'Who's best?' People throw darts at you: 'You didn't do it. You're a failure.' And here we've sold 8 million."
Tonight, the only things thrown at the Boys are love letters. At 9:30 P.M., they take the stage-or rather, rise up out of it amid swirls of smoke, backlit by a mammoth movie-screen backdrop projecting exploding asteroids. This does not, however, match the high drama taking place just beyond the footlights. Roughly two dozen security guards are pulling unconscious girls from the reckless, churning crowds of teens, hundreds deep. For all their complaints about 'N Sync, there's no question the Backstreet Boys are worshipped-and neither imitators nor critics have changed that fact. "We can take whatever people throw at us," says Littrell. "We're still going to move forward." Even the "teen idol" tag doesn't seem to sting. "We're not scared of being loved by little girls," he adds. "We're loved by mothers and fathers and grandparents. Dogs and parakeets. Cats."
And, one might add, purring women. “There are a couple of Penny Lanes,” says Dorough, smiling sweetly as he refers to the film “Almost Famous.” “It’s overwhelming for any guy to be put into this kind of scenario and not enjoy it at least a little bit. You know, we’re five young gentlemen.” The oldest of these gentlemen, Richardson, hopped out of the bachelor pool last June, when he married Kristin Willits, an L.A. actress. “The fan reaction is a little more respectful [in the sense that] the women don’t come on to me like they used to,” he says. “I don’t want you to think that I was running off with every woman. I was brought up in a strict Christian home. But I wasn’t a perfect angel, either”
McLean’s romantic concerns focus less on moral image and more on practicality. “When you date a girl, and you’re at the level we are, she has to know what she’s getting into,” he says. “[I explain,] ‘You’re going to be part of my spotlight. Even when I’m not with you, you’ll become an object of [attention].’ ” Hence the negative attention lavished on Carter’s ex, and to a lesser degree, McLean’s former girlfriend, J Records singer Amanda Latona. But his current companion, Sarah Martin, also a singer, isn’t concerned. “I think it depends on the personality of the girl who’s with the Backstreet Boys,” she says. “If you’re willing to share him with his fans, then it’s cool.” This balancing act does not affect Littrell. Last September he went from teen dream to dream son-in-law when he married actress Leighanne Wallace in Atlanta, where they now reside. In casual conversation, he cites the New York Times bestseller, The Prayer of Jabez- a Christian guidebook based on a prayer in First Chronicles. “We read to each other and pray together,” he says. “It applies Bible verses to [real] life.”
Not surprisingly, Littrell tends to skip the local club scene while on the road. (The current tour hits the States on June 8 in Orlando, continuing throughout the summer.) “Normally, myself, Howie, and Kevin are the ones who go out,” says McLean. “You can’t have a good times unless you go with a large group and you’re not the focus.”
Around 4:00 A.M., Richardson is dancing among a group- backup dancers, stylists, and bodyguards- at the buzzing nightclub Buenos Aires News. Dorough, nicknamed Sweet D. for his amiable demeanor, pours champagne. Leaning in close to the interviewer, he shouts over the club’s pounding house music. “It’s good that you saw our rehearsal before the show today,” he says, grinning. “You got to see all our mistakes!” The Backstreet Boys may not actually be larger than life. But they sure know how to live it.
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