Backstreet Boys: Last Boy Band Standing
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Date: Nov 07, 2007
It was an August night at the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts, an outdoor amphitheater serving the Greater Boston area. The venue’s official capacity was 19,900, and if that night’s Backstreet Boys concert wasn’t sold out, it came close enough not to matter much. The fans flailed themselves into such an ecstatic frenzy that even a massive thunderstorm that shut down the show for a quarter of an hour couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm that they proudly displayed any way they could: T-shirts (prefab and homemade), signs and, of course, the constant, unwavering screaming.
But if the scene was almost textbook boy band, one crucial fact tilted everything on its head: this took place in 2005. The Backstreet Boys, who had once ruled the roost of manufactured groups of teen dreams, were performing five years after the boy-band bubble had burst, and the audience was still partying like it was 1999.
That makes it hard to know what to expect of the group’s new “Unbreakable,” which comes out on Tuesday. Logic would suggest that the Backstreet Boys are relics clinging to an era that has long since passed them by. That’s something that might have occurred to Kevin Richardson, who left the group last year. Perhaps he finally realized that when you’re 36 (the oldest of the longstanding lineup), it’s a little creepy when your job is explicitly to make 12-year-old girls fall in love with you.
Last boy band standing Still, even though they’re down to four members for “Unbreakable” (so… maybe a little broken, actually), they’re continuing ahead as the Backstreet Boys. That’s no small accomplishment. While ’N Sync, their only serious peers, have been more ’N Pieces in recent years — what with Justin Timberlake completing the transformation into beat-boxing megastar, Joey Fatone watching other people sing, and Lance Bass ruining his coming-out party by dating an admitted reality-television star — the Backstreet Boys have been steadfast in their devotion to the group.
As a result, they’re pretty much the last boy band standing from what was a fertile scene a decade ago. Having followed the standard career path — theme-park origins, platinum albums, fired manager, insistence on proving their artistry by writing and playing on their own songs — they’re still around, with no precedent to guide them. To get a proper perspective, you’d have to imagine the New Kids On The Block releasing a new album in 1998.
That’s what’s effectively happening with “Unbreakable.” If “Never Gone,” the album being promoted on that summer evening in 2005, was the Backstreet Boys entering uncharted territory, the new release is a testament to how far they can push the car before the tank is empty.
It’s been 10 years since their self-titled debut was released in the U.S. (and 12 since its international release). Both New Edition and the New Kids lasted eight years from their first album. The Monkees lasted six, the Spice Girls four. Even the Beatles — not a manufactured band, true, but one that nonetheless ushered in the modern era of cute-one/smart-one/shy-one/etc. mass hysteria — broke up less than a decade after the release of their first British album.
The sound remains the same But what’s maybe most surprising isn’t the fact that the Backstreet Boys are still around, it’s that they’re still doing pretty much exactly what they were doing in their heyday. It probably doesn’t matter what the new album sounds like, because in a way, it never mattered what the albums sounded like, so long as they fit the formula: one part safely watered-down club braggadocio to several more parts sensitive-romantic swooning. If there’s more direct involvement behind the scenes than there used to be, then that (if the boy band survives long enough) is part of the formula as well.
That refusal to budge from what’s worked in the past extended to their live show as well. Despite such grownup moments as A.J. McLean publicly celebrating his sobriety and Richardson playing piano on a handful of tunes, there wasn’t much on their 2005 tour to suggest that they’d stepped out of the boy-band cocoon that they’d been in since the whirlwind began.
More striking, though, was the makeup of the group’s audience, which was an almost textbook boy-band crowd: overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly female, overwhelmingly excitable. But a closer look revealed that they weren’t simply what was left of their original fans, keeping the faith through the dark years since the group’s previous album five years earlier.
No, while there was certainly a sizable contingent of high-school and college-aged women, the bulk of the audience consisted of teens and tweens who had claimed the Backstreet Boys for their own. Too young for the original wave of Backstreetmania, they had somehow succumbed to the condition well after the group was supposed to have been considered a nostalgia (or desperation) act from a bygone era when boy bands fell ripe from the trees.
And that’s why it’s hard to discount the Backstreet Boys in the year 2007. Somehow, faced with the prospect of their fan base abandoning them through the simple act of getting older and moving on, they had managed to regenerate a new one from exactly the same demographics that had sustained them at the peak of their popularity. Whatever it was that the Backstreet Boys had in 1999, they apparently still had it long after anyone could have imagined.
It’s unlikely that the group’s new album will signal a return to the days of world domination. But the reaction of those 15,000-plus fans a scant two years ago was as clear as any evidence could be that the Backstreet Boys’ appeal was, for lack of a better word, timeless. And, quite possibly, unbreakable.
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