SINGAPORE // Technically, they can no longer be described as boys, but when they play Dubai for the first time in their 16-year career, the Backstreet Boys will turn the clock back to their early days as baby-faced teen heartthrobs.
When the band play their first Middle East concert on December 17, fans will see a return to the pop format that made the group a worldwide sensation in the 1990s. Within hours of the concert being announced yesterday, Backstreet Boys websites were flooded with messages from fans who have waited for years to hear the band perform in the UAE. The show will be held at The Palladium, a Dh220 million (US$60m) facility that opened this year in Dubai Media City.
In an interview with The National, band members talked about the trip to Dubai and the evolution of their sound. "We were experimenting with new sounds for the last two albums, but we are a pop band," said Brian Littrell, speaking in Singapore where the band is playing during the city's Formula One Grand Prix weekend. "When we did those two albums we thought we were a pop rock band, but pop is what we hark back to. This time, we made a conscious effort to go back to being ourselves."
He said the band had been trying for years to stage a concert in the Middle East, "but it has never worked out". "We would have fans coming up to us at gigs in Las Vegas and Tokyo saying, 'We live in Dubai, when are you going to come to visit us?'" he said. "Well, we're coming now. One thing we do know about our fans in the UAE is that they are very loyal and follow us around the world, so we're expecting a great night. It is going to be quite a spectacle. We are going to have a light show, eight dancers on stage and great tracks."
Fellow band member Nick Carter added: "We have heard so many amazing things about the place. I am expecting it to be beautiful, glamorous and hot. "We are excited to finally be seeing our fans in the UAE. It is going to be a joyous occasion and we cannot wait." The band have come a long way since being plucked from obscurity in 1993 by the pop impresario Lou Pearlman, who later parted company with the group on acrimonious terms.
Since their early days as squeaky-clean teen idols, there have been battles with drugs, stints in rehab, two weddings and two babies, as well as a religious epiphany for Littrell. The band was whittled down to four members when Kevin Richardson quit three years ago to spend time with his family, leaving Littrell, 34, Carter, 29, Howie Dorough, 36, and AJ McLean, 31. But despite their current collective age of 130 and several breaks in their performing career, they can still boast of being one of the best-selling boy bands of all time.
The Backstreet Boys have notched 13 Top 40 hits on the Billboard charts and sold more than 100 million albums with chart-toppers including I Want It That Way, Quit Playing Games With My Heart and Everybody (Backstreet's Back). Along the way, they set numerous records. Millennium was the best-selling album of 1999, selling nearly 10 million copies and earning five Grammy nominations and providing Top 40 singles. It also set a record for the most albums sold internationally in one week (2.2 million) and was certified platinum in 45 countries.
The band, which started by playing school assemblies and shopping malls, embarked on their first world tour 12 years ago. Since then, Littrell has undergone open-heart surgery and found God, McLean confessed his addiction to drugs and alcohol on the Oprah Winfrey show, and the band had a three-year hiatus from 2002 to 2005 when Carter embarked on an unsuccessful solo career. The Backstreet Boys came back with a radically new sound with the albums Never Gone in 2005 and Unbreakable in 2007, which were panned by critics, with Rolling Stone magazine giving the earlier album only one star.
At that point they realised their strength lay in the pop melodies and catchy tunes that made them famous, Littrell acknowledged yesterday. Their current European tour, which precedes the Dubai show, features music that gets back to those pop roots. It includes music from their seventh and soon-to-be-released album This Is Us. One of the new tracks, Straight Through My Heart, has already received multiple plays on local radio stations.
"We reached back into what made us who we are that is, great pop melodies and great harmonies and made it current and relevant," Littrell said. In addition to the pop sounds, the Dubai concert would include some Eurodance and rhythm-and-blues numbers, he said. He expected the audience to be "a mixture of our older fans and some new ones". The group's entourage now includes two new recruits who could aptly be described as boys Littrell's six-year-old son Baylee and Dorough's five-month-old son James.
While Baylee will accompany the tour in Europe, he is unlikely to travel to Dubai. "It is a lot to ask of a six-year-old, but he is a big fan," Littrell said. "He knows all the hits and loves the new record. In fact, he knows all the words to the track Bigger on the new album so I am sure it is going to be a hit." And would the band ever consider changing its name? The boyish good looks and cheeky grins that turned them into stars may still be there, but so are the creeping lines that give away their maturity.
"Never," Littrell said firmly. "We were asked whether we planned to keep the name 16 years ago when we first started and that is still what everyone asks us. The name won't change we are always going to stay the same." firstname.lastname@example.org