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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

The Backstreet Boys have endured for more than two decades - here's why 

Our writer was 11 when she fell for the five lads from Orlando. Times have changed – but not her teenybop tastes

Illustration The National
Illustration The National

If you were a middle schooler in the late 1990s, chances are you were an ardent fan of one of two boy bands – NSync or Backstreet Boys – but never of both. I fell unapologetically into the latter category.

The warring factions were comprised of teenage girls, armed with their idols’ latest albums and the utmost certainty that their group of choice reigned unthreatened. By the time I was 11 years old, I had become the embodiment of the crazed teenybopper.

Every inch of my blue bedroom wall, school locker and notebooks were plastered with cut-outs of the Backstreet Boys I’d meticulously torn out of the latest teen magazine, unbeknown to my disapproving father. I spent my days writing fan fiction, delving into alternative worlds where I was finally able to meet them. I owned every piece of Backstreet merchandise I could get my hands on, wore a necklace with the name Nick on it and could recite each of their life stories like they were my own.

At school, my teachers and peers knew me not for my academic brilliance or sporting excellence – neither of which I had, by the way – but for my all-consuming love of the Orlando-based group. It’s a wonder I was part of the cool kids’ group.

Then in 2001, the Backstreet Boys announced the dates of their Black & Blue album tour. But much to the dismay of my 13-year-old self, their South America leg was expected to end in Buenos Aires – the wrong side of the Andes from the Chilean capital of Santiago, where my family and I lived at the time.

The Backstreet Boys perform at the San Remo Pop Festival in Italy in 1998. Mandatory Credit: Shutterstock
The Backstreet Boys perform at the San Remo Pop Festival in Italy in 1998. Mandatory Credit: Shutterstock

And so, my mother, partly moved by her teenage daughter’s teary-eyed plea and partly inspired by the delights of a mini-break, booked us onto a flight to the Argentine capital. The crowd at the concert were a loyal and rabid fan-base – the ultimate teenyboppers. Clutching homemade heart-shaped placards and snapping blurry photographs on our disposable cameras while singing at the top of our lungs. Nineties pop fandom was obsessive and all-consuming. Fans picked a boy band or a singer and followed their every move on television or magazines – while lapping up bubble gum-flavoured Kool-Aid.

The tragic death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 and the decline of grunge gave way to a string of clean-cut boy bands and Britney lookalikes. Distorted electric guitars and earnest musicians in flannel shirts were replaced by perfectly packaged, upbeat choruses and suggestive dance moves. By the late 1990s, the charts had come alive with the sound of European producers like Max Martin, Veit Renn and the late Denniz Pop – some of the musical masterminds behind the likes of Christina Aguilera, Celine Dion and the Backstreet Boys, as well as the more recent Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande.

Lyrics like “throw your hands up in the air, and wave ‘em round like you just don’t care” captivated young fans across the world, despite their undemanding and sometimes dubious nature. Take Christina Aguilera’s 1999 single Genie in a Bottle – a song so full of undertones, it should have been labelled with “Parental advisory: explicit lyrics”.

Some lyrics were simply unintelligible like Hanson’s 1997 hit Mmmbop – perhaps one of the most incomprehensible songs in modern pop history, but one that few can resist singing along to. Try getting that out of your head now.

The dawn of the world wide web and the increasingly common use of dial-up access – remember the screeching, beeping sounds and slow pace? – in the late 1990s and early noughties gave fans around the globe a new platform from which to declare their undying love for their beloved artists.

Chat rooms came alive with very serious debates over how to infiltrate the latest gig; fans created websites, where they displayed everything from fan fiction to lyrics and love letters; pen pals were made and photographs and videos became readily available. In 1999, the birth of controversial online music service Napster meant songs could be shared widely across the world.

Technology also gave way to a new genre of techy lyrics. In 1999, Britney sang about broken hearts and make-up emails in what is probably one of her stranger songs, Email My Heart. A year later, the Nsync boys released Digital Get Down, an ode to online romance.

Today, the internet contributes to keeping many of these singers and bands alive. Helping them stay afloat as the pop industry takes on fresher versions, like One Direction and Miley Cyrus.

When the Backstreet Boys announced they would be headlining this year’s Dubai Blended music festival, their first concert in the UAE in ­almost a decade, tickets sold out like they were going out of style. After the first run was all gone, fans were presented with a second chance to attend the concert – this batch of tickets sold out in one day. You’d think we were back in 1999, wearing oversized trousers and baring our midriffs.

But who was responsible for dashing the hopes of so many ticketless fans? This is mere speculation, but I can bet my extensive Backstreet Boys cassette and CD collection that the culprits are not teenagers, but rather women in their 30s and 40s. I am sure the fans bopping up and down to Everybody at Friday’s concert won’t be awkward 13 year olds, but confident businesswomen, proud mothers and intrepid entrepreneurs. They are the ones who will be standing in the sweaty pit, teary-eyed and giddy, caught in a moment of bittersweet nostalgia.

This is why bands like the Backstreet Boys are timeless. It’s not their – some would say, arguable – talent, but rather the memories and feelings they conjure. Their music takes fans back to a simpler time when Nick Carter’s bowl-cut hair was in vogue and Britney had yet to suffer a very public meltdown.

Friday’s concert marks 25 years since manager-turned-fraudster Lou Pearlman created the Backstreet Boys – and the band continues to sell out venues even today.

Since their emergence in an Orlando warehouse in 1993, the Backstreet Boys have sold about 130 million albums worldwide, released eight studio albums, won countless awards and received seven Grammy nominations, including album of the year for Millennium. While their more recent sound has matured and improved, it’s the oldies like Shape Of My Heart and Larger Than Life that fans will be restlessly waiting for.

In just more than two decades, the boys went from riding a wave of mass pop hysteria to hitting professional and personal lows – including AJ’s battle with substance abuse and the death of Nick’s younger sister in 2012. But their recent re-emergence marks a new and more stable chapter in the singers’ lives, who are now considerably older – 14-year-old Nick versus 38-year-old Nick – and, likely, wiser. In their 2015 documentary Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of), Brian asks: “What do you do when you’re a full-grown man in a boy band?” Well, Brian, the answer clearly is to go and perform for your fully-grown fans.

Through it all, Backstreet fans have remained loyal. Even through the band’s questionable style choices – think skiing goggles and leather-denim combos – and perplexing lyrics – does anyone really know what I Want It That Way is actually about? – we stayed. Even when our taste in music – and men – became the opposite of what the Backstreet Boys represent, we still held a place for them in our hearts. Like one does with their first teenage crush.

In 2001, my mother – half-jokingly, but mostly serious – said that “Backstreet-mania” wouldn’t last much longer – because that’s just the way pop music works – it’s catchy but transient. And while the boys did take some time off, their fans never did, and Friday’s sold-out concert in Dubai is proof of that. So, there you go mum – Backstreet’s back!

The Backstreet Boys perform on Friday at Media City Amphitheatre

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Read more:

Backstreet Boys also appearing at Meydan

Dubai's love of 1990s popstars is a double-edged sword

Backstreet Boys to headline Blended festival in Dubai

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