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They are not individual geniuses. Nor do the group’s conceptual parameters stretch anywhere beyond the well-worn grooves limned by similar entertainment packages before them. But, all the same, the entity of the Backstreet Boys, their whomping dance singles and juggernaut ballads, their too-tight choreography and assigned personalities, their sexual blandness and promise, is an inspired work of art whose profits are, or should be, irrelevant.
The presumed purpose of such packages has always piqued rock purists—is there such a thing as a pop purist?—into a rage…something about making money. Rock purists hate money the way they hate production values; both dilute the integrity of the product, whereas bankruptcy and technical flaws, inexplicably, enhance it. The moral objection to kiddie pop claims to decry the practice of cynically exploiting wee ones and consequently—gasp!—cashing in on them. These objections are moronic and arrogant—teen-dream outfits are not for the Jad Fair or Henry Cow fan; they are not for grown-ups of any musical inclination. The promises made and dreams offered by friendly-seeming, dance-croon-dance assemblies are not promises you need to hear nor dreams you cherish. In a more practical sense, the music, whether New Jack doo-wop, hiphoppy disco, dancey ballads, or a variety-pack of all, is target-marketed to a spectrum the purist leaves untouched.
To deny that the live Backstreet experience features the same sustained pleasure and moments of transcendence as any concert is unrealistic and unfair to the fan base. To despise the skinny 9-year-old with one arm around her slightly dazed little sister for swaying and grinning and shaking her nonexistent hips while the Backstreet Boys put over fabulously generalized versions of romance and partying is to leave her with no musical or social alternatives except the versions of rock life played on grown-ups’ radio stations or the Spice Girls’ dauntingly cartoonish spoof of female sexual personae. There’s a fine line between cynical exploitation and giving the people some essentially harmless thing that they want, and profit is the dullest of motives. First of all, no now-grown former David Essex fan ever confesses to Behind the Music that she resents having been rooked out of $4.50 for the lunch box; and, second, do we really want a world of 9-year-old Henry Cow fans?
So if boy bands must—should—exist, would that the entities resulting from whatever combination of exploitative cynicism, profiteering, the hairdresser’s and choreographer’s arts, and accidents of time and place all be as utter, freaking awesome genius as the Backstreet Boys. The scene at the MCI Center Sunday night had all the elements of the standard pop-phenomenon screamfest: a mix of little ones in their freshly purchased T-shirts, older compatriots dangerously dolled up, and wild-eyed parents. If they were expecting a spectacle, they got it. As the stylized spaceship stage darkened, 10 dancers—five carrying poles topped with weird little lamps shaped like Klan hats—took to the floor in a modified goose step as the Boys rose out of the mist and floated uneasily to their places, harnessed to fluorescent snowboards, while the theme from Star Wars played.
But the pomp evaporated as quickly as the noisome fake fog when the band lit into “Larger Than Life.” In the harsh glow of an elaborate lighting system, there was a general air of sentimentality and cheesiness, reinforced (necessarily, I think) by the cheap stage set and sometimes awkward costumes. The Boys gave a democratic cast to the proceedings, cartoonizing as well as making temporary the sexuality on display—that is, deflecting it, for its source was not the band but the audience.
For all the pyrotechnics and multiple costume changes, the overall impression was one of pleasant attainability. The band’s welcome to the audience used the phrase “each and every one of you” no fewer than three times, and the five female dancers, though accomplished, first appeared in garage mechanic’s jumpsuits looking no more adorable than any squealing ticketholder potentially could, once she was sufficiently moussed and painted. The Boys moved around the pentagonal stage, giving every fan an equally unobstructed view of her favorite member, and because blond Nick is the outfit’s unacknowledged star, he was pushed up front considerably.
Each song performance included one magnificent gimmick. “As Long as You Love Me” vamped the video—needless to say, all the songs sounded exactly as they do on CD and Total Request Live—with the Boys toying fancily with folding chairs. Even during costume-change breaks, there was always something to be awed by—the dancers reprising the chair act with a little more grease, or the nutty percussionist chick in her superheroine’s outfit weighing in with a sax solo. “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” took time out for the flying teddy-bear toss, in which the BB’s were hoisted up once again to rain stuffed animals into wee waiting hands. For “The Perfect Fan,” five pairs of mothers and daughters were brought onstage to hunker down, each with one Boy, and then the girls were marched around the perimeter, each displaying an aspect of Backstreet Boy proximity—perfect terror, toddler bewilderment, a smile like a bride’s. The one with the coveted Nick played it sneeringly cool.
The Boys themselves appeared to be giving it all they had, within the range of their personae. They executed their dancing, an energetic mix of modified hiphop moves, exhausting proto-aerobics, and silhouette-defining jazz, with plenty of verve and twinkle. They seemed to have given up the dated twisting-on-one-foot-while-aping-a-peeing-dog move, but the rest of the standard repertoire was there, balancing male menace with party fun, notably in the step-step-pause-shoulder-bounce. Nick got the biggest screams, but, even in his baggy space-commando costumes and the silly pink zoot suit, it was obvious that, frankly, the kid’s got a big ass, and his gut is catching up. Standoffish Kevin didn’t always seem to bother singing, while A.J., the “wacky one,” sang the shit out of everything—he’s got real talent, as does Brian, who has a gorgeous falsetto and who exuded funky charm, coughing jokingly at the swamp of stage fog and looking dazzled and pleased by the huge swings of luck in his wonderful, horrible life.
Obviously, the phrase “leave them wanting more” is nonsense to a preteen—the Backstreet Boys gave you your money’s worth plus, even if they did splice “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” into part of a dance medley. All the hits were trotted out like dishes under silver domes, with accompanying palpitations from the rickety, rigged stage: During “Back To Your Heart,” a fabric bladder of some shiny, sleazy material appeared above them and began pulsating with red and purple light—a heart or, like, what? For a medley of slow numbers sung sort of a cappella, the boys dressed like swing sharpies—a meaningless refinement, but an amusing one that made “Spanish Eyes” (a pretty terrible song, although its chorus is redeemingly custardy) pass a little faster.
The music’s fine calibrations in temper and mood are more evident in performance than on record. In the arena, their lack of specific endearments (beyond the useful “baby”) and utter lyric opacity drain all the pelvic thrusting and party inducements of their power. The generalized vision of “love”—in the hiphop loyalty and the each-and-every-one-of-you sense—provided the sustained pleasure that is a concert’s given, especially one this vacuum-packed.
But unflashy points had their own emotional grace: a young fan teaching a younger one to make the trademark “heart” sign with her fingers; the dancers in their flamenco outfits for the soaring “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely,” breaking from the expected combo of butt-twitching and heartache moves for a delicate little pas de bourree sidestep that signaled a romantic helplessness the song’s callow lyrics couldn’t touch. Tellingly, the Backstreet Boys themselves acted as conduits for these small wonders, not reaching but evoking moments of transcendence in an audience too young to understand where those moments were coming from. It may not be rocket science—and, to judge from the ’30s moon-movie stage, it couldn’t be anything close—but such inspiration is a form of genius after all.