Photo via Backstreet Boys
Like it or not, Backstreet’s back, alright? At least tonight at the Xcel Energy Center they are anyway.
And the reemergence of the band America loved to hate but also secretly loved to love got me thinking long and hard about legacy. Because with astronomical record sales to close out the ‘90s, seven Grammy noms, two American Music Awards, seven Billboard Music Awards, and two MTV Music Video Awards, surely they must have one. Right?
As a 35-year-old man who was never—ahem—particularly into that music in the first place but was the correct age to be, you’d think an earnest evaluation of a band I likely spent more time mocking than actually listening to wouldn’t come easy. And that would totally be true if not for the one BSB song that changed, frankly, everything.
With international superstardom and hits such as “Backstreet’s Back” and “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” all-too-deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the universe, in 1999 the Backstreet Boys released what looked to be the latest installment of their teenage-swoon-inducing half-music, Millenium. It was an album you had to figure would net millions of sales to their demo while simultaneously accomplishing the unintended goal of dividing their boy band music genre even further from more sensible music fans—because the ability to inspire both ridicule and ridiculous sales is often the great trick of über-shameless pop music—but turned out to be the album that transcended. Because, while it had your standard guilty-pleasure fare (“Larger Than Life”) it also had a track that, I regret to say, was next level: “I Want It That Way."
But first, some context. It’s ‘99 and, though bands such as ‘N Sync and 98 Degrees both exist, they are a distant second to Backstreet Boys in popularity. While all three are busy frosting their tips and fighting boy band succubus Lou Pearlman to get the money they’re owed, the bulk of the world is still busy making fun of them, mainly because they’ve never had a really good reason not to (and also probably because they were super jealous of them). Things were destined to stay on this trajectory for a bit longer until the boy band comet eventually hit the same atmosphere NKOTB’s did 10 years earlier only to combust and evaporate leaving, mercifully, a boy band-less world.
What no one could’ve realized in ‘99, of course, is that the Backstreet Boys had just released what would become the ear worm to end all ear worms and that its tentacles were destined to permeate the very fabric of the musical world.
“I Want It That Way” was released before the rest of Millenium and the hypnotic, oddly-powerful ballad all but assured the album the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts when it finally was released on May 18. In the first week 1.1 million copies were sold. By the end of ‘99 that number jumped to nearly 10 million. Today the album is 13 times platinum and has sold 12 million copies in the US alone. All because “I Want It That Way” was just that damn good.
Don’t take it from me though. Even jaded critics were taken aback by it’s unapologetic goodness. Allmusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine called it an "infectious song that will be enough to satisfy anyone craving more, more, more," later noting that it “transcends their era”, while Entertainment Weekly’s Jim Farber wrote that it “ranks as the bubblegum ballad of the year. It's so likable, it doesn't matter that the group's voices are the sonic equivalent of warm milk,” and in their piece ranking the best boy bands of all time Rolling Stone said it was a “genre-transcending classic.”
In fact, “IWITW” was so good that the Backstreet Boys could never top it, and from that lofty zenith they rapidly descended into near-nothingness, which couldn’t have been better timing for another band. Having spent their career to that point enjoying the smooth waters within BSB’s wake, N’Sync was a more innately talented musical collective, and had something Backstreet did not: a legitimate frontman-in-waiting, Justin Timberlake. So, as “I Want It That Way” morphed from something you'd secretly turn up when alone in the car, to something you'd “ironically” play at a party (like 10 times in a row), to something you knew all the words to and would put onto mixed tapes for their significant others, N’Sync was just hitting its stride and ready to capitalize on the momentary sensibility security breach “IWITW” had created. “I Want It That Way” had punched a hole in the Berlin Wall that divided the isolated world of boy bands from the free world, and Justin Timberlake and company walked right on through.
In 2000, N’Sync climbed the first step to its throne with No Strings Attached, the first single off of which, “Bye Bye Bye,” both rivaled the ear worminess of “I Want It That Way” and indirectly showed their former rivals the door. From there they ascended the throne and probably transcended it with Celebrity in which Timberlake clearly took the reins, got introspective and possibly even smart, and was more or less tabbed the heir apparent to Michael Jackson.
And if you doubted Timberlake when Celebrity came out, not even a year later he shaved off those adorbs frosted curls and released Justified, which did just as its name implied it would, showcasing his asininely silky vocal range and ability to woo the musical elite including Pharrel Williams/The Neptunes and Timbaland who both have credits on the album. Fast forward 12 years and Timberlake’s a bonafide Hollywood star, still a chart-topping artist, and the cultural touchpoint for his generation. From the SNL digital short D*** in a Box to being the showman-other-half of the concurrent cultural rising star Jimmy Fallon, Timberlake has the Midas touch.
It might not be exactly the way the Backstreet Boys wanted it, but I’d say it’s not too shabby of a legacy.