Following our Billboard staff-curated Top 100 Songs of 2000 list, this week we write about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here we take a look at a quietly important boy band single that hinted at where a massive pop band would end up going after their teenybopper years were over.
At the turn of the century, two five-piece bands were locked in a one-upmanship war based on raw, hard numbers. Were the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC the biggest pop bands? It often depended on which album was released most recently.
After the two bands spent 1998 hitting singles on the fly – for every *NSYNC hit like “I Want You Back”, there was an equally powerful “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” on the other side of the band. ‘way – BSB took the lead with the release of Millennium in May 1999. Led by the NMT– dominating the song ‘I Want It That Way’, the Backstreet Boys’ full-length breakthrough sold 1.1 million copies in its first week of release, setting a one-week sales record at the era.
Ten months later, it was *NSYNC’s turn to hit the plate. second album No strings attached was released in March 2000, and thanks in part to lead single “Bye Bye Bye”, 2.4 million copies of the album were sold in its first week – a staggering number, given that BSB had just set the record the previous year, only to see it more than double. As *NSYNC produced more hits from No strings attached in 2000 (including their only Hot 100 chart topper “It’s Gonna Be Me”), the subtext was clear: Your move, Backstreet – see if you can top this.
And Backstreet thought they were going to. In view of the release of their Millennium to follow Black & Blue, AJ McLean of the band claimed that the new album would “break *NSYNC’s record and our combined record in the first week”. The expectation was then unprecedented: more than 3 million copies sold in a single week! With Black & Blue given a November 21, 2000 release date, Backstreet’s highly anticipated new album was ready for Black Friday shopping and holiday gift giving. All eyes were on BSB’s next lead single – ideally another “I Want It That Way” for the band and a response to *NSYNC’s blockbuster – when “Shape of My Heart” was released on October 3, 2000. .
The truth is, “Shape of My Heart” was neither another immortal karaoke anthem in the vein of “I Want It That Way,” nor the song to put the Backstreet Boys’ greatest rivals in their place. That’s because “Shape of My Heart” is, by BSB standards, incredibly quiet. A mid-tempo reflection on mistakes made and weaknesses admitted, the song was misrepresented as a flashy comeback that would come back to serve against *NSYNC and hijack pop radio for months. Ultimately, “Shape of My Heart” reached No. 9 on the Hot 100 – a respectable hit, but fell short of the commercial highs of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)”, “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” and “I Want It That Way” for the band – while Black & Blue would go on to tumble with 1.6 million copies sold in its first week, a still mind-boggling sum that was nevertheless well below McLean’s prediction.
Almost 20 years after its release, “Shape of My Heart” can be heard for what it really is: the sound of a boy band becoming a band of men. Black & Blue was the first Backstreet Boys album released with all five members in their twenties – some of them even looked like their thirties. There’s still a bubblegum chorus, clean pop structure, and tons of vocal harmonies – all thanks in part to Max Martin, who co-wrote and co-produced the track. But there’s also soft-pop guitar work, understated drumming, and a lyrical focus on growing beyond past mistakes, which helped “Shape of My Heart” tell BSB’s story of a mature point of view for the first time.
Then there’s the music video, which was the opposite of the ostentatious visuals that BSB had favored for singles like “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “Larger Than Life”. Gone are spaceships and goofy costumes, replaced by harmless leather jackets, scruffy hair and a blue-tinted theater set, with the boys watching a rehearsal for a fictional production (called The shape of my heart) wings.
Filmed at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, the ‘Shape of My Heart’ music video was meant to evoke ‘classic photography’, says video director Matthew Rolston Billboard. Rolston’s background is in feature film photography and creative direction, and he says the “Shape of My Heart” music video and its blue tint “tried to bring the lighting style of portrait photography – often inspired by earlier periods of photography, black and white photography — to life.
Indeed, the vibe between the boys in the video is intimate and grown-up — less of a garish spectacle, more of a catch-up with longtime friends. “It was definitely a strategy to give them a new look,” says Rolston, who also directed videos for Destiny’s Child, Dido and Mandy Moore around this time. “And I think every pop star at that time, every video was a new way of seeing that star. That was kind of the point of the videos – changing shape, playing with their image and continuing to evolve it.
Ultimately, “Shape of My Heart” changed the direction of the Backstreet Boys, who became less prolific artists after the release of Black & Blue, and grew beyond their teen idol days as the teenybopper bubble burst. *NSYNC released their victory lap album, Celebrity, in 2001, then never released another project; BSB’s next album, Never beencame five years later Black & Blue.
“Shape of My Heart” was the Backstreet Boys’ last single to hit the top 10 on the Hot 100, but in retrospect the song hints at the adult career that spanned decades ahead of BSB. Shades of “Shape of My Heart” exist in songs like 2005’s ballad “Incomplete,” 2013’s “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)” and last year’s surprise hit “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”. , which preceded the group DNA album – their first set to top the Billboard 200 album chart since Black & Blue. If “Shape of My Heart” didn’t live up to BSB’s high expectations at the time, it certainly provided the band with a post-teen blueprint.
“I was trying to think optimistically,” McLean said as he downplayed his trade predictions for the Black & Blue start. “It’s not about quantity, it’s about the quality of the actual music.” He ended up being right: “Shape of My Heart” wasn’t a smash, but it held together as a finely crafted pop song, and an important inflection point for one of the greatest bands of the time.