The Time: Memorial Day Weekend, 1999.
The place: The Safeway on Euclid Avenue. I think it was called SuperAmerica back then, but my recall of convenience store names isn’t what it used to be.
Queuing with an arm full of edibles for an impending holiday barbecue, I glanced over the shoulder of the customer in front of me. He flips through the pages of Rolling Stone’s then-current issue, the one that placed then-impossible-to-kill boy band Backstreet Boys on the cover for the first of what would be three times over the next two years. The report then appears with a banner headline apparently taken from the tabloids.
“The Backstreet Boys’ Year in Hell.”
Before I had a chance, the customer went wild with the most obvious and immediate two (well, three, sort of) word reaction that anyone, fan or otherwise, would give. a title to such lyrical extremes: “Aw, come on.”
Rocky road to Rupp Arena
The title was the 1999 equivalent of click-bait, of course. After reading the article (yes, I took the bait and bought a copy too), I pretty much agree with the sentiment. Describes the lengths fans (particularly women) would go to secure an exclusive audience with The Boys, the megaton lawsuit between the members and Svengali-esque entrepreneur Lou Pearlman (who formed and funded the band’s rise to fame. fame) and perhaps, most chillingly, the return of Brian Littrell (one of Lexington’s two recruits from the Orlando-born quintet) to full touring duties eight weeks after open-heart surgery.
Of course, it’s not like the Backstreet Boys were starving during this time. Although income proved to be part of the problem (as well as the catalyst for the lawsuit against Pearlman), there was a level of celebrity status that had skyrocketed over the previous two years thanks to a handful of sugar-coated bachelors and centered on pop and the mega-platinum sales of the Boys’ first three albums – ‘Backstreet Boys’ (1997), ‘Backstreet’s Back’ (1998) and the just-released ‘Millennium’ (1999).
Alright, so maybe there was a year in hell and another that wasn’t so bad. After all, on Thanksgiving in 1999, the Backstreet Boys – Littrell, his cousin and fellow Lexington native Kevin Richardson, AJ McLean, Howie Dorough and Nick Carter – were at Rupp Arena playing a sold-out two-night engagement.
But here’s the thing. This supposed “year in hell” goes back more than 23 years. This translates into more than just ancient history in terms of pop music. Rather, it is a collective rock drawing left for future generations to discover.
Are the Backstreet Boys really gone?
It would be easy to say then that the excavation of the Backstreet Boys’ pop legacy is now complete, given that the group returns to Rupp on September 6 for the first time in more than two decades (the 1999 shows were followed of a concert in June 2001 performance there). But the past is only part of the appeal. The Boys’ 10th and final album, 2019’s “DNA,” is his first No. 1 feature since 2000’s “Black & Blue.”
The cliched response to such a comeback would be to appropriate the title of one of the band’s greatest hits: Backstreet’s Back. But the main thing is that he never left.
In the 1960s, pop groups that made music for predominantly teenage audiences (especially those formed in the wake of the Beatles) were built with a limited lifespan. If all went according to the right commercially devised plan, the artist or band in question would create a few hits, sell out a concert tour or two, and then fade away as the audience and their musical tastes matured. This made way for a newer, more age-appropriate audience looking for their own group of pop stars to embrace.
When New Kids on the Block topped the pop charts in the late ’80s, the appeal of teenage pop artists ceased to be so temporary. The music wasn’t that different, but the means of promoting and distributing it certainly changed. The longer-running teen act had perks like music videos, mainstream TV shows like “American Idol,” and especially advancements in streaming technology. The reasons probably extend beyond that. But by the time the Backstreet Boys and especially Britney Spears rose to fame in the late 90s, it was the music industry, not the music itself, that had changed.
The Backstreet Boys certainly had their ups and downs in their appeal after their 1997-2000 heyday, though projects like an extensive 2011-2012 world tour with New Kids on the Block helped sustain and, in some cases, , to replenish his fanbase.
There also remains a seemingly resilient bond between the five band members. Aside from Richardson’s defection from the group for six years (from 2006 to 2012), the Backstreet Boys have had no personnel changes in their entire history.
Longevity can be tricky business in a youth-oriented music market, though the number of pop and rock bands with members in their 60s and 70s is becoming increasingly abundant. Need we remind everyone that Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger turned 80 and 79 respectively while on tour this summer. The Backstreet Boys haven’t quite reached that milestone yet, although the band’s age range spans 42-50. This means any newly won teenage fans of the Backstreet Boys will be serenaded with songs like “I Want It That Way” and “All I Have to Give” on Rupp this tour from singers who may well be older than their parents. .
The next one for the Backstreet Boys? Christmas Scrapbook
Don’t worry, though. The generations will realign in October when the Backstreet Boys release their first holiday album, “A Very Backstreet Christmas.” Somehow, the fact that the band delivers chestnuts like “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” puts the ability to survive their past in more acute perspective.
“I’m honored to say I’m a Backstreet Boy,” McLain told CNN in July. “And I’m proud to be a Backstreet Boy in 2022.”
Backstreet Boys with Delta Goodrem
When: Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena
Tickets: $29.50 to $129.50 through ticketmaster.com