Yup. I have now officially listened to an ‘N Sync album and a Backstreet Boys album all the way through, several times. What the fuck are you doing with your life?
Artist: Backstreet Boys
Release Date: May 18, 1999
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 13.8 million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves Being Pandered To
It’s not any stretch to say that most great art, and in turn most great musical art is usually personal in nature. This would help point out, if it actually needed to be pointed out, that what the Backstreet Boys did was not great art. Because there are few bands I’ve heard that made such a habit of singing not about themselves, but instead singing about their fans. In fact, their mega-selling turn of the century blockbuster, Millennium, kicks off with the song “Larger Than Life”, where the band claims that all their fans’ time spent listening to the Backstreet Boys is what keeps them alieeieeieeive. And though a lot of the songs on Millennium on the surface appear to be about some faceless “girl” that the band is singing to, clearly the girls they are actually singing to are much younger and much more flushed with their parents’ allowance money.
Again, none of this shallowness should be terribly surprising. I mean, what kind of personal reflection could you possibly expect from a bunch of handsome 20-somethings who’ve been handed everything in their lives? So perhaps credit should be given to the Backstreet Boys’ crack team of managers and producers and songwriters, since what they created with the Backstreet Boys was an impeccable product that clearly knew its audience. Because that’s kind of how the Backstreet Boys feel to me, perhaps more than any other pop group I can think of they feel like a product, or perhaps a giant faceless corporation would be even more appropriate.
Just think of it. There isn’t a single personality in the Backstreet Boys that really stands out. Sure, AJ was famous for being the bad boy who ended up in rehab (I think it was just for drinking though, nothing cool like heroin or anything), and Nick Carter I guess is distinct in that he had a famous, brattier younger brother that he later bitched at on that terrible reality show they had together. But unlike their boyband nemeses ‘NSYNC, all these guys seem completely interchangeable, while the group lacked a genuine superstar talent in the way ‘NSYNC had Justin Timberlake. Which in turn makes this band feel more like a board committee than a bunch of guys who are super passionate about making music.
And if there’s one thing any successful organization knows how to do, it’s how to use their pull to lure the titans of their industry into expanding their brand into the upper echelon of whatever itch they’re trying to scratch in the public’s consciousness. In the Backstreet Boys case, the titan of industry they were able to use for their own personal gain was Swedish songsmith Max Martin, a man who you may or may not be aware of, has shaped the sounds of American pop music about as much as any songwriter of the last 20 years, and for it was recently hailed by Rolling Stone as the 41st greatest songwriter of all time. Millenium, whose 11 tracks contain 7 Martin compositions, may be one of the man’s masterstrokes, though I can’t really say with much authority, since I’m not familiar with a lot of his work. Though the album seems to be a pretty good example of why Martin had, and continues to have such a firm grasp on how to stroke the deepest pleasure centers of young people’s ears.
Nowhere is that more evident than Millennium’s mega-selling signature single “I Want It That Way”, one of the ultimate guilty pleasure songs of the late ‘90s, and perhaps the greatest case you could make for the boy band movement as an art form (which you shouldn’t, because that’d be idiotic). Even if you have no attachment to this song — even on an ironic level — you got to admit, it’s catchy in a very pure way that I don’t want to say is timeless, but nonetheless has a timeless ability to get stuck in one’s head. Also, it has that added thing where even if you’ve been caught singing it in public, you can just say, “Oh, it’s a good song because Max Martin worked on it. Do you even know who that is?” instead of admitting to liking a song because it’s sung by a bunch of pretty young men who wore hair gel like it was an article of clothing.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
Before reading this any further, I recommend watching the above clip from SNL’s TV Funhouse because 1) it’s pretty funny, and 2) it’s a potent reminder of the forgotten ritual of hating pop stars because their music sucks. And yes, I’m aware that if you go to any video by any modern pop star on the Vevo Youtube channel, you will find thousands upon thousands of examples of people throwing hatred at pop stars in the form of horrifically worded Youtube comments. But I feel like as a whole, we as a society have become more adept at not being tortured every minute by music we don’t like, and instead have adapted to the idea of just ignoring it. Hence the fact that even though I am not affiliated with or work in the music industry in any capacity, I probably listen to several dozen hours of music per week, and yet I probably couldn’t accurately describe to you a single Taylor Swift song.
We live in an age where you have more places to consume new music than merely the radio or MTV like the days of yore, and therefore don’t have to sift through nonsense like Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears to find the good stuff. So because we live in this more enlightened age of treating our pop stars as things that are “just not for me”, I even have a hard time referring to this stuff as nonsense without feeling like kind of a dick. Which is weird, because I know it’s nonsense. It’s the kind of music that has always been around and will always be around as long as there are young people that don’t care about the vapidity of the music the listen to, so what’s the point of hating something that someone with my tastes isn’t even supposed to like? But this is the mindset I have now, even though I can remember kind of hating the Backstreet Boys when I was younger, possibly because it was the societal norm, but possibly also because my sister would blast it on her little CD player in the room next door when I was younger, and was thus unavoidable.
But whatever the case is, it seems that we no longer hate on pop stars merely because their music is crappy, but rather because they are crappy people. Folks like Chris Brown and Robin Thicke are really the only kinds of pop stars in recent memory I can remember people really hating, and only because they’re douchebags, not because their music is lousy. And even in regards to the phenomenon known as the boy band, when One Direction revived this seemingly dormant pop subgenre several years ago, grumpy music fans like myself didn’t seem privy to jump on them the way that people had jumped aboard the Backstreet Boys’ hate-train about a decade earlier. And sure, they did become the butt of plenty of comedy writers’ jokes, but it never seemed like any of the jokes had anything to do with the fact that they sucked.
Which all makes it very hard for me to assess whether Millennium by the Backstreet Boys is in any way a good album or not. I just can’t shake this very 21st century mind-set that music like this isn’t for me, never has been for me, and never will be for me, so who cares if it’s any good or not? That said, I’m more than willing to admit that a lot of these songs got stuck in my head while listening to the album as research, but none of them really surprised me or made me feel anything that I hadn’t felt before. Especially since I’d already listened to that ‘NSYNC album a while ago, which I expected to be the album I’d end up liking more, but really they’re the same fucking thing. These bands were prepackaged products that made albums that were there to give you exactly what you wanted, and so reviewing them almost feels like reviewing a McDonald’s cheeseburger on Yelp. So with Millennium, the best I can say is that I got exactly what I expected, and I feel neither better or worse as a human being for having experienced it.
Would I Pay Money For This?
Maybe if I wanted one of the Backstreet Boys to sign a copy of Millennium if I ever ran into one of them working at McDonald’s. Hey-oh!
But no… probably not. I can’t imagine I’d ever need to spend money on this album, and that last joke makes no sense since all of the Backstreet Boys will always have more money than me no matter what.
Next Time On The People’s Albums: I will be dancing in the dark while reliving Bruce Springsteen’s glory days with Born In The U.S.A.