It was late 1997 and Hanson-mania had taken hold in Australia. ‘MMMBop’ dominated the airwaves and the boys from Oklahoma’s androgynous faces populated the magazine stands of every newsagency, corner store and petrol station.
I was in the thick of it, gobbling up all titbits of information available in those pre-internet days. This led to purchasing an edition of TV Hits that featured Hanson on its cover and included the printed lyrics to the Backstreet Boys’ latest single, ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’.
The song’s now such an immovable part of pop culture that it’s hard to imagine a world without it, but reading its lyrics for the first time raised a number of questions. Chiefly, who were “Backstreet” and why did the announcement of their return warrant an entire song? Not just any old song, either, but one of sufficient import to occupy precious column space in TV Hits.
It wasn’t long before ‘Everybody’ overtook ‘MMMBop’ in the commercial radio high rotation stakes and those questions faded into the background. The hits ‘As Long As You Love Me’ and ‘All I Have to Give’ followed in quick succession and now, 22 years later, BSB are the world’s most enduring and commercially successful boy band by a distance.
In Australia, Backstreet’s airwaves takeover had begun with ‘I’ll Never Break Your Heart’, which reached number 10 in the ARIA charts and appeared on their self-titled 1996 debut LP.
The group’s major heartthrob, Nick Carter, was just 16-years-old at the time of its release. The Guardian’s Kate Hutchinson has described Carter as the proto-Justin Bieber and accordingly, he soon became the object of many young girls and boys’ naïve fantasies.
Backstreet Boys’ fourth single, ‘Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)’, didn’t sell as rapidly as ‘I’ll Never Break Your Heart’, but it has become a resounding fan favourite in subsequent years. According to crowdsourced archive setlist.fm, it’s BSB’s fifth most performed song, with the top four all coming from later albums.
BSB’s unrivalled chart dominance
‘Quit Playing Games’ is also significant for being the first US top ten hit penned by Swedish super-producer Max Martin, who’s gone on to write hits for Britney Spears, *NSYNC, Pink, Katy Perry and loads more.
Martin became BSB’s go-to guy across a run of unrivalled chart dominance that lasted from their 1996 debut through ’97’s Backstreet’s Back, ’99’s Millennium and 2000’s Black & Blue.
This period gave rise to the likes of ‘I Want It That Way’, ‘Larger Than Life’ and the aforementioned ‘Everybody’ and ‘As Long As You Love Me’, all of which were written or co-written by Martin.
Watch: Backstreet Boys – ‘I Want It That Way’
BSB don’t like the boy band tag, which is fair enough considering the group members are in their late-30s to mid-40s. The male vocal group is the preferred nomenclature, but when the quintet of AJ, Howie, Nick, Kevin and Brian emerged out of Orlando, Florida in the mid-1990s, their boyishness was central to how comprehensively they captivated teen and pre-teen audiences.
This boyishness was, however, always laced with not-so-inconspicuous sexuality and backed up by genuine vocal chops that meant their performances were never reliant on pre-recorded backing tracks.
The continued appeal of Backstreet Boys
These factors have helped the Backstreet Boys to never run out of steam. Theirs mightn’t be the most pervasive voices in contemporary pop, but the group’s 2019 release, DNA, reached number one in the USA and its lead single, ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,’ achieved ARIA Gold accreditation.
From May 2017 to April 2019, BSB – which currently includes all five original members – completed the 80-show Larger Than Life residency in Las Vegas, grossing roughly US$36m in the process.
They transitioned straight from the Vegas residency to the DNA World Tour, their biggest global footslog in 20 years. The tour will reach Australia in May 2020 for half a dozen arena shows around the country.
Before reaching Australia, BSB will have carried out 100+ mostly sold-out shows across Europe, the Americas and Asia.
Nostalgia is strong at Backstreet Boys concerts, of course, but nostalgia alone can’t sustain such a lengthy run of success. The DNA tour setlists include seven of the new album’s 12 tracks, alongside seven from Millennium, while also recapping every BSB hit from the past 23 years.
A common criticism aimed at boy bands is that their success relies on the marketing of individual personalities more than the quality of the music. The Backstreet Boys catalogue has its fair share of throwaway album filler, but even pop music purists with a dogged vendetta against boy bands couldn’t deny the melodic strengths of the group’s many transgenerational hits.
Backstreet’s back, all right.
Watch: Backstreet Boys – ‘Everybody’
The DNA World Tour – Australia 2020
Wednesday, May 20th
Brisbane Entertainment Centre
Friday, May 22nd
Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney
Saturday, May 23rd
Qudos Bank Arena – New Show!
Tuesday, May 26th
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
Wednesday, May 27th
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne – New Show!
Saturday, May 3oth
RAC Arena, Perth