The Backstreet Boys consist of five young men from Orlando, Florida, who took the world by storm in 1995, and two years later became an international phenomenon. They sold over eleven million records worldwide, had four Top Ten singles, and sold out concert venues in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. In 1996 they were awarded the MTV Europe Viewers Choice Award, beating out acts like Oasis and Spice Girls as European favorites. Their popularity grew uncontrollably everywhere except in their home country, the United States. It wasn’t until 1997 that America heard its first Backstreet Boys album—two years after the rest of the world—and the band launched a tour in an effort to conquer their own country.
The popularity of Backstreet Boys signals a resurgence of the innocent teen music of years past; Backstreet Boys are an old type of act with a new name, “the boy group.” Their music appeals mostly to Tiger Beat and Seventeen crowds, who haven’t had a similar fave rave since the New Kids on the Block bowed out in the early 1990s. The rise of the Backstreet Boys coincides with
Members include Nick Carter (born January 28, 1980 in Jamestown, NY; son of Robert and Jane Carter), vocals; Howie Dorough (born August 22, 1973), vocals; Brian Littrell, (born February 20, 1975 in Lexington, KY; son of Harold and Jackie Littrell), vocals; A. J. McLean (born January 1, 1978 in West Palm Beach FL), vocals; and Kevin Richardson, (born October 3, 1972 in Lexington, KY), vocals.
Awards: MTV Europe Viewers Choice 1996.
Addresses: Home —Orlando, FL. Manager —Donna and Johnny Wright, Wright Stuff Management, 7380 Sand Lake Road, Suite 350, Orlando, FL 32819.
the decline of angst-ridden, doom-obsessed indie rock groups like Nirvana. “This music is an aural upper,” Seventeenìs music editor Susan Kaplow told USA Today. “I think consumers and the industry are ready for that.” More cynical observers note the similarities in both the group’s image—five different male archetypes—and the demographics of their fans—teen and pre-teen girls—to that of heart throb groups of the past, like the New Kids, Menudo, and the Bay City Rollers. All those groups flashed by and disappeared without leaving much of a blip on the radar of public consciousness. But the Backstreet Boys say they are different.
The band got their start in Orlando, Florida, in the early 1990s. By that time both Disney and MGM studios had established high profiles and were providing lots of work in movies and commercials. Two high school students, A. J. McLean and Howie Dorough, and junior high schooler Nick Carter started running into each other at auditions. They discovered a common interest in singing and soon they were harmonizing together a cappella whenever they had breaks. After a while they decided to form a group, but felt they needed were two more voices to add range and depth to their sound. Through a friend they discovered Kevin Richardson, who was singing inashow at Disney World. Richardson suggested his cousin, Brian Littrell, who was living in Kentucky at the time. Phone calls were made and Littrell agreed to move down to Florida. With the line-up set they adopted the name Backstreet Boys, after Orlando’s Backstreet Market, a popular hangout for the city’s teens.
They started singing a cappella covers of their favorite songs by groups like Boyz II Men, Shai, and Color Me Badd. Then, they found managers Johnny and Donna Wright. Johnny had been the Road Manager for the New Kids on the Block. “Before I saw them perform I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get involved,” Donna told Billboard. “The New Kids had just finished up two years prior. But hearing them sing just gave me chills running from the back of my heels to the top of my head. I felt like we really had something here.” The Wright’s company, Wright Stuff Management, developed a strategy to help the Backstreet Boys perfect their showmanship and musicianship while raising visibility among potential fans. They booked them at junior high and high schools as well as at theme parks. The teenage fans shared the Wrights’ initial suspicions about Backstreet Boys. Kevin Richardson told Billboard “You could tell they were thinking ‘What is this, the second coming of the New Kids on the Block?’ But once we started singing a cappella and showing them we could really sing, we won them over every time.”
Eventually the Wrights got the group booked as openers for veteran acts with a “family” audience, like REO Speedwagon, Kenny G and the Village People. The turning point came in 1994, when Donna Wright had been begging David McPherson, an executive at Jive Records, to give Backstreet Boys a listen. She called McPherson from a Backstreet Boys’ show in Cleveland and simply held the phone up. When McPherson played his messages the next day he could hear the sounds of fanatically screaming kids, and soon afterward, Jive signed Backstreet Boys on.
Their single called “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” first released in 1995, did not live up to expectations in the United States, getting no higher than 65 on Billboards Top 100. But it exploded onto the charts in Germany, and from there Backstreet Boys mania spread throughout Europe. The “boy group” craze already had a foothold in Europe, providing Backstreet Boys with a ready made audience. They brought a unique something extra—they were American, and thus more novel. “We used the success in Germany as a springboard and brought them over to do shows right off the bat. Once that happened, the whole European market opened up.” McPherson told Billboard.
From Europe the Backstreet Boys’ popularity spread throughout the world—Japan, Australia, Canada, Southeast Asia. Their first album, Backstreet Boys, released in April 1996, sold over eleven million copies and was certified platinum in 26 different countries. Backstreet Boys: The Video was also a number-one seller in Canada for three months. The group toured overseas for 18 months and their concerts recalled the days of High Beatlemania, complete with crowds of crazed teenage girls, narrow escapes out back windows, and screams so loud the music was barely audible. At home in Florida, foreign fans wait in the parking lots outside the apartment houses where the Backstreet Boys live, hoping for autographs. German fans have torn up their lawns for a blade or two of souvenir grass. Yet back in Orlando, the Backstreet Boys pass everywhere in the city unrecognized.
In 1997 the United States was the final frontier for the Backstreet Boys. As 1998 approached and the band prepared for its second U.S. tour, it was looking forward to seeing whether America had taken to them to the degree everyone else had. “I think the (U.S.) market is more ready for a group like us now,” Howie Dorough told USA Today. “I think at the time we released our first record, alternative, grunge and urban were hot. Now we feel that pop music is starting to come back a little bit.” Their album was finally released in the United States in August 1997, nearly a year and a half after the rest of the world heard it for the first time. They included some of their newer songs on the American version, songs that were used on their second international album, Back-street’s Back. Jive promoted the album heavily, concentrating on its key female audience. Free Backstreet Boys cassettes were distributed with J.C. Penney makeup, at cheerleader camps, and with books in the teen romance series, “Love Stories.” “The Backstreet Boys have made a great choice in selecting their music. When you listen to it you’ll know why they are probably going to be the next new thing,” wrote Christina Psoros, a 12-year-old reviewer for Newsday.
The Backstreet Boys were also working on broadening their musical foundations. All members of the group took up songwriting—though in December 1997 no Backstreet Boys penned number had made it onto a record—and all were learning how to play instruments. In addition, they have focused more attention on dancing, which has become a major part of their stage show. The group realizes that almost everyone in the world expects them to disappear completely after a year or so. Yet the Backstreet Boys are determined to prevent that from happening.
Backstreet Boys, (International release), Jive/Zomba, 1995.
Backstreet’s Back, (International release), Jive/Zomba, 1997.
Backstreet Boys, (American release, additional cuts), 1997.
The Backstreet Boys: The Video, Jive, 1996.
Billboard, July 1997.
Newsday, August 19, 1997.
USA Today, April 1, 1997; September 30, 1997.
Additional information was provided by Jive Records.
—Gerald E. Brennan
Members: Nick Carter (born Jamestown, New York, 28 January 1980); Howie Dorough (born Orlando, Florida, 22 August 1973); Brian Littrell (born Lexington, Kentucky, 20 February 1975); Alexander James ("AJ") McLean (born West Palm Beach, Florida, 9 January 1978); Kevin Richardson (born Lexington, Kentucky, 3 October 1971); all vocalists.
Genre: Rock, Pop
Best-selling album since 1990: Millennium (1999)
Hit songs since 1990: "Quit Playin' Games (with My Heart)," "I Want It That Way," "Shape of My Heart"
In 1993 in Orlando, Florida, three young men and a mere boy were on the make for show-business careers. Two of them knew each other from high school, and a third had recently moved there from Kentucky. They got together with the idea of forming a group, invited a fifth member from back home, and, taking their name from a local flea-market site, named themselves the Backstreet Boys. Four years passed before they became popular in America, but before then they became major players on the world scene as boy bands became the craze. The Backstreet Boys created the kind of music and personalities that pressed all the right buttons in adolescent females.
AJ McLean and Howie Dorough, both Florida natives, were friends in high school. The Kentuckians were Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell. The boy—then only twelve years old—was Nick Carter. With a musical model derived primarily from African-American groups like Boyz II Men and the promotional acumen of their manager, Lou Pearlman, who saw them as another New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys began their career singing in schools and malls in the Orlando area. Soon they were touring in the United Kingdom and Europe and developing a major following in France, Germany, Italy, and England. By 1997, when their debut album was released in America, they were ready to explode.
The Music Scene
Nothing about the music scene in the early 1990s was especially hospitable to the sort of music the Boys specialized in. The year they formed and went under Pearlman's wing, grunge was dominating the rock scene, and Nirvana was the group of the moment. Romantic ballads with sentimental lyrics were hardly the recipe for instant musical success. Yet the audience for melodic, soft-edged music is always there. In the late 1980s the white boy band New Kids on the Block emulated early rap and break dance music, while black groups like Boyz II Men proved that soul could still be popular. Building on the kind of songs Boyz II Men were noted for, embellished with dance moves that suited the music, the Backstreet Boys were poised to reach listeners that grunge could never speak to.
A great part of their success resulted from the promotional skills of their management, but it was also obvious that the Boys themselves were very musical. They were not simply a group of good-looking guys who could sing and dance. They harmonized well, they had good performance sense, and they knew how to reach an audience.
The Chemistry of the Group
Howie Dorough and AJ McLean formed the group, adding Nick and Kevin after encountering them in the Orlando area. Despite the five-year difference in their ages, Howie and AJ knew each other from their high school days and sensed early on that a band like theirs had the potential to become popular by playing a subdued and romantic version of R&B. Howie became known as the peacemaker of the group, and AJ took on the role of bad boy. Kevin is the oldest and is known for having his feet on the ground and a strong business sense. Brian—the puritan of the group—carried the standards of his family and culture into the glitzy world of the boy bands. Nick Carter is the youngest and by reputation the most volatile and unpredictable. Anchored by the older members of the group, he often complained that he never had the chance to do the normal things boys do in growing up. From early in his life he pursued a career in music, and, after joining the Boys at twelve, his life, like theirs, became that of a celebrity in a fish bowl.
The Pearlman Era
Elvis Presley had his Colonel Tom Parker, the Beatles their Brian Epstein, and the Backstreet Boys had Lou Pearlman. Any entrepreneur in the entertainment world takes major risks, but it is a credit to Pearlman's judgment that he saw how far the Boys could go before they had gone anywhere. Initially he pitched them to the European market, where they quickly met with their first great success.
Their first release, the single "We've Got It Goin' On," an urban-style pop song, became a hit in Europe in 1995 and was followed by their first album, also a success via a similar release pattern. In 1996 the Boys were named the number one international group by TV viewers in Germany, and their single "I'll Never Break Your Heart" became a chart topper there and in Austria. Their second album—Backstreet's Back —appeared the same yearand became a smash in the same countries where the first had been issued. Their third album, made up of tracks from the first two and self-titled, was released in America in 1997, and the success of the single, "As Long as You Love Me," put the Backstreet Boys on the map. From that point on, under Pearlman's management, they were a number one act. However, their romance with Pearlman was about to end.
Shortly after breaking into the market in America, the Boys discovered that Pearlman was taking most of their considerable earnings while developing a competing boy group with the name *NSYNC. The Boys reached a settlement with Pearlman limiting him to one-sixth of the band's earnings. The bitterness of the dispute lingered on, however.
Millennium and After
The Boys broke with Pearlman as they were about to record Millennium (1999), their most important album to that time. Produced primarily in Stockholm, the album features one of their greatest hits, "I Want It That Way." On the first day of its release, Millennium sold half a million copies in the United States, entered the Billboard album chart at number one, and broke the record for first-week sales previously held by Garth Brooks. The album took the number one spot in twenty-five other countries as well and produced four smash singles. It went twelve-fold platinum in the United States and spent more than seventy-seven weeks on the chart.
Acceptance by the music world took longer, however. The Boys were regarded as little more than lipsynchers, despite their obvious talents at harmonizing a cappella. Gradually, however, they began to command respect from music professionals. As Kevin Richardson once remarked to an interviewer, "We had to break down doors to get people to play our music, play our videos on MTV." Hurt by comparisons to groups like New Kids on the Block, the Boys had to be recognized for what they were: "We're a vocal group," he went on. "We'd like people to look at us like Boyz II Men or New Edition, only we're white."
The Boys specialized in romantic ballads influenced by soul music and church choirs. Although often verging on formula and cliché, the Boys's music remained fresh thanks to the fine musicianship of the five members and their skillful arrangements. In addition, the Boys varied their song book with other sounds, including touches of rap and hip-hop.
By the end of the 1990s, the Backstreet Boys were the preeminent boy band in the music business, though by then the competition had intensified. *NSYNC was vying with the Backstreet Boys for popularity, and a white rapper from Detroit with the stage name Eminem had recorded his first big album. With the ascendancy of hip-hop and rap, the boy bands seemed to have reached their peak. Their 2000 release, Black and Blue, its title echoing the Rolling Stones's album of 1976, topped the chart for only two weeks, and it did less well than *NSYNC's album released at the same time.
In one decade's time, the Backstreet Boys moved from the obscurity of their beginnings to become one of the most successful musical groups in the history of pop music. Their albums set records in sales, and their tours took their place among the top grossers of all time.
Spot Light: Boy Bands
The Beatles were the first major white boy band, and, like all the bands that followed them, they were influenced by African-American music. The Backstreet Boys became the preeminent white boy band of the 1990s through their combination of musicianship, performance sense, and shrewd management. But their place was soon challenged by a group, *NSYNC, that was developed by the same entrepreneur who discovered them, Lou Pearlman. At first *NSYNC looked like they would be in the shadow of the Backstreet Boys, but their 2000 release, No Strings Attached, and the popularity of their sexy lead vocalist Justin Timberlake, put them in first place with album sales of 2.4 million in the first week, breaking the record set by Millennium. Imitators in the boy-band craze included groups like 98 Degrees and the TV-created O' Town, none of which had a long shelf life. By the beginning of the new century, it appeared that the boy-band craze—a recurring phenomenon in American popular music—may have peaked. The Backstreet Boys—now men—were facing internal problems of alcoholism and stress; their anticipated follow-up album to Black and Blue (2000) had not appeared by the spring of 2003. Nick Carter, like Justin Timberlake, has gone solo, though with less success, and popular music has moved to hip-hop, rap, and a revival of rock in various forms.
Backstreet Boys (Jive, U.K., 1996); Backstreet's Back (Jive, 1997); Millennium (Jive, 1999); Black and Blue (Jive, 2000).
D. Coates and J. Delisa, Backstreet Boys: The Hits (Chapter One) (Miami, 2002); A. Csillag, Backstreet Boys: The Official Book (New York, 2000); S. Hughes, Backstreet Boys: The Illustrated Story (New York, 2001).