Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Ooh, That Sound

There is a sound that looms large in rock mythology from Elvis and Beatles documentaries, yet is seldom heard live. It's the sound of thousands of barely pubescent females screaming for their heroes, their white knights, their dreamboats. The finest thing one can say about the Backstreet Boys is that--unlike their forerunners, the New Kids on the Block--they are worthy of this ecstatic, not-quite-knowing, supernally high sound.

The Backstreet Boys are five ambitious Tampa lads who after four years of hard work are world-famous. Now 18 to 26, they can actually sing and dance even if they ain't Boyz II Men, and their quadruple-platinum U.S. debut is lit up by at least two pop classics: "Quit Playin' Games (With My Heart)," the most lissome of their many vulnerable ballads, and the uptempo summer smash "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)." The former was deployed to prove that they can too play their own instruments, albeit less smoothly than their predictably expert and integrated band. Brian, the guilefully sincere one with the heart condition and the good voice, manned percussion and sang lead.

Unlike Boyz II Men, the Backstreets rarely flaunt their crotches, relegating occasional bump-and-grind gestures to punky-rappy rebels AJ and Howie B. Wimpy, sure, but also age-appropriate for a pre-explicit core audience. That's one reason the climax is so exciting. It's encore time, "Everybody"'s rockin', and the girls know what's coming: dreamboat Nick, 18 and blondly handsome, will ask his world, "Am I sexual?" Close your eyes and love it--there's that sound again. Yes, yes, five thousand times yes.

Rolling Stone, 1998