Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Sells Like Teen Spirit

Can I begin by stating a truth the sophisticates who read this section will probably consider an absurdity? The Backstreet Boys are something new under the sun. They are not merely "cyclical," the latest in a long series of girl-directed concoctions that also includes . . . well, who? The New Kids on the Block? Not crazy, just wrong, because they sucked. Wham!? Well, sort of. Shaun Cassidy? The Bay City Rollers? Come on. And if not, then who? The Beatles might be more like it. The only problem is that the Backstreet Boys are nowhere near as good as the Beatles.

But they're remarkable nevertheless--enough to convert me last July at Radio City, where in the wake of more litigation and medical trauma than any quintet of ingenuously ambitious showbiz kids should have to bear they staged the most exhilarating show I saw all year. Granted, its defining sound was what your dazzled reporter described as "the ecstatic, not-quite-knowing, supernally high" shriek of their fans. But the Boys themselves were the enablers. And they were just as impressive May 11 at the Amsterdam Theater, where they overcame the stop-and-go of TV taping and the ringers larding a juiced young crowd to put their all into a July-scheduled Disney special promoting Millennium, which they'd best sell if they are to achieve fortune worthy of their fame. And while Millennium is a ballad-heavy effort several slops soupier than the debut that put them over, capped by heart-surgery veteran Brian Littrell's mawkish bid to tag his mom "The Perfect Fan," I'm rooting for it. These guys do righteous work.

I mean, right, the Backstreet Boys are nowhere near as anything as the Beatles. But they definitely don't suck, and in part because they were chosen for their voices as well as their looks, they're nowhere near as stiff and wan as the above-named teen attractions, none of whom was tolerable beyond whatever they could jones you with on the radio. But having impelled me to adore the creamy Gap Band rip "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," the Backstreet Boys coaxed me into feeling along with the generalized boy-harmony ballad "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)" and went on from there. Expert pop songs--these crafted by the Spirit of Orlando, songwriter-producer Max Martin, who as it happens lives in Sweden--don't turn anyone into the Beatles or even the Jackson Five. But they're a serious plus in this particular don't-suck sweepstakes, which I trace to Boyz II Men, who BSB treated to an a cappella cover tribute at Radio City.

It was Boyz II Men who raised teensploitation's musical standards. New Edition minus the bubblegum, their rap-savvy cross between the J5's teen showbiz and the Chi-Lites et al.'s postsoul postdoowop generated countless copycats, bandwagoneers, and conceptual hops and skips. And while the likes of Shai and Jodeci were too phony and/or sexist to bear, quite a few others, from All-4-One and Color Me Badd to Next and Usher, were sweet, sexy, or both. The basic secret--oddly enough in an era when the hip hop virus and the demasculinization of the black church have supposedly dried up a vocal wellspring--was that most of them had the chops to sing through the smarm. The Backstreet Boys do this, too--more capably than their blander ex-stablemates 'N Sync, who play Engelbert Humperdinck to their Tom Jones, or Motown muscleheads 98*, whose beefcake strategy targets older teens. But they do it their way, submerging Boyz II Men postsoul in a teen-idol sincerity that reaches back beyond Shaun Cassidy to Frankie Avalon and Tab Hunter, and deliberately sublimating the sexual explicitness that permeates the Boyz II Men diaspora.

And of course, they're different in another way as well: they're white. In a don't-suck sweepstakes that started out almost entirely black, this affords them a major commercial advantage. It's the rare African American act that enjoys an even theoretical chance of making a broad, cross-racial spectrum of square early-teen females go gaga. This is sad, tragic, deplorable. But it's also a fact, and it would be priggish to insult a powerless demographic's vicarious pleasures because they fail to transcend the greatest single pathology of American life. Anyway, race per se isn't necessarily the crux--just as important is the sex factor, which hip hop's masculinist domination of black youth culture has jacked up to an intensity unimaginable a decade ago. We live in a world where one of the biggest and best hits of 1998, Next's "Too Close," revealed itself to anyone who paid attention as a song about the singer's erect penis, a world where cute-teen Usher invented a widely imitated live move in which he bumped in his boxers. And that's not even to go into hip hop itself. As someone who loves "Too Close," expects big things of Usher, and thinks dirty jokes are good for the culture, I feel constrained to point out that a great many teenaged girls still prefer to take things slower--and that for most of the 15-and-unders who are gaga for BSB, this is the path of both wisdom and sexual well-being.

In short, the Backstreet Boys filled a vast gap created by the same trendy greed that now has bizzers so hungry for teen pap they're bidding on a Letterman-conceived BSB parody act. Not that Nick, AJ, Howie D, Keith, and Brian located this gap by themselves. They were organized in 1993--in paradigmatic Orlando, the new Hollywood of suburbanized America--by an entrepreneur they sued last year for taking $10 million of their money. But these showbiz kids were astutely conceptualized. Not only could they all sing, they weren't simply safe--AJ and Howie D, both of whom just happen to be half-Hispanic, are spunky-punky sparkplugs who let you know where their crotches are. And after staging a breakthrough in Europe, where the teenypop factories have sickened mass culture theorists for generations, they proved themselves with 1997's U.S.-decaplatinum Backstreet Boys. Of course, while only a teenaged boy could deny teenaged girls their right to 'N Sync 'n such, other music fans obviously have a right to ignore the whole business. But as a partisan of many subcultures not my own, I wouldn't think of it. Between the European craft of the mysterious Max Martin and his cronies, including the late Ace of Base mastermind Denniz PoP, and the American sincerity of the natural-blond dreamboat Nick Carter and his cronies, including clarion choirboy Brian Littrell, Backstreet Boys opens up a way of hearing if you give it a chance and a half. It captures a moment of nascent eroticism. It makes virginity seem like the start of something.

If this effect is a collaboration between pop-wise bizzers and genial young entertainers who got lucky (and who have now signed with the forward-looking firm that manages Korn), it's also a collaboration between entertainers on a mission and the ecstatic girls who idealize them. The title of "Larger Than Life," the Martin-cowritten lead rocker on Millennium, doesn't refer to performers raised up by their fans: "Every time we're down/You can make it right." It's the next line that's the kicker: "And that makes you larger than life." Take this empowerment-mongering twist on the love-song-to-the-audience gambit as a way of assuring girls that they're too good to settle for masculinist posing. It's a stroke I can't wait to hear on the radio, probably during the fall tour the special will pave the way for while BSB do Europe this summer. Meanwhile we've got the new video, where the Boys run through the baffling "I Want It That Way" at an LAX transfigured primarily by the extras, fans as genuine as the teens at the Amsterdam, who mimed the Boys' made-for-MTV gestures while singing along with the song as if they knew what it meant. Which maybe they did: some were sure "that way" signified love-making, others dreamed togetherness, and all of them figured the song's "two worlds apart" were the two sides of a stage not one of them rushed, although tales of security breaches riddle the teen mags.

The empowerment here is strictly symbolic, no one including the Backstreet Boys would be stupid enough to deny it--including, I'll warrant, all but the most dazzled of their fans. A competing Spice Girls variation that didn't end up trailing hordes of eight-year-olds would balance the gender politics nicely. And if they escape the teen-idol cul-de-sac at all they'll probably serve soup until they can finance a theme park. But, hell--merely for righteous work already accomplished, they deserve one.

Village Voice, May 25, 1999