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Backstreet's Back, All Right?

essay by matthew webber

The Backstreet Boys aren't totally back, not yet anyway, but they're coming to a theater near you.

I no longer view this as a sign of the apocalypse.

Everyone's favorite boy band -- or at least one of two from the late '90s TRL (Teens Really Loud) era that anyone can name - is currently hitting the road to promote an upcoming studio album, the group's first since 2000's Black & Blue, and perhaps the first sans sequins in an accompanying video.

More importantly, the album, Never Gone, will be the first major boy band release as a group since the boyz in these bands decided II become men: getting married (the good looking one), going to rehab (the rebel), going solo (that other cute one), and doing whatever it is those other two guys in a boy band do, when they're not doing whatever it those other two guys in a boy band do.

Ignore the return of gangsta rap, the repeated savings of rock by bands like The Skinny Ties, and the ascendancy of the teenage singer/co-songwriters who now get marketed to the tweenage fans who used to scream for the boy bands - here's how much music has changed in the past five years:

Vince Neil is on your TV again; and Backstreet's solo breakout Boy, Nick Carter, recently recorded with Tommy Lee. (True story. Carter is pretty rad, bro.)

So, to pawn off a rival boy band's lyric like my own original thought, what's the deal with this pop life and when is it gonna fade out?

The Backstreet Boys are banking on the fact that it hasn't faded, at least not completely. After the album's release, the Boys plan to embark on a nationwide tour that might include some of the venues they sold out before. But, before the album's release, like an actual rock band or a self-conscious acoustic strummer, the Boys have been embarking on a mini-tour of theaters, to road-test their new material, sit on stools instead of flying through the air or some such thing, maybe play the guitar, and focus on their songs and the singing of them live.

The Backstreet Boys are paying their dues.

Sure, it's a decade-late stab for credibility, but it's also something honest and true: The times may have changed, the pop life may have at least dimmed, but maybe the Backstreet Boys want it that way.

Now, they have an opportunity to make music for a group of fans who might be dwindling in number but are listening because they want to, not because their favorite afternoon music video program doesn't show them any other options and they enjoy the solidarity of 20,000 of their peers. Now, when the Boys sing their songs live, people will be able to hear them instead of hearing nothing but the squeals of their other number-one fans. The Boys will be able to give a few thousand lucky fans the intimate experience at which their old lyrics and videos only hinted: a connection between performer and listener.

These new fans might be the old ones, the college girls who used to own Backstreet Boys pillowcases but now realize that once they've heard one Strokes song they've heard them all and that the Stroke dating Drew Barrymore appears more often in Us Weekly than Howie Dorough ever did. Or, they might be the mothers who listen to the "Today's Best Hits" radio station at the office on the off-chance they'll hear a new, rock-flavored Backstreet Boys track in between the new Rob Thomas pop tune and the most recent Avril Lavigne or Kelly Clarkson single, or perhaps both at the same time. They might be those guys who try out for American Idol, or whoever it is who buys Marc Anthony albums. They might remain little girls. But they will come to these scaled-down shows to listen.

A cynical music critic - i.e., almost all of them - can look at a new Backstreet Boys album with rock and R&B flourishes and more Boy-penned lyrics as just a product, as a vile attempt to continue cashing in on their fame in a consumer culture that lets the little sisters of reality TV singers become reality TV singers themselves, and as something to mount on a clock in high school shop class.

But a human being can look at the Boys' return as something he'd probably want to do himself. This person will have watched enough episodes of Behind the Music and E! True Hollywood Story to pretend to know what it's like to want to follow your artistic muse but also leave the house without getting blinded by paparazzi flashbulbs. Someone like myself can congratulate the Boys for becoming men without destroying too many women or the sore backs of cocaine farmers in the process; I can enjoy a new Backstreet song should I ever chance to hear one, probably not even as guiltily as I enjoy the ridiculous Motley Crue oldie,"Too Fast For Love."

The Backstreet Boys are smart to admit the pop life has changed. It remains to be seen if their theater tour or new songs will change along with it, but I know (as much as a layperson who only reads about pop stars can know) they'll be happier for at least trying.

So, I don't feel I can begrudge them for wanting to make more money doing the one thing they still love the most. As I'm writing these words, in my spare time, for free, hoping someone is reading them, I'm trying to do the same thing, without actually making any money. Maybe I'm jealous, then, of the Backstreet Boys, but not for the obvious trappings of fame. Now, I envy their grab for creative control, which probably is a sign my world of weary cynicism is ending.


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