Going back in time with The Backstreet Boys

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Growing up in the ’90s meant making choices. There was Tamagotchi and Nano Pet, McDonald’s and Burger King, Game Boy and Game Gear. Each decision brought with it a distinction, a way to anchor yourself in what felt like an endless sea of decisions. But those were paltry picks compared to the most important—and polarizing—line a girl had to cast: Choosing her favorite boy band. There were the heavy-hitters like ’N Sync and 98 Degrees, the long-haired Hanson boys and the brothers Moffatt. For me, though, it went something like this: Good girls like the Backstreet Boys, and bad girls like … well, everyone else.

With songs such as “As Long as You Love Me” and “I Want It That Way,” the Backstreet Boys sang about love and loneliness without any of the messy sexual implications that made parents jump for the radio dial. Cousins Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell sang together in church choir, and the quintessential “bad boy,” A.J. McLean, was pegged as such for his manicured facial hair and edgy habit of sporting sunglasses indoors. The group’s first official gig was at Sea World, followed by a string of performances at shopping malls and high schools. The Backstreet Boys were a wholesome affair.

During the summer of 1999, when it was announced that the group was coming to Raleigh, my best friend, Maria, and I immediately purchased tickets. Raleigh was the fourth show of the third leg of an international tour, but for us, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event. Like everyone else, Maria and I were peering down the mysterious barrel of the New Millennium, and barring the collapse of the financial system or a worldwide Y2K meltdown, we’d both be allowed to go to the concert—on our own.

On February 18, 2000, our parents dropped us off outside the sold-out show, and we dashed inside to the sounds of Star Wars’ “Imperial March.” We screamed as the Backstreet Boys, dressed in armored vests atop silver space suits, soared onstage, sailing right above our fussed-over hairdos (“just in case they see us”) on sleek hoverboards. The place was so thick with screaming teenagers that the floor shook, and we had to scoop our jaws off the floor before we were able to sing along. Maria and I were dazzled by the promise of the future.

But that was more than a decade ago, when the Internet was still young and there was no such thing as YouTube. The Backstreet Boys, as a band, turned 20 this year, as I turned 26. And, like we did as children, Maria and I went to see the group perform at the Walnut Creek Amphitheatre on Tuesday night. This time, we floated the idea past our husbands, not our parents. Maria was late because of a fussy baby; I kept company with my cell phone while I waited.

The Boys took the stage around 9 p.m., in a modest entrance that lacked the flourish of the hoverboards of yore. When A.J. began singing the opening lines of “Don’t Want You Back,” the crowd responded with an ear-shattering scream. It was a familiar sound, but the clamor was more aggressive, and with less diffidence than in the past. It wasn’t the sound of giddy teenagers preparing to see their crush; it was the sound of drunk adults, preparing to relive their youth. Kevin acknowledged the change after only three songs when he broke from the pack to scan the front row. Instead of complimenting the crowd or introducing the band, he flashed a knowing smile and said, “Raleigh, that ice cold beer sure looks good.”

In the parking lot before the show, loud, muffled bass pounded through the trees, but the music wasn’t opener Jesse McCartney or DJ Pauly D. Instead, the grassy lot opened up to a wide tailgate scene, with traffic directors all but ignoring the throngs of twentysomethings clustered around bottles of wine, their trunks popped open as though at a football game. When the crowd stumbled its way into the venue, there was nary a teenager in sight.

As the concert pressed on, it became clear that the Backstreet Boys—and their fans—had grown up. That’s to be expected; after all, the Backstreet Boys were a relatively early boy band, following at the heels of popular acts like New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men. The relative maturity of their base would be of little concern if the Boys were content to sit idly by, playing the old hits for the old fans who were willing to pay a pretty penny for a stroll down memory lane.

But in July, the group released In a World Like This, their first independently produced album, and they genuinely seem interested in pursuing the new material. Throughout the night, the Backstreet Boys peppered in new songs between the radio hits, lacing them with lengthy explanations and flashy dance routines. If the crowd’s response to these songs—that is, sitting down and checking their cell phones—is any indication, staying relevant is going to be a struggle.

The Backstreet Boys seem to know this. Before playing “Madeline,” a touching new tune that offers hope to victims of bullying, Howie told the crowd, “In 30 or 40 years, we might not be able to shake what our mamas gave us as well as we can now. So, as an insurance policy, we picked up some instruments.” The crowd roared at this announcement, though less than a minute into the song, there were more people sending texts than watching the group. It seemed that the future the Backstreet Boys had long promised arrived, and then pressed on, dragging the boys in tow.

These days, it’s the multimedia acts that get the preteens screaming. Justin Bieber was catapulted into stardom by singing R&B covers on YouTube, while London-based One Direction were originally contenders on The X Factor. The Jonas Brothers came straight from Disney’s Camp Rock, and The Wanted have their own reality show on E!

Alex, the youngest member of my family, self-identifies as a “Belieber.” Although she missed the Backstreet era by about 10 years and has no idea what an obsessive fan I used to be, she’s the target audience for In a World Like This. When I told her that I was going to the Backstreet Boys concert this week, Alex politely told me she knew nothing about them. “Quit playing games with my heart,” I laughed, the joke rolling off my tongue with ease. She returned with nothing, but she didn’t have to: I might as well have asked her how her Nano Pet was doing.

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