Exile on Backstreet

With Black and Blue, the Backstreet Boys' grand cultural moment may have come to an end. And yes, it was so a grand moment.

If I hear one more smart grownup bitching about the vacuous teen pop on the radio, I'm gonna snap a cap. "It's all so sugary," they sniff. "So superficial." To which I must ask: Did that last Moby album come packaged with an amnesia pill? Since when has commercial Top 40 radio (or whatever it's called now) been deep and meaningful--except for, like, two seconds in the Sixties, or a couple of deadly moments of Seventies coke-folk? Ach, the Barrys, Lionels, Phils, Glorias, and Mariahs I have suffered! Has everyone forgotten? "Adult" pop radio can feel every bit as cheap and isolating as teen pop radio--and without, y'know, the bomp!

Last week on All Things Considered, an NPR expert presented a long segment on the Ramones, surely one of the most sugary punk bands on the block. NPR Guy explained that when he first discovered said daring and authentic hellions, he was working at a record store, shelving albums by Elton John and the Bee Gees--which was really "depressing," he half-whined, as if we were supposed to know exactly what he meant. Sorry, but I don't. I grok the Ramones, sure, but I'm also plenty keen on Elton and the brothers Gibb. If you're going to slag flabby Seventies music, don't take aim at people who (at least then) would have ripped out their own livers to write the perfect pop song.

Obviously, it's a tough time for champions of aesthetic authenticity when everything on the radio sounds like it's produced by Smurfs, but the musical distance between Elton John/Bee Gees and the Ramones is just not as big as Mr.-Liberal-Big-Government-Radio-That-Only-Plays-a-Punk-Song-If-It's-25-Years-Old would like to think. Baby boomers and indie-weaned Gen Xers love to talk about divisions and loyalties and authenticity; the real rock died in 1970--or 1980, or 1994, or whenever it was supposed to have expired. That's naive--a musician's real enemy is not some opposing musical camp--rivals make each other look cool! A musician's true enemy is and always will be the Nefarious Warlocks of Bad Songwriting.

A great song is the one thing a musician can't fake, even when he thinks he's faking it. And a great song, whatever the genre, is a victory for all songwriters, and a challenge: I dare you. And so it's a mortal sin (not to mention pretty dumb) to condemn a well-crafted song for distasteful trappings or bad timing. In fact, maybe today the most subversive act would be to write timeless, strange, and beautiful pop for Top 40 radio. Clearly, the teen-girl masses will swallow just about anything--so why not show them a respect their generation has never gotten, and deliver something better than they've ever had?

And that is exactly what Swedish hair-metal warrior-turned-bubblegum manufacturer Max Martin and the late Denniz PoP achieved with the Backstreet Boys' first self-titled hit album in 1997. It's a winner, founded on great hooks and distilled from genuine spirit--I don't want to say "teen" spirit, even, because most teens aren't this optimistic. The high-tech, glossy production served the music, pumping the Boys up as futuristic superhumans while weirdly, poignantly articulating their actual humanity. As with the Spice Girls, the baby-superhero postures were immediately recognizable to any Kiss fan as a humorous but important message to kids: It's good to be excited about being young, having fun, and feeling larger-than-life.

Unfortunately for the Backstreet Boys, Max Martin is a slut, and he's spread his love too widely, penning songs for everyone from Britney to 'N Sync. Which has left the Backstreet Boys to fumble in vain for a compelling vision of what their quest should be in 2000. I don't think the Boys themselves understand why they are or were special--just one of the pitfalls of being young and prefabricated. Both of their next two albums--Millennium and the new Black and Blue (Jive)--are spotty and lopsided (like Britney's): two or three great, visionary songs floating on a stagnant pond of gush, much of it written and produced by people who just don't get it.

I'll bet you five bucks that Max Martin is a haunted, egotistical, anal-retentive pop fanatic who has screwed up every last relationship, unable to express the divinity he feels within through anything but pop songwriting and production. You don't write or co-write 12 megahits in three years without being an insane dictator-in-your-own-mind. There's a genuine darkness and a real sadness, I believe, that make his songs so good--and popular. When A.J. sings "Sadness is beautiful/Loneliness is tragical" on the latest single, "The Shape of My Heart," a wonderful ballad about asking forgiveness from a lover, it's really Martin saying something deep, humorous, and true that I don't think this singer-boy could begin to grasp. And yet Martin needs this badly shaved monkey boy to add the edge of naiveté that transforms this cliché back to the truth he wants to express.

I don't know whose fault it is--the Backstreet Boys, their managers, or Martin himself--but what has occurred with Black and Blue is a small tragedy that we've seen before and will see again (hiya, Britney). A mega-huge sugar-pop group that nobody expected to be good turned out to be good, and could have become better than good--but didn't. With the first two cuts on Black and Blue, Martin shows that he might have had an idea how to help the Backstreet Boys become men in poppy, sexy, surprising ways. "The Call" is a spazzy and intentionally ambiguous story about infidelity and cell phones, with the chorus kicker, "My battery is low!...Gotta go!" Like "The Shape of My Heart," it's a convincingly grown-up step forward.

But two songs do not a great album make, nor do they pose a sufficient answer to the challenge the Backstreet Boys presented at the start. The Boys once had an urgent message to deliver to the world: the sensation of hovering on a threshold, the manic bliss of potential energy beginning to explode. But someone dropped the bomp, and overnight the Backstreet Boys are becoming a revival act, riding on the juice they generated three years ago. They seem doomed to hover in the historical ether as perfect vessels of pure potential. And that would be tragical.

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