THERE ARE A zillion reasons why "smart" music fans dismiss the Backstreet Boys as dopey, irrelevant, or just plain creepy. Their quasi-pimpy attire and facial hair certainly don't help. Then there's the wind constantly blowing through the group's videos (won't they wrinkle prematurely?), the sameness of their songs, and (for adults) the many, many little girls who have memorized every lyric. Fun as it is might be to tweak the ageism of critics and annoy snobbish friends as an out-of-the-closet BSB fan, my own affection for the group has lately been tougher to justify. The music on the Boys' latest, Millennium, threatens to wipe away the virginal dew that gave their self-titled debut its charm.
In 1995 the Backstreet Boys were winning and idiosyncratic for exactly the reasons most males of all ages sniffed at them with contained alarm. The ballads they sang were a tsunami of emotional self-castration, with BSB consistently placing themselves in the "female" position of emotional weakness, i.e., without you I'm nothing. That is, when they weren't delivering absurd grocery lists of the sort of reassurances every girl wants to hear, as in I will never, ever, ever, ever leave you, because you're the world's sole font of joy and beauty. The dance tunes, Backstreet Boys' best material, delivered some melodic momentum, playful sexuality, and totally unexpected humor. (The group couldn't have appeared in Ben Stiller's dazzling send-up at last years' MTV awards gala without a grasp of their own silliness.)
Backstreet's third outing, Millennium, is an attempt to continue the mass emotional manipulation of the first album, while gently asserting the Boys' encroaching manhood. Though nowhere near as giddy, the results are perhaps more interesting. With "Larger Than Life," they're a little bit hip hop and a little bit Hard Day's Night, singing about their own public stature and, rather harshly, addressing the listener not as an individual but as "all you people." The video for "I Want It That Way," which displays the Boys performing for screaming girls at an airport stopover, has the same less-than-intimate effect. Backstreet fans who bought their tickets during the 20 minutes or so it took to sell out the Target Center will surely experience the Beatlemaniac rush of being able to ache deliciously, feel vaguely recognized, and also be safe within the breathy throng.
BSB's sonic gloss, so repellent on first listen, remains fascinatingly cold. They sound like doo-wop soft boys caught in producer Max Martin's mechanized, vaguely menacing soundscape, like baby cyborgs straining to convey real emotion despite their prefab origins. (Live, they prove they're real singers and blood-sweating entertainers.) It so happens that Millennium is also their statement of independence from the evil Dr. Frankenstein, Lou Pearlman, who created them (as well as Britney Spears and 'N Sync) and whom they fired and sued successfully for gross underpayment. Yes, it's all very Blade Runner, right down to the undeniable fact that these boys do manage to convey their humanity through the din of the machine. And, as witnessed in their very name, they were manufactured with a rather firm expiration date. Whatever comes next, it's unlikely to have the ephemeral sweetness of their earliest stuff. So gather ye rosebuds while ye may, BSB fans, and let's hope we don't have to see childish faux-maturity rust into cynical faux-naiveté.