Backstreet Boys – The Hits, Chapter One (2001)

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Who were they trying to fool with that album title?  These sorts of highly publicized “greatest hits” packages five years into an artist’s career can only signal one thing – the label was predicting the group’s profile to tank fast and needed to strike one last time while the iron was still lukewarm. For me this couldn’t have come soon enough; I had long been awaiting the demise of boy bands and it seemed like it was finally happening. Little did I know they were going to be replaced by nu-metal, then Nickelback, then eventually boy bands again.

Let’s start with this: I absolutely hated these guys when I was growing up. I was in 5th grade when I first heard of them, starting with “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” with that “oh my God we’re back again” opening line that I found so amusing (I always thought it was their first single). It seemed obvious to everyone I hung out with that the Backstreets were some kind of flavor-of-the-month group that we’d all be embarrassed by in ten years time, much like Vanilla Ice or MC Hammer. We mocked ’em relentlessly, made up “funny” alternate lyrics, referred to them as the “Backdoor Boys”, and perhaps most cutting of all, called them “really gay”. Looking back, it was obvious why we really disliked them – girls were into them and not idiots like us, and since we had no chance of being like them, we had to hate them instead. Of course, the secret to getting girls was to like the Backstreet Boys yourself. I wasn’t quite smart enough to figure that out.

Truthfully, they were far from the worst thing on the radio then, and as I got older and slightly more mature I started to see that there was a difference between utter shit and something that just wasn’t up your alley. Come to think of it I think that’s a lesson a lot of people could learn.  I think “Larger Than Life” ever so-slightly flipped the switch, kind of a neat pop song after all, way better than those lame “I’ll Never Break Your Heart”-type ballads that were on TRL all the time. Hell, I even felt some sympathy for them – they had inspired such fanaticism amongst the single most obsessive demographic known to mankind that all hopes for a normal life were off the table. Sure, they had fame and big bank accounts, but could they go grocery shopping? I guess that’s the single biggest downside to being that famous, you can’t do the grocery shopping. Surely the screams of teenage girls and the constant banging on the window of your car (okay, limo) gets old at some point.

Besides, it’s not like they got to call any of the shots; they were under the rule of the famously corrupt Lou Pearlman, and most of their songs were written by megaproducer Max Martin.  Yeah, I’d switch places with them in an instant, but part of me wonders how much they really enjoyed the ride.  Endless cycles of promotions, TV appearances, and interviews, on top of 100-some shows a year, singing songs you didn’t write and probably don’t even like, knowing it’s all liable to disappear at a moment’s notice, and from that moment on no matter what you do you’ll always be known as “the guy who used to be a Backstreet Boy”.  I guess they must not have minded much, and besides, it didn’t actually work out that way.  Sure, their profile took a nosedive around the turn of the millennium, but unlike nearly every other boy band, they actually survived.  They wound up suing Pearlman for millions, gained control of their label, and somehow remained a commercial force over a decade later, selling about a million copies of their 2013 album.  Which is astounding to me, given I can’t remember a single tune they did after “The Call”.

So what prompted a listen to this album?  Several years ago I was at a bar that suddenly turned into a full on 90’s nostalgia fest, as someone decided to play “Mambo No. 5” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca”, both of which went through the groan -> ironic sing-along -> actual sing-along cycle.  And thus followed “Mmmbop”, “All Star”, and so on. Meanwhile I’m thinking that these are all novelties, I’m gonna play something that’s just going to kill it.  There were some great pop songs back then after all.  I thought of “You Get What You Give”, Savage Garden’s “I Want You”, and then finally “I Want it That Way”, which I really wanted to hear again anyway.  See, I worked at Burger King for a couple years in High School and it was a dining room staple, which always amused me because BK’s slogan back then was “Have it Your Way”.  So I always imagined it as one big commercial jingle, which I was really entertained by.  Anyway, I was right.  The song killed.  Total pandemonium, every damn #90skid in the bar sang at the top of their lungs.  That night at 3 AM, still drunk off my ass, I ordered this CD for a buck, filed it away and completely forgot about it until a couple of weeks ago.  Certainly not the worst drunk CD purchase I’ve ever made (looking at you, Hulk Rules).

Finally, let’s talk about the CD – 13 songs, and if there’s one worth hearing that’s not on it, you let me know.  All my very favorite Backstreet-isms in one place – “tell me why-ee”, “bay-baaay”, “oh my God we’re back again”, “MY BATTERY IS LOW!”, etc.  It just occurred to me now that hitmaker extraordinaire Max Martin was not a native English speaker, thus explaining the frequently clunky lyrics (see also: Britney Spears).  Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush, some of these songs are honest-to-God great, particularly “I Want It That Way” (because it’s a fucking classic), “Quit Playing Games With My Heart” (because these boys really knew how to harmonize) and “The Call” (because “MY BATTERY IS LOW!”).  And by the way, is that a mellotron I hear?  Then you’ve got “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “Larger Than Life”, great hooks indeed, but such a product of their time.  The rest: mostly ballads, mostly dull, though their voices are generally good enough to pull ’em off anyway.  Say what you will about how poppy and focus grouped every one of these songs are, but admit it, the boys can sing.

Final verdict: Worth the buck.

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