The good, the bad and the cute

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Date: Oct 26, 2099
Source: The Oregonian
Submitted By:

Friday, October 22, 1999

By Marty Hughley of The Oregonian staff

The Backstreet Boys are easy to love.
The Backstreet Boys are easy to hate.

The difference depends, of course, on who you are and what you want.

Evidence of the Orlando teen-dream vocal quintet's lovability seems obvious enough in its sales figures. Both of the group's albums are in the Top 50 of Billboard's album chart. Its U.S. debut has sold more than 11 million copies since its release in 1997, and the follow-up "Millennium" reached the 8 million mark in less than six months, having started by setting a record with first-week sales of 1,134,000. The current 39-city tour, which makes its Portland stop on Monday at the Rose Garden arena, inspired fans around the country to grab 765,000 tickets -- $30 million worth -- in a single day. Nearly all tickets sold in the first hour they were available.

One could always argue, of course, that such numbers reflect marketing as much as they might true love. But there's no denying the palpitating affection coursing through the dozens of devotional "BSB" pages on the Internet -- not just the typical collections of photos, gossip and breathless effusions about one or more of the group's cutie-pie members (one site is titled "Ohhh, Sexy, Sexy AJ McLean"), but whole sites devoted to Backstreet-inspired fiction, fan-written short stories in which one of the recurring themes is the guardian angel (always female, of course) who looks after head heartthrob Nick Carter.

The Backstreet Boys -- not just blessed blond Nick and "sexy AJ," but Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough and Brian because they are young and handsome. Because they sing tenderly unambivalent love songs produced according to foolproof pop/R&B formula. Because they dance in scrupulously choreographed routines that convey worldliness and sexuality but also a subtly reassuring sense of familial order. Because they are, reputedly, good Christians and Southern gentlemen. Because they neither belittle nor take for granted their overwhelmingly young and female following. And because they are stars, and in this culture that alone is supposed to be reason enough for people to love you.

Ah, but sometimes it isn't enough. At least not for everybody.

The Backstreet Boys are hated because -- well, there could be so many reasons, presumably: because of the prefabricated sound, the clichd lyrics, the slick packaging, the disregard for teen tastes. And not least because they are such big stars.

The hyperbole can get to be a bit much. Such as repeated publicity claims that the group's sales figures are "redefining the meaning of pop music success"; as if buying a 40-ouncer instead of a quart is "redefining" beer drinking. Or worse yet, Dorough's conceit, expressed in the "Millennium" liner notes, that the album is one "to be heard for another thousand years to come."

As just about every group of this sort eventually does, the Backstreet Boys long for legitimacy, to be seen as talented performers, artists even, not just cute cogs in a marketing machine. Several years ago, when New Kids on the Block had become both teen-market megastars and pop-culture punch lines, they tried to toughen their sound and image and call themselves NKOTB. No one was convinced. For the Backstreet Boys, the current single "Larger Than Life," with its pronounced synth-bass groove and grandiose sci-fi video, seems a stab at the wimpy-kid-stuff shadow that dogs the group. So, to a lesser extent, does "Don't Want You Back," with its banish-the-harlot lyric.

"I wish people would realize that we have the goods and we're legit," Richardson told a Rolling Stone reporter. But they probably don't have the goods their detractors want. They may be able to sing and dance all right, but can they, as hip-hop parlance puts it, keep it real? In the music world, there are lots of paths to sales and popularity. But respect, on a certain level, requires conforming to an unspoken code of authenticity, a philosophical prejudice that has roots in the stature of self-contained bands (who wrote, played and produced their music) such as the Rolling Stones, the rise of rock's critical establishment in the late '60s and the anti-star ethos of the '70s punk movement.

Sure, Littrell co-wrote three songs on the new album, but that doesn't make him Bob Dylan. The teenybopper brand they at first embraced might prove impossible to remove, and harder to hide, than the tattoos that squiggle up and down "sexy, sexy AJ's" arms.

But maybe that's none of our concern. After all, if you love the Backstreet Boys, you're probably getting what you want -- entertainment and excitement. If you hate the Backstreet Boys, you too might be getting what you want -- a prettified punching bag just perfect for cultural scapegoating. And everyone gets to be happy.

There, wasn't that easy?

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