Backstreet Boys: Too much wishful thinking

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Date: Nov 10, 2099
Source: Detroit Free Press
Submitted By: Kim N.

November 9, 1999



THE HEADLINES were disheartening -- and everywhere.

"Backstreet Boys refuse to meet ailing child," wrote the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press. "Backstreet Boys have no time for cancer victim," spouted the Vancouver Sun.

Despite big hopes, Morgan Zalewski, a 5-year-old Warren girl with leukemia, didn't get to meet the Backstreet Boys over the weekend. Some local media reported Monday that she did, perhaps mistaking the group's reception of another sick girl backstage. A group representative did give Morgan an autographed picture when she attended Saturday night's show, one of the quintet's three concerts at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Morgan was one of two local girls who sought to meet the group via the Rainbow Connection, a Mt. Clemens organization that helps seriously ill children fulfill wishes. The Backstreet Boys couldn't commit to meeting her. With the group headed to town last week, her despairing father alerted the Macomb Daily, and the story hit the front page -- then the Associated Press wire, then all over.

The headlines are certainly dismaying. But not because of anything the Backstreet Boys did or didn't do. What's distressing is the coverage itself. Particularly on a local level, the ordeal reveals a glaring lapse in editorial judgment -- a story that wasn't a story.

A group of much-hounded international stars couldn't carve out time to meet somebody. Unusual? Shocking? By showcasing Morgan's situation, the media created a false sense of urgency, unfairly casting negative light on the Backstreet Boys and the Rainbow Connection, which has maintained it's sympathetic to the group's decision.

By spotlighting this case, the coverage carried an implicit -- and inaccurate -- message: Celebrities are always heroes. They always meet with sick children. How dare the Backstreet Boys slip up? An editor with a firm grasp on celebrity culture would realize this message is wrong.

It's hard not to feel sympathy for Morgan and other sick children, who deserve to get as much out of life as those blessed with more years. Undoubtedly, meeting the Backstreet Boys would have provided an irreplaceable moment of joy for her and her well-meaning family.

But Morgan wasn't the only person disappointed by the Backstreet Boys, or by any number of celebrities with relentless claims on their time and availability. Since this international tour started last spring, Backstreet's management has turned down reams of requests -- from sick kids, rich kids, savvy kids -- simply because of sheer volume. Weeks ago, in fact, the group's frustrated staff quit fielding requests at all. One publicist's voice mail greeting has included a plea not to clog up the phone system with demands to meet the group.

The Backstreet Boys make music. They dance. They sing. They meet their fans by releasing albums and staging concerts. They don't have to be in the philanthropy business. It happens that, by choice, they often are: The Make-A-Wish-Foundation, a national organization similar to Rainbow Connection, recently named the group its 1999 Celebrity Wish Grantors of the Year.

In Detroit, Red Wings players are the celebrities most often seen in charitable roles. But a team official concedes that even with a roster of 26 players eager to help, it's hard always making circumstances click.

"Everyone has big hearts, especially when it comes to children who are ill, and we do everything we can to grant those wishes," says John Hahn, the team's director of public relations. "But it's difficult from many perspectives -- the biggest is that there are always more requests than there are players and coaches and time to go around."

What the Backstreet flap reveals is the unique power of music and celebrity. A fan touched by an artist's music feels a singular, deeply emotional bond. With a group like the Backstreet Boys, whose lyrics are simple, direct and personal, the effect is amplified for a child or adolescent listener. What's easy to forget is that there are millions of other individuals out there feeling the same distinct connection.

A typical day for a musician on tour comes with all sorts of craziness. Hands reach and grab. Managers and agents tug in all directions. Cell phones scream. Food and sleep come in brief, blurry batches. Parents would do well to recall how John Lennon described a typical day in 1964, during the height of Beatlemania: "It was a room and a car and a car and a room and a room and a car."

That's not to say we should feel pity for the popular: If you want to earn your living presenting yourself to the public, the public is going to make you earn your living. Fame has a personal cost.

But part of that cost shouldn't be an obligation to cater to every demand to be glimpsed and touched, to spend every spare minute with the innumerable individuals who want your time.

And it certainly shouldn't be to suffer widespread humiliation when you can't.

Pop music writer BRIAN McCOLLUM can be reached at 313-223-4450 or

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