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Date: Nov 10, 2099
Pop goes the explosion as teen music faves return.
By Dave Tianen
Journal Sentinel pop music critic
Oct. 30, 1999
They are the biggest thing in music in 1999. Indeed, they are the fastest-selling recording act ever.
And not many music insiders expect them to be around in two years.
The Backstreet Boys' "Millennium" is now seven times platinum and virtually certain to be the biggest-selling album of 1999. In fact, it had the best first-week sales of any album ever. And the best second week. And the best third week.
The Boys' current tour (including a Nov. 4 date at the Bradley Center) sold out in one day. The entire tour.
And yet . . .
Veteran Milwaukee concert promoter Leslie West says, "I think the Backstreet Boys are actually very talented. Does that mean they'll last? History says they won't."
WXSS KISS-FM (103.7) morning deejay Joe Caruso notes, "Chris Rock made a joke about it at the MTV Awards . . . He said, 'Hey. We've seen New Kids on the Block. We know how this story is going to end.'"
"The Spice Girls had about a three-year run," says Milwaukee's Greg Gerard. "From inception to total blackness is about three or four years. The industry is always looking for the new new thing."
He should know. In the '80s, Gerard claimed a piece of the teen pop pie by writing a Top 15 hit for his then-wife, Keedy. Gerard has a definite sense of the shelf live of a fave rave.
As big as they are, the Backstreet Boys are part of a larger phenomenon: the astonishing resurgence of teen-idol-driven kiddie pop. The only album close to "Millennium" in sales in 1999 is also teen pop:Britney Spears' debut " . . . Baby One More Time." The boy group closest to Backstreet Boys in sales clout would be the band's Orlando brethren, 'N Sync. Bubblegum pop abounds on the charts. Christina Aguilera's self-titled debut has been out six weeks and is already double platinum. Ditto for 98 Degrees' "98 Degrees and Rising."
The teen idol has been an endangered species for much of the last 20 years. (There was a brief but intense rage for New Kids on the Block at the end of the '80s.) One theory: The decline of Top 40 radio destroyed the idol's natural habitat. Top 40 had been the broadcast home of teen idols since the days of Frankie Avalon and always enjoyed a strong following with young teens.
But perhaps as a reaction to morbid grunge, bouncy, high-spirited pop began to come back. In the early '90s, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam ruled the rock world, Boyz II Men and Color Me Badd were finding an audience for boy harmony groups. One-hit-wonders though they were, Hanson triggered an epidemic of puppy love with 13-year-old girls across the fruited plain. And the Spice Girls updated Cyndi Lauper's girls-just-wanna-have-fun ethic for the '90s.
Suddenly the music business had rediscovered the baby-sitting dollars of very young girls.
And few acted on that discovery with the single-mindedness and calculation of Lou Pearlman and Johnny Wright, the impresarios behind the Backstreet Boys. Pearlman made his fortune in chartered aircraft and then turned to Chippendale dancers and finally teen singers. Wright, once road manager for New Kids on the Block, was a kiddie pop vet.
A.J. McLean, Nick Carter and Howie Dorough were schoolboys in Orlando who kept bumping into one another at local acting auditions. Inspired by Boyz II Men, they decided to start a singing group. A friend introduced them to Kevin Richardson, who was performing at Disney World. From Kentucky, they recruited Richardson's cousin Brian Littrell. The Boys lineup was now complete.
At the same time, Pearlman was scouring Orlando for the new New Kids. He signed the groupto Trans Continental, his budding entertainment conglomerate, and brought them together with Wright, who sent them off to Europe to learn their craft.
And over there, they became huge. Sold-out tours, multi-platinum albums, mob scenes at airports, full-blown hysteria. But there was nothing accidental about it. Pearlman later claimed to have spent $3 million grooming the Backstreet Boys.
"Quite a bit of it is Lou Pearlman," says Matt Rossman, managing editor of Teen Beat. "Pearlman went out to find young talent with the right look and the right sound. And then, when he found it, he put them in boot camp for two years, teaching them to dance, teaching them to sing and working the road in Europe."
What is now known as the Orlando sound actually started in Stockholm, Sweden, at Cheiron Studios under the direction of writer/producers Max Martin and Denniz Pop. The Cheiron team already had hit with Ace of Base and the British teen sensation Five. The basic formula was bright, high-energy, dance pop with romantic themes built around close harmony singing. It was essentially the same formula that had worked for New Kids.
By the time of their American debut, the Boys had another heavy on board: producer Mutt Lange, who had performed previous miracles with Def Leppard, Bryan Adams and Mrs. Lange, a.k.a. Shania Twain.
The Backstreet Boys self-titled debut hit the states in August 1997. The group quickly became as huge at home as they were in Europe. Trans Continental continued to prosper, eventually signing Britney Spears and the Boys' arch rivals, 'N Sync.
Yet the Orlando empire soon began to topple. The management situation has unraveled in a flurry of lawsuits that should keep the legal profession in BMWs until about 2068. Feeling underpaid and resentful of the 'N Sync signing, Backstreet Boys split with Pearlman and are now handled by the Firm, a management company that also handles Limp Bizkit and Korn.
'N Sync has also parted ways, first with Pearlman and, more recently, with their label, RCA, to move to the Backstreet Boys' label, Jive. Pearlman and RCA have responded with a $150 million lawsuit against 'N Sync that also seeks an injunction to prevent them from releasing their new album or even performing under their group name. Hacked off at again finding 'N Sync in their professional household, the Backstreet Boys have announced they're leaving Jive.
The twin forces of greed and ego seem to have taken hold. For their part, 'N Sync claims they are being paid under an old contract that identified Germany as their primary market and the U.S. as a secondary market. This allegedly means they're only getting 60 cents per album sale. For their part, the Backstreet Boys have been openly resentful of 'N Sync, especially the fact that their main rivals were promoted by their own management.
"I don't think they're as resentful of the guys as they are of the guys behind them," Rossman says. "When they talk to us they say the guys are their friends. I think the Backstreet Boys are resentful because they opened the door. They were touring all over Europe and Asia. 'N Sync played Europe, too, but not nearly as much. They really just jumped in. I think Backstreet is resentful of that."
Nor is Rossman surprised that the boy bands are feeling underpaid.
"It's the same thing that happened with TLC. These groups are not bands. They're not writing songs. There are a lot of people involved. I'm sure they look at the sales and wonder why they're not getting rich. Well, they have this big production team behind them. There are just too many people who have to be paid."
But so far, the legal bickering doesn't seem to have slowed the demand for the groups themselves. Even with the usual tidal wave of major new CDs being released in the fourth quarter, Billboard charts editor Geoff Mayfield predicts that the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears may both hold their own in the Top 10 through the end of the year.
There's no shortage of theories on why teen pop is so strong at the moment.
One auxiliary theory is that it isn't just teens.
"There are a lot of adult Backstreet Boys fans," says Caruso. "I have a friend who's 32 and we were driving in the car and the Backstreet Boys came on and she turned up the radio. I thought 'What's this?' but you know, the records are very well produced."
Rossman thinks the present boom in kiddie pop is basically a case of trickle-down economics.
"A lot of it is the economy. This comes in waves. The strong economy has two effects. Kids, 11, 12 and 13 are too young to make their own money aside from baby-sitting so their money has to come from their parents. When the economy is good, their parents have more money to give them and they have more money to spend in the mall. The other thing is that people have a positive feeling so this very innocent, very positive music finds an audience with kids."
The return of innocence has some jaded, well-seasoned supporters.
"I hope this trend continues for a long, long time," says West. "It's been refreshing to hear something different than the same beat, the same type of music. For a long time it seemed like you were hearing only one kind of music (grunge)."
"Musically," Gerard says, "I think there's some really good recording. Technically, it sounds really good. I think the 'N Sync guys have it vocally over the Backstreet Boys. I think they're stronger singers. I think Britney Spears is really, really cute and it's good to see a wholesome sound come back. It's good to see some positive energy again."
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