Yes, I know, it’s too late.

January 6, 2010

So as you may have noticed, during the month of December, all monthly series were suspended for the best tracks of the year countdown and Christmas mix madness, but one of my friends I happened to grab a drink with during my Holiday break gave me a bit of guff for not doing a “Confessions of a ’90s Survivor” during November. Since the Christmas mix went up right after Thanksgiving, I remembered he was right and decided to make that up as quickly as possible.

The “Confessions of a ’90s Survivor” is one of this blog’s most consistently popular sections, so the good news is to all you readers that there will be two this month.

And since I got reprimanded to make things right from November, here’s my answer.


Backstreet Boys – I Want it That Way
From: Millennium

Pop music, and the way it constantly moves in cycles, always fascinates me. Certainly there was no real inkling throughout the 1990s that any boy band would have the opportunity to reach the same kind of popularity that the New Kids on the Block had in the late 1980s and the very early part of the 1990s. Nevermind the age-defined audience that you’re only going to be able to tap into for a precious few years, the fact of the matter is that the grunge movement of the early 1990s seemed tailor-made to blow out the pop fluff that had gotten a little too comfortable in the mainstream.

The advent of gangsta rap, Britpop, industrial and goth seemed like strong reinforcements to keep boy bands at bay, but alas, you look through the charts and there was always a Take That, Soul For Real or Westlife hovering and ready to pounce. Because there are always going to be 15-year-old girls, this is the cross music aficionados have to bear.

I distinctly remember “Rolling Stone”s first review of the Spice Girls’ debut. It was before “Wannabe” went radioactive and when it was reasonable to believe that five British girls singing about friendship and sex — well, sex if you’re decent enough to also respect a girl’s need to hang with her friends — probably wasn’t going to generate more American interest in London than Bush, Oasis, the Prodigy and Elastica combined, much less a major motion picture. In fact the review made a point of comparing the Spice Girls to little more than a female New Kids on the Block. Ouch.

But for whatever reason, manufactured pop found it’s way back out of the containment zone in 1996 and 1997 and not only did we have to worry about five (admittedly attractive) limey women, but a whole rash of bottled-blonde teenage boys out of Florida.

Could any of us take the Backstreet Boys seriously? Well as a high school male at the time of their rabid popularity, no, certainly not. At least not if I wanted to live another 10 years to blog about how stupid it all was. But it’s not like they were that great of a group, anyway. The way Max Martin was writing pop hits in the late 1990s, I could have been an international superstar — gawky frame draped in oversized T-shirts and all. That doesn’t mean I would’ve been a particularly good showman. I like to dance, but I’d say I’m average at best. I like to sing, but I would never say I’m particularly good at it. And neither were any of these five chuckleheads. I’m supposed to be impressed because you can spin a folding chair around and sit down backwards on it? F*ck off.

But before old Papa Lou got himself in trouble for ponzi schemes and kiddy-fiddling, he damn well knew how to capitalize on the hormonal freak-out ability of teenage girls. The Backstreet Boys’ and NSYNC’s first albums were simply dangerous forewarnings of what was to come. Britney Spears got all popular in 1998 to get everyone crazy for the boys’ return in 1999.

And “I Want it That Way” represented the horrible realization that popular music might never again be about being able to play a guitar. It would just be about peroxide, a rudimentary ability to dance, shady, overweight, middle-aged balding managers and a Swedish songwriter in the frightening habit of being able to finance castles with 3-minute songs.

You look back at the song’s video now, and it’s easy to laugh. Private jet! Hangar full of girls! Stupid dancing in white outfits in an airport check-in area! Of course it’s funny. Now we have the hindsight of “House of Carters” and the blonde one’s abnormal desire to be black at 30-odd years of age. What about the little red headed one… he found Jesus, right? The purported “bad boy” of the group looks like those self-absorbed dudes in my college philosophy classes that wanted to tell you why they appreciated Kierkegaard on a much greater level than you. And the other two… well who cared about the pony tail one and as for the tall one, wasn’t he about 40 when this video was filmed? Hilarious.

Ah, but now think back to 1999 and how often this video was on MTV and VH1 and how frighteningly often it was on both simultaneously. Guys like myself decried it at every opportunity and made mental notes of all the stupid little features (e.g., the “bad boy” holding up two fingers and a thumb when he asks if he’s your “one” desire), but frankly, the amount of airplay this crap got seemed to be some kind of sign of the apocalypse. When NSYNC followed with that one-two punch of “Bye, Bye, Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me,” well… mankind looked decidedly screwed.

And what kind of message did it send to high school boys anyway? If all the girls we were after were interested in stupidly-dressed dudes with $300 haircuts you could probably fake for the cost of a bottle of gel, we could probably get creative. But access to private jets and dance routines in airport terminals? I guess in that economy anything was possible, but if we couldn’t do that, maybe the best we could do was tolerate the girls we liked obsessing over one of them and putting their CDs on in our cars. Sometimes accepting defeat is what you have to do to win a girl’s heart.

I distinctly remember walking out of Willowbrook High School one day in the fall of 1999. A school bus was sitting outside with members of the cross country team awaiting to depart to some meet in some other Chicago suburb. As I walked to my car I saw a senior lower a window toward the rear of the bus and negotiate his upper torso through the small opening. Provoked by I don’t know what, he started making a raise the roof motion with his hands and screaming at the top of his lungs:


Was he mocking the song? Entirely possible. Was he doing it to get the attention of a female teammate? Entirely possible.

A big part of me is glad bands like the White Stripes and Strokes came along shortly thereafter to put this kind of music back into its corner.

Another part of me wonders how many more years the Jonas Brothers have. And I don’t care that two of ’em play guitar.


  1. The blonde one hasn’t hit 30 yet–he has three more weeks. And I’m glad my mom knew that as different as the Temptations and the Who were, they were still BOTH great to listen to. I love how eclectic the 60s were. Top 40 included Motown (early boybands-ie vocal harmony groups), rock, pop, folk, even classical-think Classical Gas and Tiajuana Taxi. I’m sure early signs of music snobbery raised its head even then–but the radio sure sounded wonderful!

  2. Excellent post. I used to download all that teeny stuff for my nephews, and came to hate most of it. Who knew that the curly fuck out of N’SYNC would proceed to record one of the great pop albums of the ’00s. But I must admit that I really like I Want It That Way. Not a great sing, but likable.

    Of course, every time I hear of the Backstreet Boys, Chris Rock’s comment comes to mind: If these guys are the Backstreet Boys, what’s Main Steet? Sesame Street?

  3. Wow! Awesome post dude!

  4. I just …. don’t think I can bring myself to download this….

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