It was nearly 20 years ago that five wide-eyed teenage Orlando refugees found themselves in Cheiron Studios, a little-known outfit in the middle of an unfashionably urbanized island in Stockholm, ready to work on a dance-pop album with a shaggy-haired, failed glam metal singer named Max Martin. It was an inauspicious beginning to a partnership that would eventually launch the Backstreet Boys as one of the best-selling bands of the SoundScan era.
That time period has been on the group’s mind recently, as it gears up to celebrate a two-decade anniversary and accept a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Just last month, the fivesome — now back at its full original complement thanks to last year’s return of Kevin Richardson — reunited with Martin in the studio to begin devising material for its eighth studio album.
“I like to believe that what we did at that time was special, and it came from a place of innocence, when no one really knew who we were,” says Richardson of the band’s early days in Sweden. “Of course we wanted to make music that people related to and radio would play, but there wasn’t such a mission statement of ‘we gotta make a hit, we gotta make a hit.’ ”
“Innocence” might not come to many minds in reference to this particular group, nor would an indifference to hits. After all, Cheiron and Martin, on the back of Backstreet’s success, would eventually become synonymous with factory-like efficiency in pop songcraft. And the Backstreet Boys, despite racking up album sales figures that read like balance-sheet typos, would quickly become pop purists’ most convenient whipping boys.
But perhaps that reputation has more to do with the group’s timing than its quality. The Backstreet Boys’ commercial peak coincided with that of the record industry itself, an extended binge in which the group’s label Jive could blithely ship out 11 million copies of Millennium in a single year, confident that around 10 million of them would actually sell by Christmas.
Now that the industrywide spree has crashed to a halt, it’s easy to conflate the group with that era of decadence. Never mind the still-immense worldwide fanbase or the lengthy resume of hits that any radio-literate person can hum start-to-finish; the Boys were somehow seen as having skipped straight from “flash in the pan” to “nostalgia act” without a respectable, intervening career.
Brian Littrell acknowledges the abuse the group endured — that strange commixture of jealousy, musical puritanism and displaced gay panic that afflicts all boy bands from New Kids to One Direction — was a bit much in its early years. “The naysayers hurt in the beginning of your career,” he says. “They really do hurt when you’ve put your heart and soul into a record and people seem like they just live to bash it. Our skin has gotten a lot thicker now.”
And while the group posted fiscal figures high enough to elevate it above the slings and arrows of the rabble below, it never was immune to the call of credibility. The Boys longed to pursue different stylistic avenues back in their heyday, but were continually frustrated in their attempts to parlay commercial success into creative liberty.
Even when the group seemed to have agreed upon a new artistic direction, Richardson recalls, somehow the best-laid plans would be led astray. “It wasn’t divide-and-conquer, exactly,” he explains, “but (Jive) would express their concerns to us individually, and then before you know it, what we wanted to do as a group was what the record company had dictated.”
Now making records unsupervised for the first time in its career, the band has been keen to explore. Aside from the work with Martin, the group is cutting acoustic-based tracks with Martin Terefe and collaborating with young production duo Morgan and Prophet, assembling the record entirely independent of label interference. “We made it on our own, and we own this record,” Richardson says.
Of course, there’s always a danger in forging a new path after 20 years on the same one, but it’s a concern the group seems content to shrug off, confident the music industry’s new world order has space for them still.
“As long as the music is Backstreet being Backstreet, I don’t really think we can fail,” Littrell says. “There’s no number-counter out there that says, ‘if you don’t sell however many million copies in however long, you’re a failure.’ I don’t think the music business consists of that anymore.
“We’re old-school veterans at this point.”
Go-go ’90s Springboard
The Backstreet Boys are set to return with an album this year that includes all five original