Sells Like Teen Spirit

In short, the Backstreet Boys filled a vast gap created by the same trendy greed that now has bizzers so hungry for teen pap they're bidding on a Letterman-conceived BSB parody act. Not that Nick, AJ, Howie D, Keith, and Brian located this gap by themselves. They were organized in 1993— in paradigmatic Orlando, the new Hollywood of suburbanized America— by an entrepreneur they sued last year for taking $10 million of their money. But these showbiz kids were astutely conceptualized. Not only could they all sing, they weren't simply safe— AJ and Howie D, both of whom just happen to be half Hispanic, are spunky-punky sparkplugs who let you know where their crotches are. And after staging a breakthrough in Europe, where the teenypop factories have sickened mass culture theorists for generations, they proved themselves with 1997's U.S.-decaplatinum Backstreet Boys. Of course, while only a teenaged boy could deny teenaged girls their right to 'N Sync 'n such, other music fans obviously have a right to ignore the whole business. But as a partisan of many subcultures not my own, I wouldn't think of it. Between the European craft of the mysterious Max Martin and his cronies, including the late Ace of Base mastermind Denniz PoP, and the American sincerity of the natural-blond dreamboat Nick Carter and his cronies, including clarion choirboy Littrell, Backstreet Boys opens up a way of hearing if you give it a chance and a half. It captures a moment of nascent eroticism. It makes virginity seem like the start of something.

If this effect is a collaboration between pop-wise bizzers and genial young entertainers who got lucky (and who have now signed with the forward-looking firm that manages Korn), it's also a collaboration between entertainers on a mission and the ecstatic girls who idealize them. The title of "Larger Than Life," the Martin-cowritten lead rocker on Millennium, doesn't refer to performers raised up by their fans: "Every time we're down/You can make it right." It's the next line that's the kicker: "And that makes you larger than life." Take this empowerment-mongering twist on the love-song-to-the-audience gambit as a way of assuring girls that they're too good to settle for masculinist posing. It's a stroke I can't wait to hear on the radio, probably during the fall tour the special will pave the way for while BSB do Europe this summer. Meanwhile we've got the new video, where the Boys run through the baffling "I Want It That Way" at an LAX transfigured primarily by the extras— fans as genuine as the teens at the Amsterdam, who mimed the Boys' made-for-MTV gestures while singing along with the song as if they knew what it meant. Which maybe they did: some were sure "that way" signified love-making, others dreamed togetherness, and all of them figured the song's "two worlds apart" were the two sides of a stage not one of them rushed, although tales of security breaches riddle the teen mags.

The empowerment here is strictly symbolic, no one including the Backstreet Boys would be stupid enough to deny it— including, I'll warrant, all but the most dazzled of their fans. A competing Spice Girls variation that didn't end up trailing hordes of eight-year-olds would balance the gender politics nicely. And if they escape the teen-idol cul-de-sac at all they'll probably serve soup until they can finance a theme park. But, hell— merely for righteous work already accomplished, they deserve one.

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