Heart-Shaped Box


The combatants are practically identical. They are characterless products of focus groups; their fight is fiercely contested. Despite being in a supposed competition, they represent the interests of the same small group of big-money concerns. And they are fighting it out for absolute supremacy: The stakes are the free world, but the stage is Florida. Aside from these, there are no similarities between the battle of the boy bands and the battle of the candidates.

Cosmetically, there might be less difference between the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync than between Billy Carter and the Goretron 3000. If I had to match them up, I would say the Boys are more likely to select Jesus as their favorite philosopher; Brian Littrell divides his page in Black & Blue‘s liner notes between a Psalm and a personal thank-you to the Lord. Meanwhile, the vice president’s penchant for peppy blondes makes him a bit more of a Sync-piece.

What makes the parallel contests most similar is the staggering shift away from judging the suitability of the players. In placing emotional weight on the mechanics of choice, the counting mania distracts from the sameness of the choosees, but it also lets them off the hook of having to be any good in the first place. We have moved on to a world in which the topic is no longer who’s better, but who’s the winner. And just like that, we can morph from talking presidents to talking pop. It’s not that big a leap. Over 100 million teenpop units have entered circulation in the last four years, and when you discuss what half a nation does with its money, politics is what you are talking about.

The lengths to which the Backstreet machine has gone to outpoll ‘N Sync’s record-setting 2.4 million opening-week sales are zany. In a six-day blitz, the band gave hand jobs to media types and select fans on six continents. Fuck Antarctica, they don’t vote anyway. The Lead Entertainment Purchasers (known in the industry as LEPers) at Best Buy and Wal-Mart received a new summer house and a personal space station, respectively. A field agent from MSO, the Boys’ publicists, actually came to my apartment in Brooklyn, gave me a relaxing Reiki massage, and then offered an exegesis while mixing martinis. “Black & Blue,” explained the Talmud scholar-in-waiting, “by Jive Records artists the Backstreet Boys, has facing-page spreads for each individual member photo. In the book for No Strings Attached, by Jive Records artists ‘N Sync, they each got a lone page. What’s more, Black & Blue begins with three Max Martin songs. No Strings led with two.” “Is that really any way to judge?” I wondered. “After all, Oops! . . . I Did It Again, by Jive Records artist Britney Spears, opens with three Max Martin songs, follows ’em with a Jagger/Richards and a Lange/Twain. After a throwaway from Max’s personal assistants, three of the next four are Martin again. And there are like 20 pictures of her. So by your logic that would be the best record ever made.”

“My point exactly,” he sighed, smartly folding my laundry. “What I wouldn’t give to represent her—I’d separate the whites and coloreds for every household in America!” At this point I inquired how come it was, then, that Ms. Spears’s disc sold a million copies fewer in its debut week than ‘N Sync’s.

My intrepid publicist muttered something about varied market structures and the absence of the Hello Kitty phenomenon: how boys don’t come together to bond over their crypto-sexual obsessions. When he noticed he’d lost me, he just shook his head sadly. “It’s different for girls.” Returning to the matter at hand, he threw me the Backstreet Boys gang sign, whispered, “Stand by your band,” and slipped off to water Robert Christgau’s begonias.

It was all in vain. The record was destined to sell a paltry 1.6 mil, falling short of ‘N Sync’s mark by about 800,000. But mourn ye not for the Backstreet Boys; that’s still the third-biggest opening ever. If you’re determined to feel desolate, mourn for the kids. They may be on the verge of losing something far more important than a popularity contest. They may be on the verge of losing Max Martin.

Max Martin works in a genre where records are measured by opening sales, which are driven by lead singles. This year alone, he has written lead singles for ‘N Sync, Britney, and the Backstreet Boys: three of the four biggest openings ever, totaling 5.4 million albums in America alone, just in those weeks. Max Martin the reticent Swede, former hair-metal loser, protégé of Denniz PoP and inheritor of PoP’s Cheiron studios, is the most successful songwriter in history. He may also be the best. And the main thing that Black & Blue has to say is that Max could be over. He has four songs total on the new record; you’ve already heard the best of them, the par-for-the-course-tastic “Quit Playing Games With The Shape Of My Heart Which Just Happens To Be All I Have To Give, Everybody.” The others are desultory and occasionally mean. As a songwriter, Max may in fact be toast. If you are nine years old, or are comfortable with your inner preteen, this is akin to the Beatles breaking up.

Given this, I propose that Black & Blue‘s underperformance is actually a good sign for teenpop. As insane as this might sound, especially if you’ve ever toiled in a band called Expando Brain or once broke into three-figure sales in the Dutch Antilles, Black & Blue is a commercial failure. It’s also an aesthetic failure. If I had anything nice to say about it, I would’ve said it earlier—more of my famed politeness.

In an ideal world, there would be only great teenpop records, and they would sell like hotcakes, and then everyone would mail three dollars to Yo La Tengo and Aimee Mann out of the goodness of the shape of their hearts. But the next best thing is when lousy records don’t sell as much as the hype machine promises. As long as there’s a matchup between quality and success—even a tenuous one, even in such a strange case as this—it means the kids are still able to distinguish between the hype and the hot rock. If this record moved 2.5 mil out of the box, kids and their personal shoppers/parents are just slaves. But hovering like a ghost around those missing sales is the possibility that judgment is being used. Max Martin or not, fans are holding out for better songs. I believe that children are the future.

But where will that future take place? It’s not by chance that teenpop comes from Florida, because Florida is America’s frontier. Used to be California, the edge of the West—and that’s where all the good music once came from, and all the creepy presidents. But there’s no more West, nowhere to go but into the dream. The final frontier opens into simulation; the gates are called Disney World and Epcot Center, Fantasy Island and Busch Gardens. The next crop of teenpop heroes, and their maxed-out programmers, will inevitably arise from an even purer form of simulation. They will spring to life full-blown from PlayStation 2, the capital of the 21st century.