The Backstreet Boys (BSB) are the best-selling boy band of all time. That's not an opinion, that's fact: the BSB have sold more records than 'N Sync, the Jackson 5, New Kids on the Block, and Boyz II Men. This is an especially impressive feat when you consider that, at the height of their popularity, the majority of the Boys were already men. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, BSB enjoyed massive success and a steady stream of catchy number-one hits. They titillated tweens with racy lyrics like, "If you want it to be good, girl, get yourself a bad boy," provided helpful (if vague) dance directions like, "Get down, get down, and move it all around," and inspired nerdy fans like yours truly to get their braces colored with alternating rubber bands in anticipation of their then-new album, Black & Blue.
More than anything, BSB provided fans with our first glimpses into the laws of love and relationships. It's been almost 20 years since BSB gyrated their way into pop-culture consciousness, but it appears that Backstreet’s back. (All right!) They made a memorable cameo in This is The End, dropped their new album, In a World Like This, last week, and are sporting a whole new look. Actually, I lied. They pretty much look the same. Brian's still got those cheekbones, Kevin's eyebrows are more impressive than ever, and A.J. is still trying so hard to be weird. Howie did lose the slicked-back ponytail, thank God, Nick appears to have dropped some weight, and the band no longer wears matching denim outfits.
In a World Like This couldn’t help but make me think about BSB's long history, and the invaluable love lessons they taught us.
1. You don't matter.
"As Long As You Love Me" was one of BSB's first hit singles, therefore it was also one of my first real lessons about love and relationships. Let's take a closer look at the core lyrics:
“I don’t care who you are / Where you’re from / What you did / As long as love you me.”
Heavy stuff. There are two main takeaways from this. First, the only thing that matters in a relationship is that the guy feels loved. It doesn’t matter who you are. You could be an escapee from the insane asylum, a baby-seal clubber, a serial killer, or all three. Nor does where you’re from (you could be fresh from the state penitentiary), nor what you did to end up there. As long as you love him, the relationship will work. For him.
Second, this potential mate doesn’t care who you are. Don’t be surprised. He just said it three different ways. At least he’s being upfront. Isn’t that kind of honesty refreshing? Yes? Good. Now that we’re in agreement, let’s also agree there’s no need to waste his time sharing all your little quirks: what makes you tick, why you sometimes prefer crunchy over creamy, the fact that you played piano for eight years and still only know one song by heart, why you killed all those people. Remember: the only thing interesting about you is that you love this guy.
Follow these two rules, and you’ll have a lot of relationships! (I didn’t say they’d be successful ones.)
2. Love can be a matter of life and death.
In revisiting BSB's poetry, I've realized just how precarious love can be. In many songs, the survival of the relationship in question is, inexplicably, a matter of life or death. Take, for example, this sampling from a few classics:
"But my love is all I have to give/Without you I don't think I can live" — "All I Have to Give"
"Although loneliness has always been a friend of mine/I'm leavin' my life in your hands."
— As Long As You Love Me
"I'll never break your heart/I'll never make you cry/I'd rather die than live without you."
— "I'll Never Break Your Heart"
That’s a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone the impressionable 13-year-old girls listening to these songs on repeat. No wonder we were all so stressed back then! Someone’s life was at stake!
3. Express yourself.
When words failed them, BSB always found creative ways to express themselves. And by “creative ways,” I obviously mean over-elaborate hand-gesture dances. In every video, the Boys point their fingers at themselves, their hearts, or the camera. Anytime a song contained the word “two” or “too,” you better believe they were sticking up a couple fingers. And at the climax of every song, Kevin could be seen in the background, thrusting his chest and arms up to the sky, as if to ask God the question that every boy band's old guy must ask: “Why am I here?”
BSB are the reason that when I first said, “I love you” to a guy, I said it not with my words, but with my entire body. I pointed to my eye, traced a heart shape over my training-bra’d chest, and then pointed to my boyfriend, all while mouthing the words and gyrating my hips to a nonexistent beat. I also fake-cried, to really drive home the point, since I always saw Nick do it in videos.
4. How to free a guy from his girlfriend in 10 words
That's easy. Just sing these 10 little words from BSB’s chart-topper “The Call,” a cautionary tale of lust, deception, infidelity, and early cell phone use: "Hi, I got a little place nearby, want to go?"
So what if he, "should've said no"? So what if "someone's waiting for" him? You and your 10 little words just “changed his destiny.” And who knows, the guy in question may write a massive hit about the experience. Congratulations, you just inspired pop genius. Dang, you’re good.
5. Bad boys vs. good boys
“If you want it to be good, girl, get yourself a bad boy.”
This always confused me. On the one hand, this advice did not match my 10 years of experience. On the other hand, I was 10 and had no reason to believe that BSB would ever, you know, BS me. I was never convinced that any of them were bad boys. (Except for A.J. I knew A.J. was a bad boy because he had tattoos and a chin stud and wore all black. And I sensed he couldn’t commit.)
But when I was 10, the baddest boy I actually knew was my friend Ryan, who snuck into the PG-13 film Titanic so he could see Kate Winslet's boobs. Because I didn’t know a lot of bad boys, I was forced to draw conclusions from what I did know: good boys. Back then, the best good boy I knew was Nick Carter. It was clear that the band was my only real link to boys in general. I created a list to help me distinguish between the two types. Bad boys (aka A.J.) have tattoos, have long hair, have been shaving since they were six, have piercings, close their eyes while singing, have never cried, and could commit but choose not to. Good boys (aka Nick) have a baby face, have a bowl cut, rock peach fuzz, have a maximum of two diamond studs, close their eyes while singing, cry often (especially while singing), and can't commit because they love their mom.
6. Good looks and decent dance moves can help you get away with a lot
If you can commit to a consistent skin-care routine and keep a basic rhythm, you’ll get away with a lot. Just look at some of the things the fresh-faced, gyrating Boys got away with. Lame analogies like,"You hit me faster than a shark attack," in "Don't Want You Back." Using weird variants of normal words: "Sadness is beautiful / Loneliness is tragical," in "Shape of my Heart." Nonsensical raps that seemed superfluous, but which you memorized anyway:
"Bang, bang, bang/Here we come/Here we slam/It's the fun factory/With the BSBs / Get on your knees / Tryin' to scream / Or touch me please/Backstreet Boys/Are you with it/A.J., hit it!/Come on girl and get down/Smack it up/Flip it/And move it all around/Here it is, if you want to get with this/Put you at the top of my list."
I wanted to be at the top of A.J.’s list so badly that I didn’t even wonder about what, exactly, I’d be smacking, flipping, and moving all around.
They also got away with hanging out at playgrounds at night and having impromptu male wet T-shirt contests, like in the video for “Quit Playing Games With My Heart”:
and moments like this:
and also this:
Actually, this is pretty awesome.
7. Greatness isn't always recognized.
Even though BSB dominated the radio and Total Request Live year after year, with album after album of pop hit after pop hit, the band was never honored with a Grammy Award. They were nominated, sure, but always ended up losing to U2 or Santana. It seems that BSB could have taught the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences a thing or two about love, as well.