Backstreet Boys: Counter Melody Killers

After our very special Independence Day post about the Backstreet Boys’ harmonies, I found myself being particularly aware of their vocal arrangements.   DanTheMan’s instructional harmony videos played no small part in my newest obsession, but there was one particular answer he provided that got my wheels turning.

I thought I had been imagining things but Dan confirmed that the Boys’ harmonies have regressed a bit in terms of complexity over the years.  It could be for a number of reasons and I was trying to figure out exactly what has been missing from their more recent albums.  I couldn’t quite pinpoint it until I went back to listen to a few of my favorite tracks from Millennium.   Now please keep in mind I’m not half the expert that Dan is on this topic, but I’m hoping I can flesh out a key factor I think the Boys should focus on for their next release: the counter melody.

A counter melody is a melody that’s played or sung simultaneously with the main melody of a song.  Think of it like an episode of Friends – you have a main storyline, often referred to as the A storyline, and another smaller storyline to follow during an episode, a B storyline (and potentially C storyline sprinkled in!).  There was one episode of Friends where there is a blackout in New York City.  All of the Friends, sans Chandler, are stuck in Monica’s apartment sitting around candlelight as Ross laments his lack of courage when it comes to asking Rachel to go out on a date with him.  The A storyline here is happening in Monica’s apartment.  The B storyline is happening with Chandler, who ended up locked in an ATM vestibule with Victoria Secret model Jill Goodacre.  Make sense?  Good.

Now let’s apply this to a Backstreet Boys’ song.  I’m going to use a personal favorite, Don’t Want to Lose You Now.  The melody for Don’t Want to Lose You Now is easily identified in the chorus (00:51):

Don’t wanna lose you now

Baby, I know we can win this

Don’t wanna lose you now

No no, or ever again

Are you singing it?  I’m singing it.  This chorus represents the A storyline.  It’s the main focus of the song and the melody that the rest of the verses are built around.

As the song progresses past the first two choruses, AJ sets up the climax of the song (02:26) and instead of breaking back into the traditional chorus that’s been repeated, they lead into this (02:46):

Don’t wanna lose to loneliness

Girl I know we can win

Don’t wanna lose to emptiness, oh no

Never again

This is the counter melody.  This is the part where the Friends’ episode cuts to Chandler telling a beautiful woman that gum would be perfection.

In typical Max Martin mastery, he delivers a beautiful arrangement to close the song where some of the Boys revert back to singing the standard melody while some of the Boys continue to sing the counter melody (03:06):

Don’t wanna lose you now

(Don’t wanna lose to loneliness)

Baby, I know we can win this

(Girl I know we can win)

Don’t wanna lose you now

(Don’t wanna lose to emptiness, oh no)

No no, or ever again

The melody and counter melody play off of each other and weave in and out seamlessly. It’s – dare I say – perfection.

Millennium had other songs that utilized this quite a bit.  The One is a song that’s simple on the surface but musically pretty complicated.  It follows a similar pattern to Don’t Want to Lose You Now as it has a main melody for the chorus (00:52), followed by the introduction of a counter melody (02:35), finally wrapping it up by combining the two flawlessly (03:17).

Max Martin created a pop treasure from start to finish on Millennium and the Boys were able to elevate the music with their ability to hold these melodies and keep the timing right.  Their performances of both of these songs during the monster tour in 1999-2000 were on point – and that’s when they were playing in the round, with sound bouncing all over the damn place.  They made it look and sound easy, to the point that most of those in the audience never recognized the skill level required to pull it off.

Millennium wasn’t the first time we’ve heard a counter melody from the Boys, however.  As Long As You Love Me introduces a counter melody during the final choruses (02:41) and Quit Playing Games flirts with it (03:30).  I like to think of this as Max’s training for the future music making that was to come.

I’d love for the Boys to try to get back to reintroducing this sort of arrangement into their future material.  They’ve talked for over two decades now about how they’re a vocal harmony group, first and foremost.  With that in mind, I’d like to see them make an effort to push the boundaries more on a musical level.

For example, the song Make Believe, which appears on the In a World Like This album, again flirts with the concept of the counter melody but doesn’t fully incorporate it the way that their earlier songs had.   Here they introduce the chorus (00:50), then a lovely bridge (2:36), and at the end they reintroduce the bridge but fall short of integrating it with the chorus (03:55).  I wish they would have pushed this just a bit further, since the two complementary pieces work so well together.  That being said, it’s a testament to Max’s creativity and production skills that he was able to pull this off so often without it creating a cacophony of noise.  He was also able to integrate it on a number of tracks without the formula going stale.

Feel free to share any particularly complex harmonies/arrangements I haven’t touched on and ideas about what YOU would like to hear from the Boys vocally on the next album in the comments section or over at The Darkside forum!