The Backstreet Boys had already established themselves in Europe by the mid 90s, but it took a few extra years to tap into the American market. Things really began to pick up for them in 1997-98 and they’d soon become pop music forces of nature. That being said, it’s always easiest to get more candid interviews with artists when they’re just coming into the tipping point of their fame. It was no different for the Boys and there’s an interview from 1998 with SPIN magazine that some older fans might remember as causing a stir.
It’s not a flattering piece. For anyone (aside from maybe Kevin and Brian.. we’ll get to that).
The article features some pointed discussion on homosexuality, a bitter Donnie Wahlberg, a sympathetic Brian, and a shallow portrait of some of the Boys’ views on beauty.
I’ll say this now before we get to the dissecting: the Boys, particularly Nick, are very young at this point. I don’t think an interview like this would have ended up in print by 1999. The writer, Maureen Callahan, makes some references to the Boys’ professional public personas that I find pretty accurate, but there’s also a clear angle on the article that is designed to highlight the hypocrisy of teen heartthrobs. She may not be wrong in approaching the article in this manner but it colors the entire piece.
*Deep breath* Ready? Okay let’s go!
The Boys are introduced, and already the writer’s soft spot for Brian is revealed:
Eighteen-year-old Nick Carter is by far the most popular Boy-he’s the youngest and looks a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio. Then there’s 20-year-old A.J. “Bone” McLean, who-with his three tattoos, wacky facial hair, and 200 pairs of tinted sunglasses-is either a cliché or kinda dangerous, depending on your age. Howie Dorough, 24, answers to Howie D. or Sweet D. He lives at home, and aside from a Corvette Stingray, his most extravagant post-fame purchase has been central heat and AC. Howie hooked up with Nick and A.J. back in 1993, when they were all auditioning for TV shows here in their native Orlando. Kevin Richardson, now 27, responded to an ad placed by a talent agency; he then called his cousin, Brian Littrell. Unlike the others, who were looking to get famous any way they could, 23-year-old Brian had nursed dreams of singing professionally. In fact, back in high school, he’d wander the halls crooning New Kids tunes. “People looked at me like it was a sissy thing,” Brian says, “but I didn’t care. I would’ve given anything to do what they were doing.”
A couple of interesting points here: though the Boys had maintained for years that they put themselves together, there’s a bit more leeway given here as they acknowledge Kevin’s response to an ad. They had waffled on this point for a couple of years in the late 90s. Then there’s the bit about the others “looking to get famous any way they could,” which seems to be a reference to the fact that Aj, Nick, Howie, and Kevin were all involved in acting as well as singing – but still comes off as a slight.
Though they may be five men who dress alike, pop-and-lock in sync, and routinely dodge stuffed animals onstage, the Backstreet Boys-and Wright-predictably run from any and all comparisons to NKOTB. Still, while creating and refining their image, Wright called ex-New Kid Donnie Wahlberg and asked him to give Backstreet advice. Wahlberg passed. “Johnny Wright learned a lot from us,” Wahlberg says ruefully. Now 28 years old and cobbling together an acting career, Wahlberg understands all too well the ups and downs of being a teen heartthrob. “If there’s any resistance to the Backstreet Boys,” he says, “it’s probably because of us.”
Andddd there’s Donnie. Hard to believe at the time of this interview Donnie was 28 and at probably the lowest point of his career and Kevin was 27 and on the upswing.
THREE HOURS BEFORE THE SHOW, THE HOUSE OF BLUES OPENS its doors to 17-year-old Leslie, who is confined to a wheelchair. The band’s tour publicist, Denise (who is also A.J.’s mom), had mentioned the Boys would be busy entertaining “a little handicapped girl” before the concert, but Leslie isn’t the one. She doesn’t care; it’s her birthday, and she’s just spotted Nick roaming the hall. She’s so rattled she inadvertently crumples her Backstreet Boys calendar. As Nick perfunctorily wishes Leslie a happy birthday, he spies two able-bodied girls lurking not five feet away, and he’s off. Later, as he passes Leslie on his way backstage, she goes for it again: “Nick! Nick!” she implores, hands clawing air. Nick, who possesses a finely calibrated sense of detachment, pretends not to hear her. “Oh,” Leslie whispers to herself. “Bye.”
*Sigh* At this point in their careers now that the Boys are a little more accessible, running into them is a lot more likely. But it also means the chances of getting blown off by them has also shot up. I’ve never taken anything like this all that personally – the Boys have been dealing with fan encounters for the better part of 20 years. It must be somewhat draining and you simply can’t get to everyone. I did find Callahan’s phrasing on one point pretty interesting. I’ve heard fans talk about that “finely calibrated sense of detachment” in reference to Nick before, though put in less eloquent terms. Now might be a good time to mention that the subheading of the article’s title included the line, “Their young fans absolutely adore them, but, Maureen Callahan wonders, is the feeling entirely mutual?”
“….their success has spawned a slew of harmonizing teen hopefuls, such as ‘N Sync, Five, No Authority, and 911-none of which have yet to register with the kids.”
None of which have yet to register with the kids….. HA!!! Okay back to the more serious stuff…
Though Wright maintains that the Boys are “very much in control of what they do,” both Kevin and Howie have flinched over Wright’s tactics. “We don’t wanna be in a certain situation,” says Howie, gently alluding to the New Kids’ career trajectory, “but we have links to certain situations.”
Oh Howie. Forever the diplomat. I re-read this a couple of times and a few things stuck out: the Boys, regardless of how their on again, off again relationship with Johnny played out, seemed to already be a bit weary of his approach to the business. Or maybe I’m reading into that too deeply? Still, I can’t remember the Boys referencing the hard fall of the New Kids and how that may have been tied to their management strategies.
After making the video for “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” Kevin, aghast at the sight of himself bare-chested and wet, demanded a reshoot. The record company shooed him away. After their album was finally released here last August, Kevin called the president of Jive and griped that all the merchandising-Sweet Valley High inserts, throw pillows, bandannas, key chains-was out of hand. He was told to suck it up.
Kevin and Brian appear to come off the best in this interview. I do vividly recall opening up my first Backstreet Boys album to find a small merchandise packet including order forms. Does anyone still have those pillows?! You sort of have to love the balls on a guy that’s in a teen heartthrob group calling up the president of his record company to complain.
Now it’s Donnie’s turn to give some not remotely mercenary advice.
“There’s always gonna be a market of little girls who wanna hang cute boys on their walls,” says Dave McPherson, Jive’s assistant VP of A&R, who signed the Boys in May 1994. Wahlberg is even less tolerant of such whining: “Look, if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, you’re gonna tap into a frenzied marketplace,” he says. “Teenage girls have an insatiable appetite.”
Then… there’s this story that Callahan weaves throughout the piece. I’ve broken the paragraph thread down into three parts. This is where she drives home the contrast between what teenage girls are sold and want to buy into verses the reality of young, talented, rich and famous young men.
Still, the real highlight of any show comes during “I’ll Never Break Your Heart,” when Howie, Kevin, and Nick – in a move conceived by Wright – serenade three lucky fans, pre-plucked by security. As the girls tremble under spotlights, the Boys, swathed in white, gallantly seat each at a small table, then fall to their knees like lovesick troubadours. Tonight, Howie and Kevin pull it off aplomb; Nick, however, is laughing so hard he’s reduced to lip-synching. He gives his girl a buddy pat on the back; she shoots him a quizzical look, but he keeps his head bowed. He’s still laughing.
[Another fan] cradles a slip of memo paper and reads a quote of Nick’s that she copied: “Everyone wants a girl with a perfect personality; it doesn’t really matter how they look.” Does she believe boys when they say stuff like that? “Not all boys,” she answers softly. “But Nick, I would believe.”
But Nick’s obviously amused by the frenzied adulation-for instance, he could barely contain himself onstage just four nights ago. “The joke was on Howie,” says Brian, who explains that security likes to play “little pranks” to break up the monotony. Nick bounces with delight, like a baby in a high chair. “Howie ended up with a not-so-pretty girl,” he says, wiping errant chunks of tuna from his chin. “Do you remember her? Do you?” Oh, sure–she was one of the heavier ones, right? “Aaaahhhh, yeah,” Nick says, with strained diplomacy. “I got my girl, Kevin got his girl, and the last girl was Howie’s. He got stuck, and he made this face like, ‘I’m gonna kill somebody.'” He shrugs. “It was funny.”
Okay… again, I’ll reiterate that I do understand young men will be young men with young men egos and young men world views, but damn if it’s not hard to swallow in black and white. I was only about 11/12 years old when this interview was released and am positive I never read it at the time (not that many pre-teens had access to SPIN magazine), but if I did, I kind of wonder how I might have felt. Based on some of the responses the article received from fans (which were published in a followup issue and can be read here), it sounds like there were a lot of hurt people out there. The above is the bit that got the most attention, but there had been another piece I found compelling:
A COUPLE OF DAYS AFTER THE HOUSE OF BLUES GIG, THE BOYS ARE IN NEW YORK City for a photo shoot. They hug-they perform this ritual constantly, even after only a half-hour apart-then circle a gaggle of models as though they’ve encountered unidentified life forms. Johnny Wright says that during the junior-high tour, he made sure that the kids knew that “A.J. loves cars, Howie loves clothes, and Nick, Brian, and Kevin love sports. We wanted to show that these are regular guys”-i.e., not gay. The courtship of teen girls dictates that the Boys remain publicly unattached, and this makes them sensitive to the notion they are anything but heterosexual.
Sort of makes you feel for what Lance Bass had to go through under Johnny’s tool age, no? And the ‘regular guys-i.e.: not gay’ bit might be Callahan’s interpretation but it sounds like it’s more than a peripheral inference. The words ‘sissy,’ ‘macho,’ ‘gay,’ and ‘f*ggot’ all appear in this article.
Howie understands it’s “not macho” to be into Backstreet, but says if the band were black, they’d get compared to Boyz II Men or Shai, and boys would be down.
This is a sentiment that Kevin repeated in one of the Boys’ early Rolling Stone interviews. The interviewer correctly clapped back that they might also not have sold so many albums which Kevin reluctantly acknowledges as true.
Here, too, Donnie Wahlberg can empathize. “But instead of worrying about who’s not paying attention to them,” Wahlberg says, “they should worry about who is. Because once these girls get older and start drinking beer and piercing their noses,” he says, “theys (sic) are going away.”
For a guy that wasn’t interested in giving the Boys any advice directly, Donnie sure pops up a lot in this interview. But I guess giving advice freely doesn’t put your name in print so… yeah. That being said, I don’t disagree with him here in terms of the weak remarks on race and how it would translate into respect. When they repeated these trope, the Boys came off sounding very unaware of the advantage their ‘wholesome’ (read: white) presentation offered.
Is there a bad taste in your mouths that needs washing out? Remember, I did say Callahan had a soft spot for Brian. Maybe this is why:
While the others chat up the models, Brian stands off in the back. He’s the only Boy who’s not really comfortable schmoozing or even accepting compliments; by nature, he’s quiet and reserved. (While the rest of the Boys went clubbing after the Orlando show, Brian hung with his 50-year-old dad, who was visiting from Kentucky.) Right now, he can’t get his mind off the “little handicapped girl” A.J.’s mom brought backstage in Orlando; she’s actually battling two forms of cancer. “I didn’t know how to approach her,” says Brian, whose most vivid childhood memory is of doctors strapping him to his hospital bed and beating his chest till he was in tears, hoping to break up a staph infection that went straight to his heart. (About a year ago, Brian’s heart began leaking blood, and he underwent surgery last month.) “I wanted to say, ‘Listen, I’m getting ready to have an operation, too.’ So I went over to her mother and told her that, and her mother said, ‘Oh, my daughter could tell you a lot of things.'” His eyes widen. “Can you imagine?”
Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!! Okay I feel like ending on that note makes this all a little easier to reflect on. Do you?
You can read the article in its entirety here.
Do you have any memorable interviews with the Boys you’d like to see on our blog? Let us know in the comments below.