Sometimes I think about what it would be like to be in control. Not in control of things of little consequence like public policy or foreign affairs, but important stuff like the new Backstreet Boys album. Do you ever think about it? About what it would be like to be calling the shots?
Let’s Sophia Petrillo this…
Picture it: New Jersey, 2016. I’m sitting across a table surrounded by five familiar faces. I look at each of them (maybe spending an extra beat locked onto Kevin’s green eyes) and I level with them.
“Guys, I love you. Really. I have since I was 11 years old. I’m almost 30 now and I gotta be honest…this democratic method of creating music has gone stale. Let’s do something different.”
At this point in my fantasy I don’t need to further explain my reasoning or proposal – the Boys are simply struck by my panache and immediately put me in charge of making their album (they also put me in charge of their website, fan club, and Nacho and Igby. They tried to put me in charge of Aaron but we’re still arguing about that). I have a feeling our readers aren’t quite as easygoing as my fantastical version of the Boys, however, and you might need more convincing. So as a favor to all of you I will battle against all of my natural instincts and actually explain myself. Here is my ideal treatment for the new Backstreet Boys album, which I hope encourages you to share your own ideas since we LOVE posting thoughts and opinions from the fans.
In our most recent fan spotlight piece, we were hit with a little behind the scenes information on what it’s like to work with the Boys. The parts that struck me were specifically tied to how having five different personalities/egos ultimately waters down the final product. I love the Boys for their passion and deep desire to be the driving creative force behind their own material. But what happens when that gets in the way of creating interesting music?
From strictly a perspective as a writer, I find it much easier to produce material on my own and develop it separate from other people. When Rose and I work together, we’re usually focused on digging up ideas and sorting out posting schedules – but overall, although we collaborate on the blog, we don’t step on each other’s toes in terms of what we’re writing. We allow that creativity to happen independently of one another. Generally, I think this allows for more centered material. If either of us works on something that the other person wants to piggyback off of, we can do that as well, which allows for us to take the inception of an idea and (smack it up) flip it (and move it all around). We can discuss the exact same thing and tackle it from totally different angles because we come from two distinctly different perspectives. In other words: we’re awesome.
NO! That wasn’t my point. My point really is that we know a lot of bloggers, specifically those that write about the Backstreet Boys, which would seem like a pretty confined space for a writer. But we all manage to do unique work that (we hope) gives people different flavors of a subject matter they adore. It keeps things fresh and exciting for fans of the group but also for us from the position of having a creative outlet. So now that I’ve rambled for three paragraphs I should probably – finally – give you my idea:
I want each Backstreet Boy to solely be in charge of producing two songs on the next album. Each Boy gets two tracks to do their version of what the Backstreet Boys should sound like. They would, of course, still be working with other writers and producers – but there would be no compromises with the other four Boys. There would be no democracy. What the Boy in charge says? It goes. They pick the music, lyrics, division of duties (who sings what parts) – all of it. Each Boy gets two tracks to show their stuff. Five additional songs would be recorded using their usual methodology of music making, leaving you with a 15 track album. Everyone gets a chance to be in charge. No one gets shorted on the final product. Including the fans! And let me tell you why…
The Boys keep doing the same music. The variation between their last five albums is marginal. That’s nearly 15 years of music that sounds like the equivalent of a musical median. For perspective, I like to compare their international debut album, Backstreet Boys, to Millennium. Backstreet Boys is heavier on beats and bass while Millennium really elevated the Boys’ harmony game. Both sound like the Backstreet Boys. Neither stands out as being particularly experimental and yet both have distinct qualities that can’t be mixed up. Litmus test: You can’t confuse a b-side from either era. Compare that to the b-sides from Black and Blue through Unbreakable and all of a sudden it’s not as easy tell where they fit (I’m guilty of always thinking Evergreen was a Never Gone b-side and I know a lot of fans that regularly confuse the tracks that made the albums on Never Gone, Unbreakable, and This Is Us). It appears that the main reason for the lack of change in their material is due to the fact that the Boys operate in a constant state of compromise. They compromise with each other, then their management, and at one time not long ago a record label.
Imagine every Backstreet Boys blogger getting together and combining our efforts to create a super blog, but instead of each doing our own writing we needed to write by committee. I can promise you, there would be very few paragraphs out of me that would be remain remotely interesting. There’s a reason why Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Arthur Miller never collaborated on a novel, okay? (Yes, I did just compare Backstreet Boys bloggers to the Beat Generation – fight me. Also: read work from the Beat Generation.) At some point, you inevitably compromise away the variance and return again to the median – the Backstreet Bell Curve, if you will.
Musically, the middle of that bell curve is pretty loaded. Almost all of the Boys greatest hits fit in that middle section with a rare exception here and there (I’d make the case for The Call and Larger Than Life with Everybody and We’ve Got It Going On being in the conversation). In this case, the bell curve could be substituted with the word ‘banal’ and it would work exactly the same.
What makes them all sound similar? Well, it starts with the same lead vocalists – a subject we tackled recently on the blog. One way to change the sound without experimenting like you’re Prince or something is ridiculously simple: change up the lead vocalists. If we die without hearing a song that just features Kevin and Howie, the Boys have failed us. That alone would get a LOT of attention from the fans. And the brilliance of it is that you can’t create a song featuring only those two that sounds like the Backstreet Boys. It will have to sound different just because they’re two voices we rarely hear together and have never heard isolated on a track.
Another method of changing up what has become a bit of a tired sound is going back to basics: add more complicated harmonies. Way back when the blog first started we did a post featuring Dan The Man which discussed the Boys’ best arrangements. We followed it up with a post on how these fellas used to ROCK THE SHIT out of counter-melodies. They’ve moved further away from those sorts of arrangements and vocally challenging set ups. Why? Bring it back!
My final recommendation would be another pretty basic suggestion: use real instruments. It is sort of weird to say it, but this has become a unique approach to….making music. I am not a huge fan of Nick’s most recent solo release, All American, but he nailed the music side of things. It has guitars, and drums, and HORNS, and bass and you can hear all of it. The production on that album was definitely an improvement on some of the shoddy production we’ve seen on BSB albums (*cough*Unbreakable*cough*). Keep the music sharp, because while it goes largely unnoticed, it’s actually the reason we like you.
Now, if each Boy were to work on their own songs and did so without worry about creating music by numbers, there’s a much better chance you see a lot more of the above. Nick favors drums, Kevin the piano, and Brian acoustic guitar – each Boy would bring that preference to their own songs. Similarly, some of the Boys have discussed favoring using all five of their voices for leads on a single song. At other times they’ve recognized that it makes more sense to stay focused on fewer vocalists (think Try or Incomplete). So if Howie is working on his two songs, maybe Howie gives Howie all of the leads on one of them and everyone just deals.
It might not be the perfect method for creating an album but I’d argue that there is no way it could turn out as watered down as any of their recent releases. I think it’s likely the Boys would still compromise on the songs they developed but not to the same extent as they do during a normal album cycle. They would all have their own creative space to work within and ultimately would get to push the music into a direction they think it should go. I’d imagine someone like AJ would push so far in one direction that his tracks would be immediately recognizable and distinguished from the others. And that’s the point – to create something that stands out as being unique! When his tracks bump up against Brian’s, you’d probably need to make sure you were listening to the same album. This is a good thing! Give me something to chew on that’s not gone stale.
As much as I love them to death, their work lately has felt like a derivative of the Backstreet Boys as opposed to the definition of it. I want them to stop worrying about sounding like themselves and start developing material measured against something besides what they’ve already done.
Too radical? Too preachy? Too many references to Backstreet Boys bloggers? Yell at me in the comments, on Twitter, or on the forum. Better yet – email us with YOUR ideas for how they should go about creating their next album!