50,000,000 Backstreet Boys' fans can be wrong

The sweat-drenched rock 'n' rollers of the '50s knew all about good and evil. Forty years later, the Backstreet Boys are singing love songs to their moms. How did pop music get this insipid?

Published June 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The battle for rock 'n' roll's soul started out as a straightforward tug of
war between god and the devil over the eternal fate of teenagers. Those sweat-drenched primal screamers of the '50s knew all about good and evil. They wiggled their whatsits to a thrusting beat and leered out of hi-fi radios in easily decipherable forni-code. The world wasn't quite ready for an all-out generation landslide, but what was shaking in the back seats of those four-wheeled shrines of postwar prosperity must have seemed -- reproductive evidence quite to the contrary -- like something Mom and Dad would never have done, and certainly wouldn't have sung about.

But those satanic verses sure did exist, and the proof comes tumbling out of Rhino Records' new "Loud, Fast, & Out of Control" box (subtitled "The Wild Sounds of '50s Rock") like silver dollars out of a slot machine. These four CDs are packed with chewy passion candies, bite-sized treats pungent with the urges of youth. This sentimental education holds proof of a dozen different truths (like the joys of sax and the fact that the devil does have the best tunes). The 104 tracks achieve a nearly unanimous standard of vigor and intensity, prodded by unhinged abandon or unmistakably bad intentions and nuanced into profundity by the artists' inscrutable mix of raw talent and dumb luck.

At the time, these records helped teenagers embrace the revolutionary belief that youth is more than a condition on the path to adulthood, and that adulthood might not be the only goal in life. In synch with films of the day ("The Wild One," "Rebel Without a Cause"), they institutionalized the division between parents and their offspring, and gave birth to the generation gap. Rock 'n' roll could be simply -- and definitively -- defined as music kids liked and their parents couldn't stand. It spoke for itself, ignored social convention (including prevailing prejudices), undermined authority and couldn't sit still for as long as it took a record to finish playing.

Today's short-attention-span kids no longer have much reason to value rock's tradition, and they've been rewarded by bands all but oblivious to it. Exposure to MTV, hip-hop, power producers and hit records by rappers, dance acts and style-crossing female singers has evolved a new consumer who, if not quite color-blind, is free of racial brand loyalty to the sound and symbols of electric guitar rock. Songwriting is no longer the dividing line between pop and serious artist. Timeless melodies are no longer the holy ghost of music. Blueprints that once defined music of quality and distinction -- originality, imagination, insight, individuality, creative ambition -- have been erased, copied over. What's left is insipid pop in its purest form -- meaningless, disposable, conformist, reactionary.

In other words, the Backstreet Boys, whose new album, "Millennium," is so controlled that it could probably be launched to the moon. The most popular thing to come out of Florida since oranges is well-crafted, market-tested product, to be sure, but it's hard to hear where the bug-eyed rockers jammed into the Rhino box could have mistakenly sown the seeds that would have sprouted them. Maybe the Backstreeters, who work with a Swedish Ace of Base producer and became overseas stars before bringing it all back home, are just a genetic mutation foisted upon us by the Europop dance machine, a factory uncontaminated by lewd American impulses.

"Loud, Fast, & Out of Control" is a home run in more than one slang sense. Sexually, these tracks get as blatant as prevailing social mores of the '50s could possibly abide -- after all, making records has always been a business, and as such was subject to various forms of oversight. (The set omits several emission-standards: Billy Ward and the Dominoes' "60-Minute Man," Hank Ballard's "Work With Me Annie," Etta James' "Roll With Me, Henry.") While some black musicians of the day prospered in the white world by singing about moon-June romance in smooth harmony, others diverted their church-learned spirit into songs about fucking. Little Richard somehow slurred "you sure like to ball" past potential censors of "Good Golly, Miss Molly." Wynonie Harris brags about his "Lovin' Machine." In a rare state of ardor, the genial Fats Domino declares "I'm Ready" (... and willing and able) "to rock and roll all night" -- and you know he's not gonna confine his nocturnal business to the dance floor. And scarcely hidden between the innocent-sounding kitchen commands of "Shake, Rattle and Roll," Big Joe Turner serves up the wickedly euphemistic "I'm like a one-eyed cat peeping in the seafood store."

White rockers -- responsible for more than half the tracks selected for inclusion -- get their licks in as well. The incomparable Wanda Jackson, who later traded in her libido for Christianity (a temporary victory for the Lord: She's gone back to singing her hits, albeit with little of the same earthy euphoria), unleashes her multi-orgasmic volcano in "Fujiyama Mama" ("When I start eruptin', ain't nobody gonna make me stop") and promises more wanton immorality in "Let's Have a Party." (Writing about Jackson in his delirious paean to "Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll," the peerless Nick Tosches ventures, "She sounded like she could fry eggs on her G-spot.") In the Collins Kids' "Mercy," 16-year-old Lorrie C. can barely contain her excitement -- she sings, "He makes my pulse go-go-go" with enough fuel to have you believe he's waiting outside the studio with the motor revved and a room booked right around the bend. Tune out the lyrics of "Great Balls of Fire," and listen to Jerry Lee Lewis share the sinful ways he learned growing up around black juke joints in the deep South. He doesn't oversell the obvious in "Breathless," but there's no mistaking what's on his mind when he whimper-sighs the song's title.

Not all these iconoclasts were quite as aroused, at least not on record. Bill Haley, the humble fuse curling into rock 'n' roll's powder keg, sings "Rock Around the Clock" like a Sunday school teacher trying to prove he can let his hair down and have fun with the kids. Buddy Holly, who I'm told once tried to force himself on a young Texas ticket-taker a decade before she begot a buddy of mine, never revealed himself so urgently in song, although he had the surprising nerve to sing Chuck Berry's nervy black-pride anthem, "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," with the aplomb of a civil rights activist. Although it later developed that Berry himself got off by taking sleazy snapshots of adults, his wily songs for teenagers were good clean fun. (Except for the coy novelty "My Ding-a-Ling," a song not included here.) Carl Perkins was too nice a guy for sleazy innuendo, and all it got him was a second-place finish on "Blue Suede Shoes" behind his pal Elvis, a man who always sold sex, even if he had to park his pelvis when he came offstage to make records. (But what are we to make of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller's "Jailhouse Rock"? Sung by an audibly straight-faced Presley without so much as an embarrassed I-dunno-either shrug, the song contains an immortal passage of male bonding: "Number 47 said to number 3/You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see/I sure would be delighted with your company/Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me."

Sublimated sex surfaces in the sounds of some seriously unhinged ravers here. Alabaman Jerry Lott, recording as the Phantom, gasps for breath from the bottom of a churning well in the fully crazed one-off "Love Me." Still, he's no match for Screamin' Jay Hawkins, R&B's great theatrical crypt-kicker, who spits up a double shot of dementia with the gurgling insanity of "Little Demon" and "Frenzy." (But, alas, no "Constipation Blues.") And for further walks on the wild side, Chan Romero's rabid-cat delivery of his "Hippy Hippy Shake" makes it good, freakish company for LaVern Baker's weird "Voodoo Voodoo" and Johnny Burnette's shrieking hiccough classic, "Rock Billy Boogie."

The '50s eventually settled down. Students did bomb shelter drills but were safe from sex, as Cold War anxieties were balmed by mild-mannered vocal groups filling the tanks while Motown and the Beach Boys got themselves ready to roll. However, the moral scrimmage became much harder to follow when the explosive genesis of fundamental rock 'n' roll was swept away by the megatonnage of mid-'60s youth culture. In the eye of the cultural storm, the Beatles took the high road, decontaminating hip-shaking R&B with the purity of romance (1963's "I Want to Hold Your Hand" set a chaste tone that didn't go significantly sour until 1965's "Norwegian Wood"). There was plenty of sexuality in their music (and lives), but they followed the literary mode and dressed it up, resetting the lust lurking in the pants of Clearasil kids into socially acceptable drama. But between the lines of their lyrics, in "A Hard Day's Night" and in their every bowl-haired head flip, the subversive message was loud and clear: Freedom equals sex.

And they weren't the only game going. Taking a dirt road to hell, the Rolling Stones didn't waste their time on teenage tenderness: They looked down and pledged their troth to Jack Flash, serving up steamy platters of what, as they say, the little girls understand.

The Stones can still put (widening) fannies in high-priced seats, but the little girls have stopped listening. Today's teenyboppers -- and, judging by the numbers going up on the sales board of late, some of their moms as well -- are no longer entranced by the erogenous zones of grandpa goat and his craggy-faced cronies. After their species' successive encounters with the ever-more superficial contributions of Michael Jackson, Madonna, New Kids on the Block, Mariah Carey, Color Me Badd and the Spice Girls, what they want, what they really, really want, is the Backstreet Boys.

The new Pat Boones on the block are five Florida preeners who rule the vapid-chart-pop kingdom with the mechanics of modern R&B balladry minus the bump and grind (and melisma, the pseudo-gospel effect that turns notes into veritable symphonies of melodic avoidance). The Backstreet Boys slather vocal cream over the peppy beats of banal Europop, making records that are safe as milk. These white guys don't pretend to be black, yet they still lay claim to a hypothetical common ground of shoe-store soul, terrain previously danced over by anyone who ever wanted to be Madonna. The mushy sensitivity of polite post-Barry White New Age lover-men comes out of the Backstreet Boys even less threatening to little ones, who are lapping it up like Ritalin-laced soda pop. The quintet's debut album has sold more than 27 million copies worldwide, and "Millennium" scanned more than 1.1 million units in its first week, breaking a sales record held by another purveyor of hyper-sincere sap, Garth Brooks. Forget about those albums that get held up by rock critics as culture-changing achievements: This is the sound of cash, and that can move mountains.

"Millennium" is a gooey Hallmark-card confection that's hard to spit out. The album's mush-hearted romanticism defines itself -- and the group, who couldn't possibly be as sappy as they sing -- out of serious adult consideration. As catchy as the sing-song melodies of "Larger Than Life," "I Want It That Way" and "It's Gotta Be You" are, this formula is strictly for suckling love-idealizing adolescents. Indicative of just how young the group is aiming, Backstreeter Brian Littrell follows the lead of mother-lovers like Boyz II Men and R. Kelly with "The Perfect Fan," a cloying homage to his mom. The generation gap is officially over.

Commercially calibrated songs and sharp trend-sweating production may help explain the Backstreet Boys' rising popularity in the black community, but the group's appeal to adolescent white females -- a demographic that can happily set commercial trends without regard to artistic merit -- is intriguing. As a dynastic genre emanates from Florida (collectively, Britney Spears, 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys have sold more than 20 million albums in the United States alone), never before in the rock era has pop music that owes next to nothing to rock held such vast sway.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The Backstreet Boys are thriving, in part, because white kids' tight connection to their parents' pop has been severed. The conspicuous guitar solo that barbs "Larger Than Life" on "Millennium" is less a concession to rock form than the sort of symbolic outreach that prompted Michael Jackson to put Eddie Van Halen's six-string crossover howl on "Beat It."

Rock lives, but only as a genre among several, and each has its own audience. But young people have grown up hearing "classic" rock as oldies. They need their own idols, and today's stars are no more aware of the past than their fans are. And today's flyweight rock titans -- whether it's Korn or Matchbox 20 -- are no match for their debt to history, which only magnifies their failings. All they can do is fill millennial mall stores with full-priced product. They're followers, not leaders, with no courage beyond the obviously viable. For their hollow creations and paltry artistic ambition, they might as well be the Backstreet Boys.

Whatever motivated the barnstormers of Eddie Cochran's day lives as little in 1999's Woodstock stars -- where you'd hope to find it -- as in the callow grooves of "Millennium," where you wouldn't. In order to give squealing pleasure to white 10-year-olds, the Backstreet Boys have turned their back on the bullshit-busting values that long-ago typified rock 'n' roll and tapped the commercial honey of black pop. But their real debt to modern black artists -- turning the clock back two generations in the process -- is for making the charts safe for sentimentality.

By Ira Robbins

Ira Robbins is the editor of "The Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock" and a 40-year veteran of rock journalism. He lives in New York with his wife, cat and records.

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