Sharps & flats

Why teenage girls will murder their grandmothers for a whiff of Backstreet Boys sweat.

Published July 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Backstreet Boys propose a closed system. There are almost no trees, birds, skies, moons, spoons or Junes in the ballads on their No. 1 record, "Millennium." There's very little bounce, not too much play. It's just them imposing themselves upon you in antiseptic spaces just like the one on the album cover. You're locked in a struggle, they're harvesting souls -- by the millions -- and nothing else really matters. Last week when the Boys reclaimed the top spot on the charts from Limp Bizkit and this year's biggest rock blockbuster, they weren't just proving that teensploitation is a bigger growth industry than idiotsploitation; they were proving that all other current chart-happenings are merely local color in their pop kingdom.

It would be wrong to blame the Boys for all the hard work and talent that's gone into amassing an army of nymphet fannies, each and every one of whom would hit their grandmother over the head with a pick-ax if the old deary stood between them and a bottled ounce off BSB perspiration. But it isn't hard to dislike the Boys' Orlando marketeers for "Millennium's" striking cover, which almost blinds you with its whiteness, or for their uncute, imposing, proto-Guido machismo. And it's certainly disconcerting that the first single invokes Burger King commercials. The suggestively open-ended "I Want It That Way" sounds a little like a hybrid of the "Have It Your Way" slogan and the melodic arc of the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell hit-turned-Coke-jingle, "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing."

That probably wasn't intentional (as if a pro like the group's Nordic trackmaster Max Martin would intentionally evoke burger and soft-drink jingles), but it makes sense if you imagine their music as a living being, naturally evolving to adapt to the only idiom large enough to be familiar for everyone in its target demographic: earthlings. "Millennium" is an advertisement for itself, and like the marketers of all lifestyle products, the Backstreet Boys remind you that your life is enriched for buying in. (Choose Backstreet, Choose life!) "Every time we're down/You can make it right/And that makes you larger than life," sing the Boys to their market share. If the sentiment feels a wee bit condescending, or if it seems unnerving that a narcissistic Brian Litrell reduces his mom to the role of "perfect fan," well, that's the kind of cynical customer service policy that keeps feverish, unschooled consumers happily in their place. It's also what keeps such a blessed joint-partnership hanging tough, high above us mere mortals.

By Jon Dolan

Jon Dolan lives in Minneapolis and writes for several publications, including Spin, City Pages and barnes& His reviews of the top albums on the Billboard 200 appear in Salon every week.


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