Say "wassup" to
the new kids on the block: 1998 song-and-dance pinups the Backstreet Boys. Their young
fans absolutely adore them, but, Maureen Callahan wonders, is the feeling entirely mutual?
Tiffany, is like, shaking. She has just smelled a Backstreet Boy.
"He was wearing cologne!" she shrieks, as she pogos outside Disney World's House
of Blues. The venue itself, where the Backstreet Boys will later perform to a sellout
crowd whose average age is 12, is more apt: An antiseptic franchise inspired by similarly
successful ventures, it's practically a metaphor for the Boys themselves. But to the girls
who swarm around Tiffany on this bright Florida afternoon, Backstreet inspire nothing less
than reverence. "I was close to Nick once," says a solemn 15-year-old name Jana.
"But I was so shocked I couldn't say anything."
Having borrowed liberally not just from now-defunct, sexually
non-threatening Euro boy bands such as Take That and East 17 but also from the American
daddy of them all - New Kids on the Block - the Backstreet Boys have emerged as the
teenybopper band of the moment. "I've tried everything to meet them," says a
shy, chubby fan named Katie, who would really rather worship from afar; she's happy to sit
with her copy of Hangin' With the Backstreet Boys: An Unauthorized Biography, and reread
factoids about Nick. "We have a lot in common," she says, readjusting her
wire-rimmed glasses. "We both like to play Nintendo, and we both like sports,
ooooh, he's fine!"
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 AJ.
"Bone" McLean, who - with his three tattoos, wacky facial hair, and 200 pairs of
tinted sunglasses - is either 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 AJ 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 sissy thing," Brian says, "but I
don't care. I would've given anything to do what they were doing."
Today, thanks to their manager, Johnny Wright, he is. Wright had
just come off four years as the New Kids' road manager, working under uber-Svengali
Maurice Starr, when, in 1993, he heard about a quintet of pretty white boys who could
harmonize like an R&B group. He immediately saw the possibilities. "It was all
hip-hop and alternative music then," says Wright, "but I knew that the girls who
had been New Kids fans had little sisters."
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 away 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
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 AJ's mom), had mentioned the Boys would be busy entertaining "a little
handicapped girl" before the concert, but Leslie isn't the only one. She doesn't
care; it's her birthday, and she's just spotted Nick roaming the hall. She's so rattled
that 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."
Back in the dressing room, Nick and the others huddle with
Wright. It was Wright who devised the plan of attack that broke Backstreet: While the
alt-rock revolution was raging in the States, Wright took them to Europe and slapped them
on every boy-band bill he could, exploiting their all-American wholesomeness. ("At
one point I had them run across the stage with the American flag," he says proudly.
At home, Wright was forced to go the direct-market route, quietly
dispatching the Boys to theme parks and junior highs across the nation. "Teenage male
vocal groups were not going to meet with acceptance in America," says Jeff Fenster,
VP of A&R at their record label, Jive. "So the idea was to make a record that
would appeal to the global marketplace." Fenster hired Swedish writing/producing duo
Denniz PoP and Max Martin, who had penned hits for Robyn, and produced Ace of Base and
Ireland's version of Backstreet, Boyzone. The Euro strategy worked: Backstreet's
self-titled debut album, a slick collection of New Jack posturings, went on to sell 12
million copies overseas. Eventually, pop groups such as Hanson and the Spice Girls eased
Backstreet's reentry Stateside (their album is now quadruple platinum here); likewise,
their success has spawned a slew of harmonizing teen hopefuls, such as 'N Sync, Five, No
Authority, and 911 - one of which have yet to register with the kids. As the Boys can
testify, winning over the jaded youth of America can be a bitch. "Those were the most
intimidating, cruelest crowds," says Kevin of the band's days on the junior-high
circuit. "Little teenage dudes coming up to us saying, 'Backstreet Boys? Who are
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." 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. "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."
Despite the short shelf life of most boy bands, Backstreet plan
on a long-term career. They're all learning to write and play instruments, and McPherson
says they have a shot. His major issue is with their lyrics, which are pure Hallmark. Only
one line on their album remotely smacks of do-me abandon ("Am I sexual?"), and
when they deliver it in Orlando, the girls roar and pound the floorboards so violently two
roadies rush to secure the speakers. 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
That's when Liz Arana passes out - not at this show, but at this
same moment. "Oh, that is so beautiful when they sing to the girls," she gasps.
Liz a soft-spoken 15-year-old who, with her sloped eyelids and slight heft, seems like the
kind of girl who yearns silently from her Long Island bedroom. But at last year's New York
City Backstreet Boys show, her first ever, she was drunk with adrenaline.
"Okay," she begins. "I pushed my way to the front of the stage, and there
was some 12-year-old standing in from of me on a crate!" So: Liz knocked the girl
down, climbed onto the crate, ripped off her bra and threw it at Nick, and then completely
lost it. "When they sang 'I'll Never Break Your Heart', I just burst out crying, and
then I passed out." Liz, who bursts out crying whenever she sees anything of theirs
for the first time - a video, a photograph, a TV appearance - says it's awful. "I
missed three songs!"
Liz spends suburban afternoons watching her compilation tape of
Backstreet appearances, or pasting photos into her Backstreet scrapbook, or staring at her
walls, which are plastered with Backstreet pinups. The walls, she says, are a problem.
"My mom just painted them," she says, "and she wants the posters down. So
does my boyfriend." Robbie, whom Liz has been dating for a month ("He's my first
serious, serious boyfriend"), loathes the Backstreet Boys. "He says they're
faggots and they can't sing," she says. "I'm like, 'Your point is
This is the first time Liz has ever been so enthralled with a
band - she says she has spent more than $1,000 on Boys merchandise - and she, like
millions of other girls before, is slightly embarrassed by the depths of her passion. She
only feels comfortable talking about it with other girls, girls who, like her, are
beginning to date real boys but who feel safer longing for the unattainable ones- the Nick
Carters. She 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 believe."
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 "AJ 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. 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. 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,
"they are going away."
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"
AJ'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?"
The next morning, the Boys are on Regis & Kathie Lee,
performing "As Long As You Love Me", a sparkly ode to unconditional love. Nick
shares lead vocals with Brian and sings to his own image in the monitor. During the
Q&A, Kathie Lee, eyes dewy, offers to set Brian up with her niece, who's also had
heart surgery. As soon as the segment is completed, they clamber into a waiting van. The
garage door shimmies open, and girls begin crawling all over the van, smushing their faces
up against the glass. Nick turns to Brian. "You know, if we don't go out there,"
he says wearily, "we're gonna look like real pricks."
Having fulfilled all obligations, Nick and Brian head to the
nearest Blimpie. Nick orders a tuna fish hero and, as he blithely stares at himself in the
mirror, tries to discern the nature of teen girl fandom. He comes up empty: "It's
real hard to put yourself in their shoes," he says finally. 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 made this face like, 'I'm gonna kill
somebody.'" He shrugs. "It was funny."
On the way back to the hotel, Nick and Brian are intercepted by
yet more fans. They pose for pictures and hurriedly scrawl autographs; a couple of girls
hang back and speak in hushed tones. "You know, I saw Nick sign an autograph for one
girl and then he threw it back to her. I want to know why he's like that."
"You know what I wonder?" says her friend. "I want
to know if he would ever date a fan."