In 1997, the Backstreet Boys released their debut, Backstreet’s Back, and I was the only person in my second grade classroom who didn’t own it when it was released that year; my parents — who would have disowned me for uttering the words “Backstreet Boys” — were too busy schooling me on Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, a fact I'm pretty grateful about in hindsight.
Even so, 16 years later, I know every word to every Backstreet Boys single released in the 1990s. Even passive pop-culture participants couldn't escape the reign of the B-Boys, whose first record sold more than 28 million copies worldwide while their hugely successful 1998 sophomore album, Millennium, skyrocketed beyond 40 million copies.
Despite various bumps along the way (legal battles, open-heart surgery, substance abuse issues, inter-group dissent), the Backstreet Boys have come out triumphant and recently embarked on a 20th anniversary tour supporting their eighth and most recent studio album, In a World Like This. The tour made a stop at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheater on Fri., Aug. 23.
Making the trek from the parking lot to the gates of the amphitheater, I was inundated by a barrage of 20-and-30-something women, mainly traveling in packs, some visibly dragging along their reluctant boyfriends. Several wore handmade shirts covered with phrases like “I will always love you, Nick” and “BSB Forever,” making me feel as though I'd entered a time warp.
Jersey Shore’s own DJ Pauly D warmed up the crowd with his big-room-house remixes of current Top 40 fare (Bruno Mars, Robin Thicke and the like) paired with classic hits (Joan Jett, Journey).
Veering away from his actor-turned-popstar past, Jesse McCartney hit the stage clad in a royal blue blazer, skinny black tie and Ray Bans, and accompanied by a full band and two backup dancers. Ditching his former highlighted, Bieber-esque do for a darker slicked-back mane, McCartney serenaded the crown with R&B-pop fusion tunes, including “So Cool,” “How Do You Sleep,” “Back Together” and (his set closer and biggest hit), “Beautiful Soul.”
A little after 9 p.m., the amphitheater erupted in high-pitched screams as the stage lights flared and all five original BSB members — A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell in matching white suits — made their grand entrance via gigantic illuminated stairs and performed “Larger Than Life.” Excluding A.J. (who stepped up his beard/tattoo quotient), each member looked exactly as I remembered they did from more than a decade ago.
After delivering ballad, “Incomplete,” Nick — apparently a hardcore Bucs fan — professed his love for the city of Tampa, where he grew up, saying, “I know you…and you look more beautiful than ever.” He then launched into a new track, “Permanent Stain,” which very well could've been ripped from a One Republic album. That being said, the number proved Backstreet has definitely developed their aesthetic beyond pop hooks and synchronized dance moves. As a further testament to their maturity, A.J. introduced “Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of” as a song he and Kevin wrote for their children.
After a performance of their hit, “All I Have to Give,” the Boys took a brief costume change break, reappearing in matching leather vests and jackets, and cycling through more of the set. A low-fi, synthy track called “Breathe” (inspired by the film Drive) was a definite standout and surprise, its mellow vocals and electronic beat an atypical turn for the Backstreet Boys.
I'd hoped to be surprised and impressed by the Backstreet Boys performance, and I was, especially after an acoustic interlude that found Brian and Nick playing acoustic guitars, Howie an acoustic bass, A.J. a drum box, and Kevin on keys for the track “10,000 Promises.” The result was a sincere, soulful moment, leaving no doubt in my mind that these five men are supremely talented and are capable of recognizing and utilizing their two biggest strengths — R&B harmonies and plenty of charisma. Their acoustic version of “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” drew the entire amphitheater into a sing along.
After another costume change — all members reappeared in alternating red, white and black outfits — the group delivered “I’ll Be the One” and “Love Somebody,” the backdrop of lighting effects rivaling that of Avicii or Tiesto.
The group's disappearance offstage prompted crowd-wide chanting and stomping and a deafening roar followed their re-emergence for the encore, which included with BSB's first and biggest hit, “As Long as You Love Me,” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” Sounding identical to the studio version of the track and featuring dance moves from the music video, it was a fitting finish to the show.
Leaving the amphitheater, I felt as though I'd experienced something worthwhile. These five men —- who've ascended to superstardom and then fallen from grace only to enjoy another rise this year — are continuing to pack arenas and amphitheaters with music outside the constraints of labels, writers or producers, and allowed everyone in attendance the chance to relive a more carefree, precious part of our pasts.