Backstreet Boys: The Shared Embarrassment of Our Childhood

Pop Culture

Backstreet Boys: The Shared Embarrassment of Our Childhood

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I grew up in the quiet, family-friendly suburb of Vile Parle in the ’90s. My first memories associated with music include watching my father intently lunge over to the radio to turn up the volume every time an old Rafi tune came on. Or my mom gushing over one of the mixtapes my dad had made her. In a world saturated by Bollywood, there was no headspace for English music. By all means, the biggest exposure to the genre before 2002 was the English rap verse from Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’s “Deewana Hai Dekho”.

Like most cool ’90s kids in India, I first heard of the Backstreet Boys only around 2002, when their popularity was past its peak globally. When I first heard the powerful riffs of “Larger Than Life” in my SoBo cousin’s car, the culture shock was akin to facing season balls in the nets for the first time. This was followed by the unforgettable memory of a bunch of bare-chested hunks dancing on a basketball court to “Quit Playin’ Games With My Heart”. You see, the week that I spent at my Charni Road cousin’s place in the summer of 2002 introduced me to two life-altering phenomena: F.R.I.E.N.D.S. and the boy band, Backstreet Boys.

BSB became the soundtrack to my life over the following months. To this day, I can sing-along to every track from the 2001 album, The Hits Chapter One. In fact, “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely” and “Shape of my Heart” are still very much part of my moodiest playlists. (It also doesn’t help that every store in every mall in every corner of this country, continues to play BSB.) The advent of walkmans and earphones had ensured that AJ, Howie, Nick, Kevin and Brian’s voices were always the background score to my summer shenanigans.

By the end of that year, my BSB obsession grew into a frenzy. For a time, I began to consciously dress like them; do my hair like Nick and wear nerdy glasses like AJ. I even wished my nostrils were as big as Brian’s. When I learnt that the local Planet M was selling BSB merch, I burnt my parent’s hard-earned cash on their overpriced t-shirts and mugs. In the nascent stages of the internet, I’d spend my free time defending my beloved Backstreet Boys on online forums against American teens with far more refined tastes. My ardour went as far as downloading their music videos manually from P2P software like Kazaa and Limewire. Over a modem connection. That averaged 28 hours to download a 100mb file. If this isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

The thing is Backstreet Boys will always be our generation’s Justin Bieber: We’ve all been crazy about them for a while.

Over the next decade, everyone’s favourite choir crooners began to bow out of the spotlight. “I Want It That Way” was replaced by moodier, angstier tunes like “In The End” by Linkin Park. As is often the case with teenage fads, Backstreet Boys eventually lost their sheen for me. Discovering edgier artists like Eminem, 50 Cent, Nickelback (ha!), and System of a Down played a part in me realising that the Backstreet Boys just didn’t “Get Down the way they once did.

The year 2005, was when my fandom truly crashed.

I was a wee 13-year-old when MSN Messenger was all the rage, and, excited about their comeback track, I posted an IM personal status that read “BSB’s ‘Incomplete’ is awesum.” Only, a few minutes later, the notifications popping up from the bottom right corner of my screen taught me an important lesson about keeping some fandoms secret. After multiple “Wow, r u a gay?” and “LOL BSB is a lame dude”, I hastily took off the status and passed it off as someone messing with my account.

In the battle between peer pressure and childhood nostalgia, I threw my childhood icons under the bus.

The thing is Backstreet Boys will always be our generation’s Justin Bieber: We’ve all been crazy about them for a while. But looking back at that phase invokes less nostalgia than embarrassment. And this is true for so many things in our lifetime. I can’t recall the last time anyone admitted to liking Nickelback without being demonised for it. I used to know someone addicted to BBM, who now refuses to acknowledge any other device except his iPhone. We’re quick to mock those among us that were active on Orkut, while conveniently leaving out the fact that it hurt like all hell when your crush didn’t reply to your scrap. So you can pretend Cigarettes After Sex is your only jam, but someone will eventually catch you shaking a leg to “As Long As You Love Me”.

There’s something to be said about BSB’s longevity. They’ve withstood the test of time, and it is because of their consistent effort to remain a vocal harmony group as opposed to all the other “boy bands” around them. It’s what separates them from the NSYNCs, and Westlifes, and Blues of the world. The five boys from Orlando still command a distinct nostalgia value among listeners worldwide.

With their new single, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (strictly okay, and that’s also because I love them), the Backstreet Boys have tried, yet again, to recreate the magic of the late ’90s. Their moves haven’t changed; the music is dated.

But they’re a fond reminder that no matter how cool we now consider ourselves – working out of hipster cafés, watching subtitle-only films – we are the generation that once adored BSB. We’ll laugh about them, we’ll share memes featuring them, and we’ll sing their songs ironically at wedding parties. But somewhere in the corner of our hearts, only we’ll know that the irony is a facade. That “Quit Playing Games” will always remind you of your first crush. That “Larger Than Life” helped you prep for your boards. That all of that snark we now heap on them is put on, and only BSB once distilled the keenness of your teenage emotion.

As for me, I’m busy dusting off my worn-out BSB t-shirt from 2002.