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Not Fade Away: Backstreet Boys’ ‘Millennium’ Turns 15

Before 'Millennium,' boy bands were an easy punchline. After 'Millennium,' they reigned as pop tyrants.
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(Courtesy Jive)

(Courtesy Jive)

By Sean Rose

Let history note that in 1999, Millennium was the best boy band album that had ever been released. With over 1.1 million first-week units sold in the US alone —a record-breaking total at the time— it sent the Backstreet Boys into a new galaxy of popularity, making them unquestionably the biggest and most visible pop group of their time.

Along with Britney’s omnipresent debut …Baby One More Time, Millennium‘s colossal sales sent a message clear and true: Teen pop was king, and it wasn’t going anywhere… for another few years. It raised the stakes for teen pop’s late 90s/early 2000s Golden Era. It’s hard to imagine the likes of *NSNYC, LFO, BBMak and 98 Degrees hitting their heights without this record setting the example. Before Millennium, boy bands were an easy punchline. After Millennium, they reigned as pop tyrants.

Millennium served an important function in its time. Whether it holds up as an album 15 years later is a trickier question. Was it the best teen pop album of its era? No, I’d give that honor to M2M’s seriously overlooked The Big Room. Was it even the best Backstreet Boys album? No, I’d put 2009’s glamorous This Is Us and even 2005’s derided comeback Never Gone a few notches ahead in the quality department. Millennium‘s sales record wouldn’t even last that long — *NSYNC’s sexified No Strings Attached would more than double its first-week sales only a year later, making our poor Boys look like also-rans in its wake. Millennium‘s success was less the beginning of a glorious run and more the beginning of the end — the Backstreets would release only one more studio record during teen pop’s golden era before going on a five-year retreat, never again replicating Millennium‘s glories.

But none of this matters because Millennium, unlike many other “better” albums, represents the Glory of the Moment, exemplifying optimistic pre-Bush pop the way few other records do. It’s the Backstreet Boys’ one unqualified triumph, the sound of five handsome men storming the shores of teenage adoration and taking no prisoners. It’s a record so in-the-moment, so immediate and so huge it was impossible for any pop-starved millennial teen not to get swept away by its power.

It doesn’t hurt that the record starts with two of Backstreet’s biggest and best moments. “Larger Than Life” is about the ballsiest boy band opening cut I can imagine. It’s less a good-hearted fan tribute and more a public rally for their newly conquered Backstreet Nation. A.J. cackles like a madman, the verse explodes into the biggest chorus of their career, and there’s even a shreddin’ guitar solo. On a boy band record! Never had a boy band revelled in modern excess quite like this.

 

But “Larger Than Life” wasn’t the first single from Millennium. It was no world-conquering anthem, but rather a victory dance for the war they’d already won. The song that won it for them? Millennium’s first single and second track “I Want It That Way,” one of the finest pop songs of its era and the only time Backstreet would strike the Universal Chord. “Undeniable” is the word. Not only was it a huge career-defining hit, but it won the hearts of teenage fans and thirtysomething critics in equal measure. It’s the one Backstreet song you’ll find on “Best Pop Songs Ever” lists, the one that’ll make even the most rigid teen pop hater sigh and snarl and say “Ehh, okay, that one’s pretty good.” To hear it once is to understand immediately: its hooks simple, its delivery impeccable, its music video iconic.

 

Both of these songs were co-written by Swedish pop impresario Max Martin, along with his Cheiron Studios cohorts Kristian Lundin and Andreas Carlsson. Martin’s a fascinating figure. He was teen pop’s strongest creative force, a guy who’s been giving the pop world No.1 records for almost 20 years now, including BSB contemporaries Britney Spears and *NSYNC.

But more than any other group, Martin’s band was the Backstreet Boys. He wrote more songs for them than anyone else, and it’s hard not to attribute Millennium‘s success to Martin’s impeccable Euro-powered hooks. At a whopping seven tracks, the album had more Martin tracks than any other record up until Katy Perry’s Prism. With follow-up singles like the brooding “Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely” and the upbeat “The One,” Martin handed the Boys epochal, star-making hooks. All they needed to do was sing them with feeling, and they’d be superstars.

It’s telling that Millennium starts to fall apart once Martin disappears. After “The One” at track eight, we’re left with four poorly-sequenced ballads shoved to the end of the record, bereft of the glam-hooks on the A-side. While they could be worse, I imagine they’re there to lull listeners to sleep so they’re spared from Brian Littrell’s good-intentioned-but-kind-of-yucky mom tribute “The Perfect Fan.”

But that’s the beauty of teen pop records — front-loaded to give fickle teens the goods right from the get go and throw the rest near the end where none tread. I can’t imagine many hardcore BSB fans even heard “Spanish Eyes,” let alone knew it by heart. (Okay, I’m sure some did.)

So yes, Max Martin is the creative force that made Millennium a monster success, but handing him all the credit for the Backstreet’s ascendance would be wrong. Martin might have written the best tracks on here, but the Backstreets — like any great pop interpreters — lived them. They sang them, they felt them, they performed complex choreographed dances to them. Millennium doesn’t give you a good idea of who the Backstreet Boys are, which is almost the point. It’s a record designed more to be the Defining Pop Music Moment of 1999 than a good Backstreet Boys album, or one that would highlight their individual talents as singers. Heck, I’d argue that we wouldn’t see the real Backstreet Boys ’til they got kicked out of Pop Valhalla, grew hunky facial hair, and started making music without the world’s ear.

But still, none of this diminishes the power of Millennium as a perfect storm of teen pop glory. For one shining moment, the Backstreet Boys captured the hearts of global teendom, unequivocally and universally. They were the biggest and the best. They deserve our respect.

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