The conundrum of boy bands is that they grow up. No matter how many number one hits they’ve had and millions of records they’ve sold, boy banders and their handlers cannot stop bankable, childish good looks from fading into facial hair and midsection flab.
That doesn’t stop the music industry from trotting out a new boy-band model every 10 years or so. From the Monkees to the Bay City Rollers to New Kids on the Block to the Backstreet Boys, it’s been proven time and time again that nothing sells to teens and tweens like squeaky-clean, prefab pop.
Now, with the 10-year music-industry itch upon us yet again, another crop of chest-hair-less, odourless, hypoallergenic dorks is singing and dancing its way into the bedrooms of poster-worshipping pubescents everywhere. Even as this most recent resurrection of boy-band mania reaches its height with the Jonas Brothers owning multiple spots at the top of the charts, the best-selling boy band of all time remains the Backstreet Boys.
The four remaining BSB members—Nick Carter, A. J. McLean, Brian Littrell, and Howie Dorough—have dusted off the cobwebs, cleaned the skeletons out of their closets, and re-emerged as a fully fledged man band, bearing the battle scars of a lifetime spent climbing the charts and then fending for themselves when suddenly no one gave a shit.
“We’ve had our ups and downs,” says McLean, on the phone from a tour stop in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “I’ve gone to rehab, Nick’s been arrested, we’ve lost people in our families, Brian has had open-heart surgery, we lost a member. There’s been so much that we’ve been through, and we’re still here because we’re fighters and because we believe in the Backstreet Boys.”
Love them or loathe them, the men of the Boys understand the music business like few others. “Every 10 years, there seems to be a big cycle that comes full circle and it’s all about pop music again,” McLean explains. “I think it’s about getting good music back on the radio that’s not talking about how many cars you drive or what kind of necklace you wear or how many girls you’ve slept with. It’s feel-good music.”
Unbreakable, the band’s latest release, is just that: formula-perfect tunes that are just superficial enough to appeal to Hannah Montana disciples, and just catchy enough to grab some airtime from those nostalgia-seeking late-20-somethings who feel like pervs for having a favourite Jonas brother and think the guys in Good Charlotte are just a bit too punky. According to McLean, the vibe of the record and the industry in general is a response to an increasingly agitated Joe Public.
“It’s like music is such an outlet for everybody, no matter what,” he surmises. “It’s good to be able to say, you know, ”˜I just spent $90 filling up my tank, so I’m going to turn this song up and I’m going to forget about it, and I’m going to rock out to “Incomplete” or I’m going to rock out to “The Right Stuff”, ’ or whatever you’re going to listen to. You’re going to get completely lost in that song.”
Getting lost in the music is a step in the right direction for McLean, whose public struggle with drugs and alcohol nearly destroyed the biggest boy band in history. “I went through the phase of having my tour manager go into my room before I’d check in to take all the alcohol out of my minibar,” says McLean, who has been clean for six years.
Keeping the band together after his meltdown wasn’t as easy as minding the minibar. Between 2000’s Black & Blue and 2005’s Never Gone, the boys took a much-needed break from the band—and from each other.
“We were fried and we were not having fun,” admits McLean. “I had just got out of rehab and there were fights all the time and, like, arguing and bickering. If we had continued right after that, all of us think we probably would have self-destructed.”
The Backstreet Boys play GM Place tonight (September 4).