In 1996, OJ Simpson was on trial for murder. Princess Diana and Prince Charles were going through a scandalous divorce, Tupac was shot down, and Jon Benet Ramsey went missing. And in 1996, to the deep chagrin of my parents, I bounced around my room to the Backstreet Boy's epic first CD for an entire year. Obsessively clicking repeat, (and occasionally whacking my SONY Disk player as my overworked CD began to skip) I sang along to 'I'll Never Break Your Heart,' attempting to imitate their strangely spastic dance moves, dreaming of spending just one second in the presence of Nick and Brian. Along with one million other prepubescent teenyboppers across America, I promised myself that I would be their biggest fan, like, forever.
Fourteen years later, standing amid two thousand screaming fans, I realized that some girls might have taken this promise a bit more seriously than I did.
On June 10th, the Backstreet Boys graced New York City for their ninth tour, and at Hammerstein Ballroom, it was hard to remember that nearly two decades had gone by since their heyday. Fans lined up as early as 8am to score the closest spots near the stage, unfazed by the frighteningly close view of Nick Carter's aging face or AJ's clearly receding hairline.
By 9pm, the crowd had reached a critical mass of frenzied insanity, chanting "Backstreet Boys" and intermittently screaming out "Nick! I Love You!" Initially, it may have seemed that as their fan base's average age grew from 9 to over-21, the crowds increasingly screechy chants were slightly more vodka-infused than they were in the 90's. And yet Hammerstein's five bars were relatively empty throughout the night, their placement too far from the stage to satisfy any true BSB devotee.
Rather, their fans' epic enthusiasm seemed as naturally hormone-based as always. Huge "Howie Marry Me!" signs hung down from the upper seating levels, faintly reminiscent of the bygone Time Square TRL crowds. Truly, it didn't seem far-fetched to wonder whether these sign-slinging, somewhat aged fans were the same tank-top rocking teeny-bopper teens from those MTV days. One 25-year-old told me she had been to every single one of their tours since 1998, and then absentmindedly rattled off each band member's age, spouse, and various childrens' names, as well as a long-winded, slightly imaginative explanation as to why Kevin, age 39, had left the band.
As AJ, Nick, Brian and Howie finally emerged singing "Everybody" amid ear-splitting screams, the band's two-decade old act immediately showed signs of wear. Or rather, its static, unchanged nature seemed to scream out in a cry for modernization, as they performed their signature New Kids-esque moves, snapping and swaying in perfectly practiced synchronization.
The foursome sang through their most famous songs, interspersing greatest hits like "I'll Never Break Your Heart," "As Long as You Love Me," and "I Want It That Way" with a few newer singles. True to their age-old style, each song, new and old, had less than five unique lines. After just a minute of a new song, the entire audience had picked up on the one line of chorus necessary to sing along, and the crowd was screaming and swaying their camera phones to the beat.
And yet, as I attempted to skeptically judge these die-hard fans and their obsessive, slightly time-warped mentality, I was suddenly struck by a different aspect of their fanatical craze. The Backstreet Boys and their fanatical followers have always been a duo, as inevitable and everlasting a part of the BSB experience as Nick's bleach blond tresses or AJ's slightly creepy hip gyrations.
Today, MTV's musical coverage is as sparse as AJ's head of hair, and Carson Daily has joined Jennifer Love Heweitt and Freddy Prince Jr. in the sad abyss of bygone 90's celebrities. Finding fans that will pay for an album has gone from improbable to idealistic, and bands like Radiohead have merely opted for pay-what-you-like album releases.
Yet amid a dying musical industry, the Backstreet Boys fans are a fantastically fanatical anomaly, happily paying for BSB's shiny, plastic-wrapped CDs (or, alright, perhaps the digital, iTunes-equivalent.) Twenty years after the apex of the music industry, as successful contemporary bands accept the inevitability of fledgling profits and pathetically small album sales, the Backstreet Boys can still headline a sold-out tour with twelve-hour lines outside.