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Backstreet’s Back, Amen

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Backstreet’s Back, Amen

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After recently seeing a Backstreet Boys concert, Maureen Haeger reflects on her experience as a Child Christian in the 1990s, worshiping at the altar of chaste preteen horniness, when it was Christian Summer Camp versus Every Boy Band.

“It’s good to be a Backstreet Boys fan, right? I’m gonna give you all a little test—can you show me who’s a real Backstreet fan, Spokane?”

This was a reasonable question for Nick Carter to ask, here at one stop on the Backstreet Boys DNA World Tour 2022. And although the approving screams from the sold-out crowd indicated that, yes, we were ready to prove our loyalty, I found myself concerned. I was here for sheer insubstantial entertainment, not some gatekeeping fan quiz. I barely convinced my parents to buy me Millennium. Are you about to ask about literally any song that was released after 2001? This is not very larger-than-life of you, fellas.

The Backstreet Boys are Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, AJ McLean, and cousins (cousins??? news to me, fake fan alert) Brian Littrell and Kevin Richardson. Here is how you probably remember them: Brian is the Frontman, Nick is the Heartthrob, Kevin and AJ are Sexy Dirtbags, and Howie is Also There. These Boys have released ten studio albums, but you could be forgiven for only knowing the first two or three. I would forgive you, anyway. I will not speak for the Boys—admit you have not listened to the album this tour is named after and who knows? They might five-part harmony you into a crumbly husk of a person and shoot your bones out of a confetti cannon to be gnawed by the real fans in the crowd.

The first half of the show belonged to Brian and Nick who, unless you have really been consistent in your fandom, are likely the ones you would remember if someone put a gun to your head. And good news! All Nick needed to hear to satisfy his doubts was a call-and-response. One side of the arena was directed to shout “Backstreet’s!” And the other side—mine—responded with “Back!” Whew! We did it! We had proven ourselves worthy, and our bodies could now, officially, rock.

In 1996, Brian had the vocal range of a damn angel. Let me give credit where it’s due: that range has held up. He spent an impressive amount of time in a falsetto that sounded unstrained, but his voice began to give out a little about 30 minutes in. You could feel the crowd holding him with desperate compassion in those moments, cheering extra hard to make up for the times his voice broke, or when he held the mic out for us to finish a lyric.

Early in the show, Brian addressed the crowd and thanked us for sticking with the Backstreet Boys for “almost 30 years!” Each of the Boys mentioned this at least once, which bothered me because: A) they are rounding up (as my friend Camille pointed out, their first album was not released in the US until 1996) and B) c’mon, man, I’m staying up past 10:00 p.m. for this. Please stop reminding me that I’m gonna feel like a horse punched me in the face tomorrow.

Brian then pulled such a sick-ass move that it impregnated everyone in the crowd.

“Spokane, we have had such a good time in this beautiful city of yours. And can I just say that you all look absolutely gorgeous tonight? I see you. And you. You, up in the top, I see you! You’re gorgeous.”


And then, as if the audience was not aroused enough, look out, because here comes Nick about to perform the first crotch grab of the evening!  … both of my eardrums were burst by the collective roar of agonized erotic shrieking.

And then, as if the audience was not aroused enough, look out, because here comes Nick about to perform the first crotch grab of the evening! I couldn’t tell you which song they were performing at this moment if you paid me, as both of my eardrums were burst by the collective roar of agonized erotic shrieking. Nick Carter, who still has the youthful vocal timbre of an adolescent cartoon wolf and the sex appeal of also, somehow, an adolescent cartoon wolf was my biggest crush 26 years ago (not 30). It was a shameful, secret crush because, then and now, this guy exudes absolute Most Popular Boy in School energy, and that’s just not my lane. I disclose this to say that I expected the audience’s response to be soul-shattering. I had begun to scale these Backstreet Gentlemen by the fervor of the audience’s screaming. Brian: 7/10. Nick: 8/10. The rest of the Boys joined Nick at the front for some energetic Hat Choreo.

Hell yeah, I thought. This is what I came for. Somehow, even though I had never been to one of these concerts (too busy doing what passed for moshing at Christian pop-punk shows, jealous?), I knew what to expect. I was here for the pandering, the “girl-in-the-crowd” fantasy, the many coordinated outfits, the boy-band dance moves—I don’t even have to describe them, whatever you’re picturing is correct. I genuinely, without a hint of irony, love being in a huge group and scream-singing pop hits of my childhood. I don’t know all the countries in Europe, but I do know all the words to “I Want It That Way.” It’s not that this music is good. I know that, from a lyrical perspective, that song makes no fucking sense. Like, wait, it’s okay for you to say you want it that way, but you never wanna hear me say it? I can’t even say it? That’s messed up. What is it that you’re wanting in a specific way, but that only you get to have a preference on? Is it baked potato toppings, or is it sex? Either way, I’ve got strong opinions, and we’re about to have a problem here, Nick.

That’s the thing about the Backstreet Boys’ music, and probably every other piece of work ladled out of the roiling boy-band stew that was the 1990s: it is all objectively dumb, and yet almost incandescently fun. I know I’m not blowing anyone’s mind here with this hot take. Everyone feels this way about music they grew up with, to some degree. But my own feelings about the Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, B2K, and all the others are complicated by my actual experience at the time, which was informed by another objectively bad institution: Christian Summer Camp.

There have been many holy wars in history and, in the mid- to late-nineties, it was Christian Summer Camp versus Every Boy Band. To the victor go the spoils: undying loyalty from a bunch of preteen girls. I went to camp every year from 5th–12th grade, and those guys were always trying to get us to give up some “worldly” thing or another. Gossiping, Tamagotchis, dry humping—they were like the Negaverse Marie Kondo over there. The only thing sparking anything had better be the holy words of Jesus Christ, can I get an amen?

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The Backstreet Boys and their secular ilk were, according to the 19-year-old camp counselors, a direct attack on our walk with the Lord. A poster on your bedroom wall was akin to “worshiping false idols,” they warned, opening ourselves up to attacks “from the enemy.” The sixth-grade girls were absolutely not having it. We would do a lot for Jesus, who was, as we had problematically declared, our homeboy. We went to church every Sunday, anxiously repledged ourselves to Him at any altar call within earshot just to cover our bases, and wore T-shirts with Bible verses printed in such a way as to plagiarize the Pepsi logo, but give up boy bands? My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?

“But *NSYNC are Christians,” one girl protested, her voice thick with emotion and conflict, “They say ‘God must have spent a little more time on you.’ So, I think it’s okay to listen to them.”

And then one of the counselors said, “You know what? You have a lot of grit for engaging in this discussion with people in a position of power, and you have a great point! In fact, I think I speak for all of us ‘adults’ when I say we are sorry for trying to inject shame into an innocuous body of work that you clearly really enjoy AND can think critically about, and which appears to affirm your own faith journey! Our bad! Also, virginity is not a thing! You can go ahead and make your own decisions about entering into sexual relationships, if and when you choose to do so!”

Sike! What actually happened was this: that girl was shut down hard, we moved on to the next critical issue (spaghetti straps—merely slutty or full on demonic?), and the boys continued to get to do whatever they wanted, forever, which apparently included eye fucking everyone who didn’t wear a T-shirt over their swimsuit at the beach. One summer, a few years later, a college sophomore on staff who was, conservatively, 18 months older than the room full of teen girls he was addressing, offered us a sincere apology on behalf of the boys “for having sex with every single one of you, in our hearts.” Because that’s what the Bible says, of course! “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Aw, don’t worry about it, bro! Definitely don’t pluck your eyes out at all!

What was it about these bands that made them so threatening to the church? I found myself thinking back on all the scaremongering as I watched the Boys scamper back onstage after a costume change. (We got vests! Sequined cargo joggers! A red satin durag about which the less is said, the better!) As a kid, I assumed that it must be the overwhelming sexiness. I assumed this about anything the church frowned upon, which led to some real letdowns later on: looking at you, Friends.

There must be something abjectly pornographic to justify the amount of hand-wringing the church had done, right? This audience was dopamined to the gills by the first half, and there was no doubt the Backstreet Besties still had charm and swagger, but there was nothing really shocking happening. The sexuality was both calculated and bland—some slickly choreographed body rolls and thrusting movements. So, what’s the pull? Why, 26 (not 30) years later, are these Boys still such a transcendently good time, and why did a lot of adults spend so much time trying to make sure I didn’t experience it?

The second half of the show pumped it up a little. This was Backstreet Boys after dark, okay? Goodnight, Nick and Brian, you wholesome dreamboats. You were great, but now it’s Bad Boy O’Clock and we’ve got Kevin and AJ making their way to the front of the stage.

The second half of the show pumped it up a little. This was Backstreet Boys after dark, okay? Goodnight, Nick and Brian, you wholesome dreamboats. You were great, but now it’s Bad Boy O’Clock and we’ve got Kevin and AJ making their way to the front of the stage. Kevin Richardson, arguably the strongest vocalist of the group and with a look that I will respectfully describe as “sexiest magician at the vape shop,” spent a generous amount of time interacting with the crowd. When he first appeared on the big screen, he and his ponytail were met with an absolute roaring wall of horniness—shocking in both its length and vigor (lol). Kevin: 1000/10.

If Kevin was the strongest vocalist, AJ McLean threw his hat (did you think he had just one? this is me, begging you not to worry about it) in the ring for “yelliest.” A chaotic and flamboyant performer, he had the aura of a bachelor party. I thought AJ would be an easy target, but honestly, he was fun as hell, had the best outfits, and provided one truly sweet moment where he connected with one of the youngest kids in the audience, a little girl holding a sign that said “Hi AJ! This is my first concert!” He also performed lead vocals for most of the second half, which I imagine is tough when there’s a camera crew filming you from an exploitatively crotch-first angle, but this man was committed to giving his rapidly aging fans what they demanded. The audience loved him. I loved him. AJ 4EVA. AJ: 10/10

Howie was there primarily to provide finger choreography and to lead one non-consensual acapella interlude. This is not Howie’s fault. All the acapella I have ever been subjected to has been against my will. Howie: You’re doing a great job, buddy!/10.

Weirdly, the Backstreet Boys all have a vaguely youth pastor-y vibe about them these days. Nearing the end of the show, they screened a music video of one of the songs from their 2019 album, DNA, that was just the Boys and their respective families (each Boy having been allotted one Smokin-Hot Wife, if you know you know, and 2.5 children) slow dancing at sunset, making a nice pasta dinner, playfully tickling, etc. You could play any recent piece of worship music over those vignettes, and it would have had the exact same effect: gotta give it up to the big guy for all these dang blessings. This was blessings porn. If you gave me a blind sample of all but their most known songs mixed with a sampling of current worship music, I promise you I would not be able to tell them apart. But while it was almost aggressively precious, it was also tailor-made to appeal to women of a certain age. When we were 13, these guys were our fantasy boyfriends. Now, they are dedicated family men, and I think that’s the most offensive thing I saw that night. This is what the Backstreet Boys think I am fantasizing about? A bunch of sweater-wearing bozos gently ribbing each other as they grill meat for their children??? Guys, I will sue.

Reader, I could not imagine fucking any of these dorks. This show was, top to bottom, incredibly fun, but unless you have a bedazzling kink, it was strangely devoid of sexuality. Even the crowd’s horniness was sanitized: twice, people threw panties on stage, but these were prop panties. One had “How You Doin?” emblazoned on them in glitter. Someone brought those, neatly folded and unworn, to fling at Kevin—and let me tell you it feels weird to me that I find myself arguing in favor of used underwear. But, come on! If you’re throwing undies at someone as a symbol of your readiness to accept their probably-pierced penis, you’ve gotta wear those babies around a bit! I don’t write the rules, but I will enforce them.

I think this performative, scrubbed sexuality is the point. The Backstreet Boys and their peers were making music that was sexy, yes, but a specifically chaste kind of sexy designed to appeal to adolescents. They offered a safe outlet for us to project our first modest fantasies on, with lyrics that told us how special and seen we were, one in a crowd of a million other girls. They told us to go ahead and have fun, to celebrate ourselves, and, sure, be a little horny. This was it—the thing that the Christian church could not abide. They were like, “Hey! There’s only one man we want you to have a pseudo-sexual parasocial relationship with, and that one man is Jesus, who is also His Father, God, and also there is a Ghost involved!”

In the song “As Long as You Love Me,” Brian croons that he doesn’t care who I am, where I’m from, or what I did. (Hey, Bri? You gotta have some boundaries, king. That’s some Backstreet Boy talk, and you are a Backstreet MAN now.) But guess who else was supposedly not caring about all that stuff as long as I loved Him? Jesus Christ, that’s who. Man, no wonder Christian Summer Camp was so rabidly anti-boy band. They offered the same kind of impossibly wholesome and unconditional love, WITHOUT all the repenting and renouncing and copyright infringement. Moreover, they told us we were good just as we were, all on our own, and it was okay to feel good about that. If that’s not worth throwing your pristine novelty panties over, I don’t know what is.


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Maureen Haeger

Maureen Haeger is a therapist living in Spokane, Washington, with her family. She thinks you should watch Men In Black immediately, as it is a perfect movie.

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