Here’s a bit of frightening pop-culture math for you: the first record by the New Kids on the Block came out 25 years ago. The first LP by the Backstreet Boys bowed 15 years ago. Alright, quit screaming in agony.
That may not be a terribly long time in human years, but in pop-cultural terms it’s an eternity. And how are those milestones being celebrated? How else? Both boy-turned-men bands are hitting the road this summer, playing surprisingly large venues under the collective moniker NKOTBSB. And, because these things so often work out this way, Sony’s Legacy Recordings has capitalized on the fact that both New Kids and Backstreet’s catalogues are in their control, and have put together a little compilation entitled – what else? – NKOTBSB.
It’s not a “new” album by any stretch – the disc has five classic singles from each band, all of which were selected by a fan voting campaign, as well as three new collaborations – but it’s certainly grabbing the public’s attention. What do we chalk this up to, though? Is it misguided nostalgia, the effect of too much VH-1 and Us Weekly on a generation of girls with disposable income? Or is there something deeper than those pretty faces on the album sleeve?
The New Kids weren’t the first boy band of the modern age – producer Maurice Starr had already made his magic work on five black teens under the name New Edition – but they were the ideal realization of Starr’s pop music vision. It was pretty genius actually: lots of bands had pretty faces, fly dance moves and insane marketability across a wide swath of audiences, but few at the time had all three. And the music is only a little dated today; the drum machine patterns and macho posturing are chuckle-inducing, but they’re still good for a few moves on the dance floor.
Much like the New Kids, the Backstreet Boys were another producer-created juggernaut. Producer/eventual creep Lou Perlman created BSB (and later *NSYNC) from the mean streets of Orlando, and molded them to dance-pop perfection. They had the moves, the harmonies and most importantly, the eye of the public in the last great hurrahs for MTV and music sales in general. (The band’s American debut album and follow-up Millennium each sold more than 10 million copies, a nigh-unattainable feat today.) They never yielded a killer star like Justin Timberlake, but their good looks and youthful camaraderie haven’t left them yet (even without one original member, BSB elder statesman Kevin Richardson) and their fans have stuck with them through thick and thin.
NKOTBSB is a fun if ridiculously slight walk down memory lane for both groups. Including only five tracks from each band – and letting fans vote on them – was kind of a disservice. The New Kids tracks focus on a very small time period (there’s four songs from 1988’s Hangin’ Tough and one from follow-up Step by Step in 1990), while the Backstreet tunes don’t stretch any later than 1999’s Millennium. Some later hits for each band, like the New Kids’ “Tonight” or BSB’s “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely” are greatly missed. As for the new songs, they’re fun if slight attempts to regain the boy band magic. Even with some killer names behind the scenes (including Lady Gaga collaborator RedOne and Emanuel Kiriakou, who produced David Archuleta’s catchy “Crush”), it’s too bad they couldn’t have hooked back up with Max Martin or attempted something with Dr. Luke.
The album’s closing track, a live mash-up of each band’s biggest hits, sort of sums up the whole NKOTBSB experience: it’s not serious, capital-M music, but it fits like a comfortable pair of pants – and some days, that’s all that matters. NKOTBSB are here, and even for a few fleeting moments, they’re larger than life.