I’ll be straight with you: the last time I saw the Backstreet Boys live in concert was September 10, 2001. And while we’re on the subject I’ll be honest with you a second, sadder time: to try and make up for it I saw the Backstreet Boys again on 4/20 in Las Vegas this year.
I’m not saying I have a pathological fear my seeing of the Backstreet Boys causes large-scale disasters, but I’m not saying it doesn’t.
Let’s go over a few things. The Backstreet Boys were not “the one Justin Timberlake was in,” nor are they still famous, making them the perfect candidates for a Vegas show. They were the first 1990s boy band of note to have a truly global impact but never had a breakout star—the PG “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” boys to the hornier, less committed NSYNC-ers that were way less Christian and sometimes, gasp, thrust their crotches at the screen during music videos. Now the Boys are all over 40 save for original teen frontman Nick Carter, and it’s more clear than ever at their Las Vegas just-the-hits show that they are, in fact, five grown men from Orlando trying their best to dance. There are skits (skits!) that could have used some punching up. The set list is more or less identical to the show I saw on that fateful night in 2001, fresh into fourth grade with tickets my mom had put on her credit card for my birthday.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance a Boy Band of Choice means to a child. From BTS all the way back to The Beatles and Motown, every generation is blessed with a carefully curated pile of teenagers styled exactly to the times. Even now, they’re still frequently dismissed as industry plants (which they are), unable to play musical instruments (which they rarely can) and being overly sexualzed, tempting our youth into oblivion and being set up for a life of disappointment after peaking at 16. People love to call things that young girls like stupid and problematic, along with the High School Musicals and Twilights and so on, but the truth is that everything is stupid and problematic. Boy bands have always been a place for young people to project their enthusiasm, devotion and develop a closer sense of themselves, and yes, they’re also industry plants. Fuck you, there’s not a lot to be excited about.
The Boys—kings Kevin, Brian, Nick, Howie and AJ—were originally five teenagers from Florida plucked from various high school classrooms (except Kevin, who was always Old As Shit) and turned into stars by the later-convicted Ponzi schemer Lou Perlman, who would also create NSYNC. He’s since died in prison, most of the Backstreet Boys are now married with children and Nick Carter was credibly accused of raping a member of the singing group Dream late last year, though the case was not pursued due to the statute of limitations having expired. But has prison and assault ever stopped anyone from having a hit show in Vegas before?
This time I’m with my friend Sam after we drunk-purchased the tickets earlier in the month. We have a tight schedule, the worst hotel room in the city in the form of a Groupon room at Circus Circus (the theme is dirty carnival), and we have every intention of getting fucked up on Baja Blast margaritas at the Taco Bell Cantina immediately after. It’s very different from last time.
The first time I saw the Backstreet Boys I had just turned eight and, just days earlier on the first day of school, met the boy I would lose my virginity to nine years later. While that is hot, I did not know that then. What I knew, and did not shut up about, was that my mom got us tickets to the Backstreet Boys near the second stage—basically a platform in the middle of the stadium where they would sing exactly two songs—on September 10, and that I wanted to get a t-shirt.
Brian’s always been my favorite because he has a heart condition, which I thought meant he was sensitive. Sure, I was drawn to the raw sexual power of Nick Carter, who was a mere 12 years older than me to Kevin’s 23, but he was out of my league. Sure, I was intrigued by the bad boy freaky facial hair and sunglasses of AJ McLean, who in 2001 had gotten out of rehab just in time for tour, but I couldn’t handle it. No, I had no interest in Howie. But Brian? At five foot four with a weak-ass heart, he was just my speed. My sign read “I LOV U BRI!!!!”
In 2019, I have no sign, just conviction that I am going to scream all night long. The skits, and I cannot stress this enough, suck. Brian is still five foot four and his heart is still weak as hell and he runs out to the front of the gigantic Planet Hollywood catwalk and says, “You know, the guys and I were thinking that you guys might not be the biggest Backstreet Boys fans ever. Do you think that’s true?” I don’t care if it needs punch-up. I SCREAM.
AJ is the frontman of the band now because, as shrewd people might have noticed in their prime, he’s the only one that could ever really sing. He’s gone full dad now, taking breaks from the not-so-rigorous choreography to do dorky in-between struts, and Nick has been carefully kept firmly on the sides of the dances in order to pay small homage to the fact that he was effectively cancelled back in December (also, he can’t sing). Howie, bless him, still has his hair back and is completely unremarkable. Kevin (the old one) made some sort of bet with the devil at age 20 to look 40 for his entire life, and that’s finally paying off—he’s almost 50 now and looks like the youngest out of everyone.
The shirt was a critical component in 2001, as it would be my first and only status symbol in school. As they sang “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” I thought of the shirt. As they danced with folding chairs, I wondered if an adult medium could be modified to be a belted dress for me. As they came onto the second stage for ballads and Howie made eye contact with me (who cares), I thought about how I could reverse the shame of not knowing who a president was the previous day in class with what 30 dollars on my mother’s credit card could buy. The concert was incredible, the Boys at their absolute peak—they changed costumes every two songs, and some of them made them look like Transformers.
The Boys still change their clothes now, but it’s from one leather jacket combination into a different leather jacket combination. At one point, they all look like they just walked out of an American Eagle in 2004. My friend and I are being extremely obnoxious, but the other twenty-something women willing to invest in seeing the exact same setlist as I did the night before 9/11 don’t seem too bothered by it. Everyone is screaming every lyric and new material is scattered throughout the show to provide bathroom breaks, and we take them up on it.
September 10, 2001 was one of the best nights of my young life. My mom and I have nothing but wonderful memories of being together, finding my cousins and aunts when the show ended to brag about the second stage situation, and I got my adult medium shirt to wear the next day.
Here’s the thing. School started at 8:30 a.m., and the first plane hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m. That’s a very short amount of time for people to give a fuck about your t-shirt, and a bizarre way to measure the metric of the world being okay. Backstreet Boys? Good. 9/11? Bad. Tugging at a shitty t-shirt I wanted more than anything in the world while my classmates got dismissed from class one by one to call their families to see if they were okay—we were deemed too young to watch coverage of the event—was not how I’d pictured it going over.
Fast forward to 2019, and the country that the Backstreet Boys became so famous in has descended into a full-blown hell. Still, here they are, five white guys from Orlando harmonizing through all nine hundred of their hits, and even the most obscure lyrics are tattooed on the inside of my skull, more easily accessed than my current address.
Brian takes the stage again to monologue before the end of the show and tell us that it’s been 26 whole years since the Backstreet Boys got together. Everyone cheers and reflects on the fact that they’re not in fourth grade anymore. God knows what Brian actually thinks of that information, but he compartmentalizes it efficiently. They end on their first hit—“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” if you didn’t know, you dumb asshole—and the crowd goes insane. Because there was no breakout star a la Justin Timberlake of NSYNC, the structural integrity of the Backstreet Boys is virtually identical to when they were at their most famous, singing about love and hearts and, in one single, cheating on your girlfriend when your cell phone dies.
It was the perfect 4/20, just as it had been the perfect 9/10. As you are likely aware, there were horrific bombings in Sri Lanka on April 21st, the next morning, that killed at least 250 people. I… cannot ever see the Backstreet Boys live in concert again.
But goddamn it, I have a shirt.
Comedian Jamie Loftus is taking her show Boss Whom Is Girl, a dark look at fictional #girlboss Shell Gasoline-Sandwich, on tour this summer.