In May 1993, Backstreet Boys performed for the first time at Sea World’s Grad Nite in Orlando, Florida. They were dressed in black leather jackets, white tees, and black jeans for a Bad Boy look. They performed in front of a small crowd of fans (girls, mostly—of course) and, while they are exuberant, they look so very clearly brand new. But fast forward only three years to 1996 when they debuted their first single, “We’ve Got It Going On,” from their forthcoming first full-length self-titled debut record, they were on the precipice of monumental success.
Backstreet Boys ascended amid the throes of hip-hop, grunge, and pop music. The group paved the way for the rest of the boy bands who came after them with their self-titled debut, which turned 20 years old this month. Sure, New Kids On The Block are BSB’s immediate predecessor but they could never do what the Floridian group managed to achieve, even sonically. Without BSB, we would not have *NSYNC or 98 Degrees (a participation mention here, if I’m being honest) or even One Direction. Their self-titled is foundational in pop music because it mixes genres (hip hop, pop, R&B, and rock), excelling where other albums by their contemporaries (like *NSYNC’s debut, for example) fall short. It still gives us pop music cliches that we love but it is also inherently fun. The videos for these songs are equally important when talking about the album; one is not separate from the other because the visual perception informs the aural. Backstreet Boys, put simply, is the best boy band record of all time.
This record, and boy bands in general, are corny as fuck. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. That is what makes Backstreet Boys an exceptional sing-a-long-with-the-volume-cranked-to-max pop music. Backstreet Boys gives us surface level subject matter (love, loss, heartache, fucking, dancing, more fucking) but set to genre mixing sounds. Each track on Backstreet Boys helps identify a member of the group, which is an amazing feat, further elevating not only each Boy but the songs themselves. For the softer, gentler seeming members like Brian Littrell and Nick Carter, songs like “As Long As You Love Me,” and “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” aligned with them and their vocals were featured more prominently. For wilder, dance-y tracks like “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” and “Hey Mr. DJ (Keep Playin’ This Song), the de facto Bad Boy AJ Mclean took center.
Pop’s modus operandi is that if it works, replicate it until the end of time, or until audiences tire of the trend. And so, after BSB, came other boy bands like *NSYNC, 98 Degrees, and even interest in British imports Westlife, 5ive, and Boyzone. *NSYNC’s self-titled debut in 1997, on paper, is a lot like BSB’s self-titled. It, too, moves through ballads, straight up pop dance hits, pulling from from other genres (hip-hop, like “Giddy Up”) but they all fall flat in comparison to BSB’s. Every song on BSB’s self-titled is a verifiable banger. You’re singing along to “All I Have to Give” and “Get Down” in the way you would with the singles. *NSYNC didn’t find their pop hit groove until No Strings Attached and even then that album banks on its singles “Bye Bye Bye,” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” to bolster it. 98 Degrees on their 98 Degrees and Rising (wow!!!!) debut had the ballad “Because of You” and mostly fulfilled the Hot Guys (????) Singing About Love trope in pop at the time and that’s about it. All of their other songs are largely forgettable and same-y. And even with One Direction—who are removed from the heyday of boy band pop and fit more into a world rock/pop hybrid—their records can’t touch the simplicity of this kind of pop BSB gave us. Or even the videos birthed of that album.
Do you remember the first time you saw the “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart)” music video? Of course you do. Five attractive-ish men hanging out on a basketball court eventually strip the fuck down and writhe around in the rain??? It’s art. All of it is art. No one can touch the legacy that BSB carved out in this singular song. It is an R&B tinged piece of pop music canon. *NSYNC were (bafflingly) able to draw massive attention from their fans but they could never replicate the impact of what BSB did here. They had a wholesome approach to these type of songs and ballads, like “This I Promise You”, though the video also features some good sweaters, or even “Tearin’ Up My Heart” where they, too, wear billowing dress shirts. 98 Degrees also approached ballads and music videos less directly thirsty. And it isn’t even because of the objectification factor that makes “Quit Playin’ Games (With My Heart)” so effective. It is overly dramatic but that is precisely what makes it so good.
Backstreet Boys would go on to be the best selling boy band of all time, selling more than 130 million records in their tenure as a band. The beginning of that superstardom can be found in their self-titled debut. If the songs weren’t actually that good, there wouldn’t be that much success. *NSYNC being 8th on the list of top selling boy bands should be an indicator of that. No matter who came before—and who will inevitably come after for a new generation of thirsty teens—Backstreet Boys and their self-titled debut will always reign supreme.
In fifth grade, Sarah was extremely sure she was going to marry AJ. Follow her on Twitter.
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