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POP MUSIC

And They Can Sing Too

Two years ago, the Backstreet Boys struggled to find an audience in America for their clean-cut songs. Now, after mega-star success in Europe and Canada, they're heartthrobs of teen music.

January 04, 1998|Marc Weingarten | Marc Weingarten writes about pop music for Calendar

'Briiiiaaaannnn!"

Shauna, a teenage girl with green braces, is hyperventilating.

"Brian, I love you!" she screams, clutching a poster of teen dreams the Backstreet Boys to her chest like a treasured heirloom.

She and a few hundred other female fans have been waiting for three hours at Tower Records' Torrance store just to catch a glimpse of--and maybe, just maybe, snag a smooch from--their heartthrobs. Now Shauna has finally crossed the threshold of the store and is within swooning distance of the Boys.

"Briiiaaaan!"

Shauna makes a beeline for the table where Brian Littrell, 22, Howie Dorough, 23, Nick Carter, 17, Kevin Richardson, 25, and A.J. McLean, 23, are signing everything from teddy bears to plaster casts. She's positively quivering with pent-up anticipation now.

"Calm down, it's OK," Littrell implores, but it's no use--this appears to be the peak moment of Shauna's young life. Littrell gives her a hug, a peck on the cheek and an autograph, then asks her kindly to move on down the line to make room for the next fan.

For him and his bandmates, these in-store mob scenes have become a familiar ritual. But they usually take place in Germany or Canada, and the crowds are about 10 times as large and unruly.

The Backstreet Boys, formed five years ago in Orlando, Fla., have become mega-stars throughout Europe with their spit-shined image and silky harmonizing. Their self-titled debut has sold 13.5 million copies worldwide.

Just a fraction of that figure is from the U.S., where success hasn't come as easily or as quickly.

Two years after bombing big time with a single called "We've Got It Goin' On," the Backstreet Boys finally struck pay dirt in the United States in the summer with a sultry slice of funk-lite called "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)." Their album has quietly crossed the half-million sales mark three months after its initial release.

Why did the Backstreet Boys almost effortlessly crack the European market wide open but fail to make it on their home turf until last year?

The answer has more to do with the shifting sands of the pop-cultural zeitgeist than it does with any wrong moves on the group's part.

The Backstreet Boys were formed in 1993 by McLean, Dorough and Carter, who had met at acting auditions. They recruited Richardson from the "Aladdin" stage show at Disney World, then brought in his cousin Littrell to complete the lineup.

"My grandfather was in a barbershop quartet, and everyone in my family plays music by ear," says the reserved Richardson, relaxing on the tour bus with the rest of the group after the autograph-signing marathon.

"We really learned how to sing by performing in talent shows and singing in church."

All five members of the band are classic show-biz kids, reared in families that encouraged them to participate in talent shows and regional theater.

"Howie used to sing in pageants and stuff," Richardson says. "Nick won a Universal Studios Amateur Hour, and I did commercials at Disney."

Once the singers pooled their talents, their story unfurled like an MGM musical.

Responding to an ad in an Orlando paper soliciting young talent, the Boys made a demo recording on the cheap and were promptly discovered by the Wright Stuff, a management company owned by former New Kids on the Block road manager Johnny Wright and his wife, Donna.

"My whole career, I've always gone with instinct," says Donna Wright. "When I first heard the Backstreet Boys, I got the chills so strong that the hairs stood up straight on the back of my neck. I could just tell there was something there."

The Wrights immediately booked the Boys on the high school tour circuit, which has become a grass-roots rite of passage for teen acts looking to build a fan base from the ground up.

"With a band like this, it's all about marketing," says Johnny Wright. "That's why we went to all those schools, performed at school assemblies and signed autographs for 16- and 17-year-old girls. We wanted the Boys to be accessible to their fans, to meet them one on one. That was almost four years ago, and those girls are in college now, which is why radio stations are now getting requests from girls that are 24 and up."

That's not exactly the way the Wrights originally planned it--they would have liked to sell records to those girls when they were still in high school. But back when the Backstreet Boys first tried to peddle their G-rated dance music to Zit-Cream Nation, they were stymied by the alternative-rock revolution.

Tortured teen angst just didn't co-exist comfortably with puppy love anthems in 1995. But a funny thing happened: "We've Got It Goin' On" clicked in Germany, where it hit No. 1.

So the Boys released another single there, and it also rose to the top of the chart. At that point the Wrights decided to cut their losses in the United States and work the band in Europe.

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