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First Person

Life Lessons Taught by the Backstreet Boys

April 15, 2001|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Once upon a time--before I had children--I used to fantasize about starting a family band. I'm not talking about the Osmonds, or even the Allmans; what I had in mind was something with a bit more edge, a bit more danger, like the early Kinks, say, or Oasis on one of their better days.

My brother was a singer after a fashion, and I could play a passable guitar. Still, although we both spent time messing around in various groups, the closest we ever came to doing anything together was a handful of late-night jam sessions and a lone recording, a quickie cover of Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody," which we laid down on a four-track one forgotten evening, long ago.

My involvement with music came to a crashing halt when I became a parent in the fall of 1994. If you look at my record collection, which I once nurtured as obsessively as my grandfather used to tend his garden, you'll find that the most recent releases date from this period.

Around the same time, I broke the high E string on my electric guitar, a disruption so utterly insignificant it has yet to be repaired. All of a sudden, I had neither the time nor the energy to search out new music; I even stopped paying attention to the music I knew.

But just as I thought music had fallen permanently behind me, my relationship with it took an unexpected turn. About a year ago, in the car one afternoon, my son Noah asked if we could listen to the radio, and, when a Backstreet Boys song came out of the speaker, he started to sing along.

I found myself, by turns, grimacing and smiling, disliking the music yet amused at taking part in this dynamic from the other side. As a kid, I had waged epic sonic warfare with my mother--once, after she'd yelled at me to turn off a Neil Young record, I had blurted, "But Neil Young's a genius," only to have her answer, "If he were a genius, he wouldn't be playing electric guitar."

Because of that, I'd long ago vowed that, when the time came, I would hold my opinions to myself. Sitting in that car, though, I began to understand how difficult keeping silent was. Noah, after all, was only 5, and though I'd discovered pop music at a similar age, my songs had been "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "With a Little Help From My Friends."

This new music, I couldn't help thinking, was wholly different--a cynical exercise in audience manipulation, manufactured hits performed by pretty-boy frontmen.

I was about to say something when, from the back, Noah asked: "Hey, Dad. Don't you think that's a really good song?" In the rearview mirror, I could see him grinning, and rocking his head in an approximation of the beat. He seemed so happy that I did the only responsible thing I could. I took Noah to a record store and bought him the CD.

Buying a 5-year-old his first CD can be something of a gateway experience, the opening of a new world. No sooner had we returned home than Noah put the album on and began to perform a spontaneous song-and-dance routine. Over the next few weeks, his performances grew increasingly choreographed, and my wife and I became intimately acquainted with the music of the Backstreet Boys.

At first, I tried to tune it out, much as my mother must have done. Then, one evening, I caught myself humming improvised bass lines as the stereo cranked out "Larger Than Life." I felt a shock of embarrassment, as if my last few lingering grains of musical credibility had, at that very instant, drained away.

Just as fast, however, I was hit with an equally strong wave of elation, the realization that, for the first time in a long time, I was thinking not in terms of words, of language, but rather harmonics, euphony, rhythm--all those slippery and elusive concepts that had once existed at the center of my world.

This, I guess you might say, was the moment of my reawakening, the instant I let music back into my life. I don't mean that the Backstreet Boys saved me, although in some strange sense I suppose they have. That's not always such a blessing; over the last year, my ears have been assaulted by the most insufferable contemporary pop imaginable, from Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears to (my 2 1/2-year-old daughter Sophie's favorite) 'N Sync.

But I've also turned my kids on to the Beatles, especially the early stuff, such as "Twist and Shout" or "Help!," which, Noah tells me, is now his favorite song. And I've begun to reacquaint myself with my old records, with the aural blitzkrieg of the Velvet Underground, the subtle nuances of R.E.M.

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