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POP MUSIC

The Boys pop their bubblegum rap

With an album coming out after a five-year hiatus, the Backstreet Boys are reinvented.

June 01, 2005|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Lon Lindeland, who oversees music for the Best Buy chain, didn't even have to hear any songs from the Backstreet Boys' upcoming album to decide that there's still interest in the group after a nearly five-year hiatus.

"They came by the office," he says, recounting a visit by the vocal group a few weeks ago to the company's Minneapolis headquarters. "And I can't tell you how many twentysomething girls who work here were going crazy to meet them."

John Ivey, vice president of programming for Los Angeles pop radio powerhouse KIIS-FM (102.7), saw something similar at the station's recent Wango Tango concert at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.

"The reception they got was phenomenal," he says. "This was their first big show back together, and the crowd reaction was a tear-the-house-down reaction."

That may not seem like a surprise -- after all, with their devoted teen audience these guys were at the top of the pop music world in the late '90s. Their three original albums and one hit collection have sold nearly 30 million copies in the U.S.

But historically music fans in their 20s are often embarrassed by their adolescent pop infatuations. That's one big reason teen-pop stars usually don't last long, and a big reason why the Backstreet Boys' return with a new album (due out June 14) isn't a guaranteed success.

It's been five years since Nick Carter, A.J. McLean, Brian Littrell, Howie Dorough and Kevin Richardson released their last album, and four years since their last full tour. How have things changed?

"It's the same five guys singing, so it has the Backstreet sound," Littrell says. "But we're a little older and we've grown."

"Never Gone," the new album, edges away from teen-pop toward a young-adult pop-rock recalling Maroon5 and Rob Thomas. The Boys actually started making a more rhythm-oriented album in mid-2003, a la 'N Sync and Britney Spears, but the style didn't feel right to them.

Reconnecting with writer-producer Max Martin, who helped shape their original sound, they instead fashioned an approach emphasizing melody and harmony, adding more guitar. They also worked with several producers associated with adult fare, including John Shanks (Sheryl Crow, Michelle Branch), John Fields (Switchfoot) and Five for Fighting's John Ondrasik. The current hit single, "Incomplete," hints at the new direction while also echoing earlier Backstreet ballads.

The music, Littrell says, reflects real-life changes.

"My wife and I are proud parents of a 2 1/2 -year-old boy," says Littrell, at 30 one of three Backstreet Boys now at or past that age. "Nick did a solo project and has led a life in the public eye with young ladies he's dated and whatnot. But he's learned a lot from being a solo artist, growing up even more.

"A.J. was working on his sobriety -- two years and seven months now sober, and we're all thankful for that. Kevin played the role of Billy Flynn in 'Chicago' on Broadway. Howie -- we call him T.J., for Trump Jr. -- because as well as working on a Spanish-English solo record, he's been doing a lot of real estate development."

Beyond the music, the hiatus was important to the members personally, according to Littrell: "Got a chance to breathe, spread our wings as individuals, and the time was needed. We've all become stronger people."

In returning, they wanted to avoid contrivances such as New Kids on the Block's comeback a decade ago with a calculatedly updated sound and a shortened name, NKOTB, to downplay the "Kids" aspect.

"All we care about is making good music, and the whole baggage will still be there," says Carter, the youngest member at 25. "We're not trying to break away from it, not trying to say we're all grown up. People were saying we should change the name to the Backstreet Men or something. The Beach Boys never changed their name. We're not going to change."

That's smart, say music retailers and radio programmers surveyed by The Times.

"It doesn't seem like it's forced," says Fred Fox, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing for Ohio-based Trans World Entertainment, which operates the Wherehouse and other music store chains. "It seems like a natural progression of a bunch of talented people."

How does it fit with the natural progression of the fans and pop culture in general?

"This is not a bad place for them to be," says Geoff Mayfield, a senior analyst for Billboard magazine. "The music they did as teen stars was not typical bubblegum. They had those great harmonies, and that's why even then they had the added advantage of appealing to adults. A key point is managed expectations. Older consumers don't necessarily run to the record store the first week it comes out."

That fits the strategy of Jive Records, which is releasing the Boys' recordings.

"There's an underserved pop audience around the world -- 'American Idol' shows that," says Barry Weiss, president and chief executive of Jive's parent, the Zomba Label Group. "If we connect with 'Incomplete,' we could have many more singles to go. We could work on a 12-month period, revive the career and entrench them. It's really that simple."

And the Boys' attitude?

"I think our expectations are a whole lot of nothing right now," says Littrell, who is also working on a Christian-oriented solo album. "We made this record for ourselves and for our fans. If by chance it takes the world by storm again and people fall in love with the Backstreet Boys, that's a blessing."

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