It is what it is, but better somehow.
Currently in their second year of the “In a World Like This” tour, in support of their studio album of the same name, the Backstreet Boys are showing their age, and Friday’s show at the Chesapeake Energy Arena was no exception.
The Boys became a performing group a whopping 21 years ago, and this probably puts your mind in an understandable place when thinking about what a concert of theirs must be like at this point in their career.
As 1990s boy bands go, the Backstreet Boys are the grandfathers of ’90s cheese pop. For context’s sake: I was 13 when the Backstreet Boys had their first platinum-selling single, “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart).” It was one year before Hanson’s “MmmBop” was released and two years before ’N Sync’s “I Want You Back” made it stateside.
I remember those songs, and if you were alive and around a radio or television in the late ’90s, you do too. You’d recognize the opening notes of “I Want it That Way,” and you’d find vaguely familiar the haunted house video for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” You remember those things, even if you don’t realize you do. Whether or not the average person remembers that stuff is irrelevant to the thousands of people in homemade T-shirts and newly purchased BSB gear who packed the ’Peake last night, however.
For an overwhelming majority of the crowd—and I’m putting the age and gender tally at about 90 percent women between 25 and 40 —seeing the Backstreet Boys is about reliving an experience with a band that changed their lives in some way: plastered their walls, cost them their allowance, gave them their first teen crush tears. For them, this is the concert equivalent of a high school reunion, replete with magical memories flooding back, intertwined with truly cringe-worthy moments.
They opened the show with “The Call” and “Don’t Want You Back,” from records released in 2000 and 1999, respectively. Predictably, the biggest hits got the biggest response. Older songs like “As Long As You Love Me” and “All I Have to Give” had everyone on their feet. File those under “magical memories.”
There was no point where the crowd was lukewarm, but the unfamiliarity of the guys feebly playing instruments and singing ballads written in the last few years elicited less raucous a response across the board.
Kevin Richardson asked if everyone wanted to “party like it’s 1999,” and at one point, resident bad boy (he has lots of tattoos) A.J. McLean asked the crowd who had purchased the group’s 2013 tour namesake record: “Oh. Well. That’s about half…I like it. I think it’s pretty good.”
One track from that album, “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of),” showcased what were certainly the best vocal performances of the night from everyone onstage, and the track was touchingly prefaced with a bit about fatherhood.
Here, I have to commend the Backstreet Boys for having a sense of humor about themselves. It probably takes a lot for men in their 40s to perform a 19-year-old song called “We’ve Got it Goin’ On.” With the tight-knit dance moves, angelic harmonies, terrible haircuts and—probably most importantly—insane record sales figures of 1999 all but gone, the Backstreet Boys are actually more endearing than ever, I think: funny and self-deprecating, quick to tease each other and fully aware of where they’ve been and where they hope to go.
A brief acoustic set in the middle of the show had Nick Carter again pleading with the crowd to give the new record a chance. After going into “Madeleine” with a voice crack on the first note, the whole group laughed at him, even while singing. Carter, beet red, finished the song by saying, “Well. Now you don’t want to buy the record.”
Carter also marveled at a “boy band playing instruments” and nodded to their collective realization that, to stay afloat, they all needed to learn to play because they’d eventually be too old to dance.
A vignette shown during a costume change previewed “Backstreet Boys — The Movie,” tentatively due later this year. For all the eye-rolling that revelation may have induced, the trailer was full of candid interview soundbites.
“Nobody tells you what to do when you get to the top,” says crowd favorite Brian Littrell.
“All we’re doing is keeping our heads above water,” says Carter.
The show closers were a few of BSB’s most memorable tracks and accidentally hilarious performances, including the iconic “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” BSB used much of the original choreography, and Carter made a point to find a camera to point at his groin on every mention of the word “sexual.” Behind him, a fan who paid for a VIP pit ticket held a handmade sign that read: “Nick: I’m not jailbait anymore.”
That’s…kind of weird, admittedly. There were plenty of “oh no” moments like that, but it all had the strange and unexpected feel of being in good fun. The whole ordeal seemed less an attempt to hold onto the past and more a celebration of it. These gentlemen, more dapper than ever even when randomly and frequently sleeveless throughout the show, still sent sections of the crowd into flurries of shrieks and hugs with a mere wink or wave, but without the inherent drama or tragedy of preteen idol love.
Even though one might expect it to seem forced, how it didn’t feel is like ’N Sync’s halfhearted 2013 reunion performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, or like Beyonce throwing the rest of Destiny’s Child a televised bone at last year’s Super Bowl. Maybe (and ironically) the Backstreet Boys are lucky in that they have no clear frontrunner in talent or looks, no runaway superstar. There is no MJ, no Timberlake ... not even a Nick Jonas among their ranks to shake up the hierarchy.
They appeared, surprisingly and simply, to be a group of longtime friends and coworkers who still happen to enjoy what they do with impressive humility and only a modicum of embarrassment about their history, which — apparentl y— is a pretty good formula for longevity.