Backstreet Boys, Birmingham Arena, 15th June 2019
Something funny happened to me a little after 9pm on Saturday night. I’m standing in Birmingham with two friends from my school days, listening to music I haven’t heard in at least 16 years – maybe longer. And I suddenly realise that I’m singing along to every word. Unconsciously, I still know every word of a song I’d pretty much forgotten existed.
It was my birthday this Saturday. I like doing something good for my birthday, making an effort. This year the decision of how to do that was remarkably easy, even if it did start out as a bit of a joke. First we heard they were touring in May or June, wouldn’t that be quite the night? And then the dates came out and it was this Saturday – the actual date of my birthday. The choice made itself.
For the first time ever, we were off to see the Backstreet Boys.
This is the first of these big arena nostalgia pop tours I’ve been to, and I’m almost certain it’ll be the last. Never cared about Take That, briefly loved the Spice Girls but left that behind in primary school. Backstreet Boys were my band. No, they were our band – they were what stuck our friendship together (once we’d got over the arguments about how many of us were allowed to have the same favourites, of course. Mine was Nick).
Anyone who was ever been a 12-year-old fangirl knows that there’s nothing quite like it. Obsessed is the only word: walls covered in posters, hours spent in the back of the classroom going through magazines. My obsession emerged at the same time as the internet, and with messageboards you always had someone to talk to about your shared BSB love. I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to each of their records, but I’d guess in the hundreds. Once, one of us had a dad who worked at ITV and got us into an recording session they were doing for CD:UK. The moment they said “hi” to us as they walked past us in the cafe was the greatest of my 13-year-old life.
Then one day, it was over. I remember I was on the bus back from a school ski trip, and asked a mate for a CD to change it up straight from a BSB (as true fans know them) record. She gave me Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and that was it. My new obsession. One which led me to so much great music, but also down a path of being completely embarrassed by my past taste in pop. The posters came down, I gave away the records.
With time I look back on those feelings of excitement around the band differently, now as a happy, (if somewhat absurd) memory. Enough to spend out on these tickets, at least. But speaking for myself, I’m not sure I actually expected it to be good. There were a lot of ways this could’ve turned out for the worse. Age might have taken its toll on their voices, and were they really going to pull off those dance routines now? Are they sick of each other? Or was it going to be a performance tinged with a sense of desperation about a time long gone?
The night can be summed up by the fact that at the end of the two hours, my face hurt from smiling so much.
There’s no point in me talking about the music because if you weren’t into it in 2000, you won’t be now. We understand these aren’t the best songs ever written. Although I do think that due to the market that boybands were for (and perhaps a little gendered dismissal of teenage girls’ interests?), their music gets a worse reputation. Is Larger Than Life really a worse song than the much-loved Baby One More Time? They were even written by the same person! Whatever: 90s pop is a distinct genre, and if it’s one you’d rather forget existed then fine. Nobody came to this gig expecting to hear anything different.
What makes this show a success is that the BSB know that, and they’re happy to take you exactly where you want to go. Even after 26(!) years, there’s no evidence of a shred of cynicism or going through the motions. Part of it probably comes from training: if there’s one thing the weirdness of boyband life must teach, it’s how to be professional. The word which came to mind was ‘slick’. I’m sure that every move of the non-choreographed songs has been rehearsed to the nth degree. But a few years in the musical wilderness, followed by a successful Vegas residency, must teach you how to appreciate what your audience like.
And so there’s a sense of commitment – date I say belief? – to every single song. BSB know you’ve come here for a show, and they’re damned well going to give you one. We get costume changes (everyone gets VERY excited when they come out in white – and with sparkle)! Fire! Many, many impressive lights! Dancing that’s so good it’s shocking – I hope I’m still moving like that at 47. We get a big energetic start, a great middle, and then a final 30 minutes of relentless hits which turns the party mood up to 11. Even the frequent adverts for the new album (oh yes, it’s out there) aren’t awful. It sounds like the generic pop of now, but it’s sung in short samples so the audience aren’t left standing around waiting for the next favourite. BSB know that it’s those classics of 1997 not 2019 which are their currency, and don’t want to leave you short changed.
So I had a bloody great birthday. Laugh if you like – I’ve laughed at myself for those obsessive years enough times. They are undoubtedly an easy target, and nobody can give me an opinion on the inanity or weirdness of this kind of manufactured pop that I haven’t thought for myself. But one of my favourite things about moving into my 30s is that I give less of a shit every year. I’m far from falling back in love with the BSB, but I can now remember and revel happily in how special it was at the time. For one night only, there’s few places I’d rather be than with two of my oldest friends, singing along to I Want It That Way for the 1001st time.