A.J. McLean was lounging at home and browsing headlines on his phone when a disturbing stream of news propelled him toward a new musical mission. "I used to spend all my time on Instagram and social media, seeing what's going on in entertainment," says the 37-year-old Backstreet Boys member. "Then one day, I downloaded the CNN app and became glued to it — racial issues, cops killing young black men, the uproar with anti–gay marriage ... all this negativity. I finally snapped and went, 'This is ridiculous. This is the world my daughter's growing up in, and it's a fucked-up one.'"
Deciding to use his celebrity to help "start a movement," McLean sat down with friend and producer Jordan James (Pussy Cat Dolls, Becky G, BSB) to write "Live Together," an anthem meshing the aggressiveness of Kanye West's "Black Skinhead" with positive yet controversial lyrics designed to "turn heads and shock people." The song will appear on McLean's upcoming solo debut, The Anthem.
"The moment I heard it in its entirety, the video concept flashed through my head."
Tackling racism, homophobia and police brutality, the compelling clip for "Live Together" came to life during a three-day shoot at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch, with Justin Jones directing and McLean's "Backstreet army" in tow. We spoke to the singer-songwriter about the inspiration behind the song, his role in fellow BSB Nick Carter's new zombie Western and the possibility of a Backstreet Boys–Spice Girls tour.
The video addresses major social issues facing the world right now. Having grown up on the road and lived somewhat of a privileged life, what exposure have you had to these problems, and how do you hope the song helps?
I've been living on the road for 22 years, and it has lots of perks, but there's also the downside of traveling Third World countries and seeing how people live. It's horrifying and makes me appreciate all that I have. Yet I've seen people who have nothing, but their spirits are so high. They just know it's going to turn around. That's a sign of hope, and hope is something we need right now.
This song is me taking a stand, saying, "Everyone needs to accept everyone for who they are — gay, straight, black, white ...." We would be flabbergasted how well people got along if they put their differences aside, and that's what I want from this video — to change people's views.
You mentioned you don't want your two-year-old daughter Ava growing up in a world like this. How much has becoming a parent influenced your perspective on society?
My daughter's my inspiration for everything. Every step I take, I think, "How will my daughter be affected? Is this setting a good example?"
Ava looks up to me like I'm king of the world, so I want her to be proud and see me follow my dreams and see things through.
"Live Together" shows off a more rock-oriented side of you that we don't see a lot with BSB. Who are your rock influences?
My mom was a total hippie, so I grew up listening to rock — Three Dog Night, Stones, Zeppelin. Then I moved onto Prince, Stevie Wonder and Fleetwood Mac. I've been listening to more rock lately. Royal Blood is one of my favorite records, and I love the Heavy and Walk the Moon.
What can we expect from the rest of your solo record?
It's nothing like "Live Together" — this is a standalone song and technically not the first single. The rest of the album covers R&B, funk, rock, soul. It's everything I am, but there's a nice cohesion. It'll hopefully be out this year.
You've launched the Live Together Foundation and used donations from fans who starred in the video to help a Pasadena high school rebuild their vandalized music room. What else do you hope to achieve with LTF?
We ask local people for local problems, then fix them. I was there painting and building for three weekends. To see these kids' faces — some laughing, some crying — and know that LTF made it happen was amazing. We're starting small, but I want this to become a global foundation like UNICEF or Live Aid. I want to change the world as much as I can. I'm only one man, but one man is better than no man!
You just wrapped filming bandmate Nick Carter's zombie Western, Dead 7. How did that go?
It was really fun to play the bad guy. Everyone was freaked out by me, and the director loved my character so much, he kept adding me into scenes. Nick was like, "Dude, thank you so much — you killed it. I'm a little jealous — I think you might steal the movie!"
Backstreet Boys are back in the studio next week — what can we expect and what's the deal with these BSB–Spice Girls tour rumors that keep re-surfacing?
The Spice Girls tour has been this idea bouncing around for the past year and a half, and it's something we're still talking about.
But we're going back in on the 12th to dust off the cobwebs. We're working with a new producer, Jay Cash, who wrote "Sugar" for Maroon 5. This is just the beginning phase, but we're hoping to have the album done before our cruise in May.