Oh, those poor Backstreet Boys: Who else could sell 1.59 million copies of their new album the week it comes out and still look like turkeys?
According to the absurdly inflated expectations of the pop world, the Boys were on a mission to match 'N Sync's record-breaking opening-week tally of 2.4 million, restoring their pride, honor and supremacy as the lunchbox nation's favorite castrati-core mall mutants. But no – Black and Blue didn't outdo 'N Sync, didn't even come close. Damn you, 'N Sync! Damn you! It's a fighting matter, especially since the Boys are trying to prove that they're men now, even nicking their album title from the Rolling Stones. (Personally, I'm waiting for Mick Jagger to call TRL and announce, "I'm black and blue from the Backstreet Boys, and I love it!") AJ wears a Led Zeppelin T-shirt in the CD booklet, Kevin sports frankly alarming facial hair, and Howie . . . wait a minute, where's Howie? When did Steve Perry join the Backstreet Boys? Or is that the Counting Crows dude?
It's easier to tell the boy bands apart now that they're getting older and paunchier. You know 'N Sync because they're the ones who look and dress like eighty-year-old dentists' widows all slicked up to hit the strip malls of Boca Raton. The Backstreet Boys are the ones who look like they really, really hate being in the Backstreet Boys. Musically, though, the differences are, shall we say, subtle. 'N Sync hire Richard Marx to write material, so the Boys go to Dan Hill, the guy who sang "Sometimes When We Touch" – what, nobody has the guts to bring in Barry Manilow? But while 'N Sync are into it, smiling for the camera and kicking up their heels, the Boys have started to look like they're getting choreographed at gunpoint, and enthusiasm makes all the difference in the boy-band battle. The lead single from Black and Blue was the sour, listless "Shape of My Heart," and the Boys don't even show their faces on the front cover of their own album, a grave breach of boyband etiquette. Instead, we see them brood on the back cover, Radiohead-style, walking down an actual back street and planning revenge against whoever talked them into that one.
BSB have definitely hit that difficult age. The possibility that some of them may have actually had sex can no longer be dismissed out of hand; some of them may have even had sex with other people. But they were way more fun when Lou Pearlman was picking out their socks. Whether we're talking the Bay City Rollers, Duran Duran or the New Kids, the teen-pop boyband fantasy is the same: The girls want them, the boys want to be them. But nobody fantasizes about being one of the Backstreet Boys. AJ's Zeppelin T-shirt looks like a desperate cry for help from out of the boy-band time warp, where young men slave away the golden hours of their youth performing music they wouldn't be caught dead listening to. So if you're one of those people who got offended when Britney Spears sang "Satisfaction," brace yourself for the inevitable Backstreet solo projects – I'm betting AJ does a mean "Whole Lotta Love."
This story is from the January 18th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.