Winners Take All

The Backstreet Boys: 1999 Rolling Stone Readers Poll Artists of the Year, Band of the Year, Album of the year, Single of the Year, Best Video, Best Dressed, Best Fan Site, Best Tour and Biggest Hype

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By DAVID WILD

More stars than there are in heaven!

The words above the entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas seem boastful, particularly for a joint where Carrot Top is currently headlining. Tonight, however, the promise rings true, at least for the several hundred screaming fans gathered outside the casino hotel's Grand Garden Arena, waiting for the 1999 Billboard Music Awards to get under way. They are endlessly enthusiastic, almost exclusively female and far too young to engage in any of this Sin City's less savory diversions. But they stand just off the Strip openly declaring - nay, screeching - their dearest, high-pitched desires.

Already, 'N Sync (9 million sold) and Britney Spears (10 million and counting) have made their way down this carpet, but amid the fevered chanting, one message endures: They want the Backstreet Boys and they want them now. Many exercise their constitutional right to express their individual Backstreet preferences.

"I want A.J. so badly!" "Nick, Nick, Nick!" "I love you, Howie!" "We want Brian!" "Kevin, Kevin, Kevin!"

Unberneath it all, there's the chant du jour: "Backstreet! Backstreet!"

One such chanter is thirteen-year-old Shana. Asked what it is about A.J. that makes her "want him," she is quick to clarify matters. "He's fine," she explains. "His voice is so sexy. I don't know - he makes my heart melt." Meanwhile, her pal Katie - who just turned seventeen today - wants to see Nick because "it's my birthday, you know."

The Boys are late, running on what the group's Howie Dorough later calls "Backstreet time," which he gently spins as "a little bit later than normal." To speed the awards along, their car drops them off right at the stage door, but they insist on making a quick detour down the carpet. "At least to show a presence," Howie says sweetly, "instead of just sneaking through the back door." They know who and what got them here, and they're not about to turn their backs. As the Boys make the red-carpet walk, it's clear they're all the Cute One, though the devoted can note finer distinctions. There's Howard "Howie D." Dorough, 26, the charming, upbeat peacemaker who consistently earns his "Sweet D" nickname; Alexander James "A.J." McLean, 22, the tattooed in-house rebel; Kevin Richardson, 28, the most classically handsome and the oldest, more doggedly professional and business-minded than the others; and Nick Carter, 19, the blond babe known within the group for having the shortest of attention spans. Last but not least there's Brian Littrell, 23, the singing Southern gentleman also known as B-Rok, whose 1998 open-heart surgery to correct a congenital defect nearly broke his fans' own young hearts. Rushing through the arena's backstage area to their seats, the Boys bond briefly with the likes of Carrot Top and Mike Tyson. The scene here is frantic, with teen acts, music vets and assorted celebs mingling everywhere. "It's crazy," says Howie. "It's nuts. It's, like . . . surreal. Is that the right word?" The Boys accept the evening's first award, Album of the Year, for Millennium - their accomplished second effort, which has already sold 10 million copies to date, a record 1.1 million of them in its first week of release. The highlight of the Boys' acceptance speeches comes when Nick thanks "the younger generation of our music that is coming out right now, like Britney Spears and 'N Sync. To all the people out there who have helped re-create pop and R&B . . . I think you guys deserve a big thanks, too." It's a gracious moment of teen-pop glasnost. Later in the evening some members of 'N Sync - with whom the Boys have had some bad blood in the past - will thank Carter. "Just a little kindness can make such an impact," he muses later. "It made me feel good. And, you know, I meant it."

"I thought it was mature of Nicky having said that," Dorough adds. "There's always going to be some competition, whether it's friendly or not, but sometimes I think the media make it out to be more than it is. Every time we've bumped into 'N Sync and all the other groups, they were very cordial. Everybody is doing their own thing, and you've got to respect that." But aren't some of these acts just doing your thing? "Or they were trying to do their own thing," Howie adds. The evening becomes a celebration of pop's changing of the guard. 'N Sync present Britney with the Female Artist of the Year award, and BSB pick up the evening's last honor, Artists of the Year. Later, Nick Carter is asked which honors he still aspires to win.

"The past couple of award shows that we've been to, we see the lifetime- achievement award being given," he admits. "This is one of the things I would love to have." He is nineteen years old.

What the Backstreet Boys are selling - and selling in massive quantities - is what Motown once called the Sound of Young America. Except that this is the sound of a new young America, for whom a classic Motown act would be Boyz II Men. At first it seems surreal - is that the right word? - that the Backstreet Boys should take their place in the Rolling Stone Readers Poll winner's circle in the company of Korn and Limp Bizkit. Ultimately, though, boy bands, guy rock - what's the big diff? "We're all out there making music," says Howie. In fact, for more than a year, Backstreet Boys have shared a management company - the Firm - with both Korn and Limp Bizkit. "The guys are really cool," says Howie. "Very cordial, respectful - it's been good, even though we were stepping on their turf." Backstreet Boys have changed the pop turf dramatically, creating a territory where music has become a theme park of the heart - an irony-free zone that offers young musical entertainers a place to join the machine rather than rage against it. Three years after they first broke in the U.S., the Backstreet Boys now find themselves bigger than ever - a remarkable achievement, considering that the life spans of youth-oriented acts are traditionally measured not in years, decades or centuries, but in lunchbox seasons. Once dismissed as a marketing creation, the Boys have thrown off the team that gave them their start - and that tried to tell them how to dress and act. They've begun calling their own shots, and calling them correctly. These days they're even getting some respect for their trouble. It was not always thus, particularly when the group first emerged, in the late days of grunge. "In the beginning, we took a lot of crap from people," says McLean, the Boy with the most freewheeling, B-boyish style. "They looked at us, saw the image and said, 'Here we go again.' Once we proved ourselves a little bit, people started to listen to the music, and that's what it's all about. It's not about the image. "I'm proudest of the fact that out of all the crap we've been through - the change in management, the situation with [former Backstreet backer Lou] Pearlman and everything that happened to us in the hellacious year and a half - we still came out on top." "We had to break down doors to get people to play our music, play our videos on MTV," Richardson remembers, looking characteristically intense. "People didn't want to embrace us - I think New Kids on the Block left a bad taste, particularly in America's mouth. But New Kids never claimed to be a vocal group - they were entertainers. We're a vocal group. We'd like people to look at us like Boyz II Men or New Edition, only we're white." Richardson feels as though, paradoxically, the race card hasn't always played in the group's favor. "It seems like to me that if we were five black guys, people wouldn't give us as hard a time," he says.

Might they also not be selling a dozen million or so albums at a time? "Well, I don't know," Richardson says, pointing out Boyz II Men's multi-platinum numbers. "Because Caucasian is the majority in this country, if we were black, we probably wouldn't sell as many, and that's a sad fact. But it frustrates me that because we're white, people will assume, 'Oh, man, they ain't really singing.' A lot of people want to discount us. Because unlike a rock band or a garage band, they don't think we paid our dues. A lot of people don't know we've been together seven years. We weren't playing bars, but we played high schools all over the United States. High schools aren't bars, but teenagers are tough crowds, man." Other musicians are less of a problem. "It's nice to see Puff Daddy giving us props, Dr. Dre giving us props, Madonna giving us props," Richardson says. Before there were any props, there was Orlando, Florida, 1993, and an open audition organized by local businessman Lou Pearlman. Pearlman - whose varied holdings have included charter planes, a travel agency and Chippendale's clubs - leased the New Kids a private jet at their commercial peak, and hearing of their riches inspired him to go for a piece of the action. In doing so, he tapped into an endless supply of young showbiz hopefuls drawn to Orlando by opportunities in the theme-park capital of the world. Signing on to help with Pearlman's long-shot endeavor were Donna and Johnny Wright, the latter a one-time road manager for New Kids on the Block. From the local talent pool came Richardson, McLean, Dorough and Carter. In search of a final member, Richardson dialed up his cousin Littrell at his high school in Kentucky. "It was April 19th of 1993," Littrell remembers, his lilting Southern accent still strong. "He called me in my U.S. history class. It was the last hour of my junior year." The next morning, Littrell was on a flight to Orlando.

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