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How Did The Backstreet Boys Get Started?

The Backstreet Boys consist of five young men from Orlando, Florida, who took the world by storm in 1995, and two years later became an international phenomenon. They sold over eleven million records worldwide, had four Top Ten singles, and sold out concert venues in Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia. In 1996 they were awarded the MTV Europe Viewers Choice Award, beating out acts like Oasis and Spice Girls as European favorites. Their popularity grew uncontrollably everywhere except in their home country, the United States. It wasn't until 1997 that America heard its first Backstreet Boys album -- two years after the rest of the world -- and the band launched a tour in an effort to conquer their own country.

The popularity of Backstreet Boys signals a resurgence of the innocent teen music of years past; Backstreet Boys are an old type of act with a new name, "the boy group." Their music appeals mostly to Tiger Beat and Seventeen crowds, who haven't had a similar fave rave since the New Kids On The Block bowed out in the early 1990s. The rise of the Backstreet Boys coincides with the decline of angst-ridden, doom-obsessed indie rock groups like Nirvana. "This music is an aural upper," Seventeen's music editor Susan Kaplow told USA Today. "I think consumers and the industry are ready for that." More cynical observers note the similarities in both the group's image -- five different male archetypes -- and the demographics of their fans -- teen and pre-teen girls -- to that of heart throb groups of the past, like the New Kids, Menudo, and the Bay City Rollers. All those groups flashed by and disappeared without leaving much of a blip on the radar of public consciousness. But the Backstreet Boys say they are different.

The band got their start in Orlando, Florida, in the early 1990s. By that time both Disney and MGM studios had established high profiles and were providing lots of work in movies and commercials. Two high school students, A. J. McLean and Howie Dorough, and junior high schooler Nick Carter started running into each other at auditions. They discovered a common interest in singing and soon they were harmonizing together a cappella whenever they had breaks. After a while they decided to form a group, but felt they needed were two more voices to add range and depth to their sound. Through a friend they discovered Kevin Richardson, who was singing in a show at Disney World. Richardson suggested his cousin, Brian Littrell, who was living in Kentucky at the time. Phone calls were made and Littrell agreed to move down to Florida. With the line-up set they adopted the name Backstreet Boys, after Orlando's Backstreet Market, a popular hang out for the city's teens.

They started singing a cappella covers of their favorite songs by groups like Boyz II Men, Shai, and Color Me Badd. Then, they found managers Johnny and Donna Wright. Johnny had been the Road Manager for the New Kids on the Block. "Before I saw them perform I wasn't sure if I wanted to get involved," Donna told Billboard. "The New Kids had just finished up two years prior. But hearing them sing just gave me chills running from the back of my heels to the top of my head. I felt like we really had something here." The Wright's company, Wright Stuff Management, developed a strategy to help the Backstreet Boys perfect their showmanship and musicianship while raising visibility among potential fans. They booked them at junior high and high schools as well as at theme parks. The teenage fans shared the Wrights' initial suspicions about Backstreet Boys. Kevin Richardson told Billboard "You could tell they were thinking 'What is this, the second coming of the New Kids On the Block?' But once we started singing a cappella and showing them we could really sing, we won them over every time."

Eventually the Wrights got the group booked as openers for veteran acts with a "family" audience, like REO Speedwagon, Kenny G and the Village People. The turning point came in 1994, when Donna Wright had been begging David McPherson, an executive at Jive Records, to give Backstreet Boys a listen. She called McPherson from a Backstreet Boys' show in Cleveland and simply held the phone up. When McPherson played his messages the next day he could hear the sounds of fanatically screaming kids, and soon afterward, Jive signed Backstreet Boys on.

Their single called "We've Got It Goin' On," first released in 1995, did not live up to expectations in the United States, getting no higher than 65 on Billboard's Top 100. But it exploded onto the charts in Germany, and from there Backstreet Boys mania spread throughout Europe. The "boy group" craze already had a foothold in Europe, providing Backstreet Boys with a ready made audience. They brought a unique something extra -- they were American, and thus more novel. "We used the success in Germany as a springboard and brought them over to do shows right off the bat. Once that happened, the whole European market opened up." McPherson told Billboard.

From Europe the Backstreet Boys' popularity spread throughout the world -- Japan, Australia, Canada, Southeast Asia. Their first album, Backstreet Boys, released in April 1996, sold over eleven million copies and was certified platinum in 26 different countries. Backstreet Boys: The Video was also a number-one seller in Canada for three months. The group toured overseas for 18 months and their concerts recalled the days of High Beatlemania, complete with crowds of crazed teenage girls, narrow escapes out back windows, and screams so loud the music was barely audible. At home in Florida, foreign fans wait in the parking lots outside the apartment houses where the Backstreet Boys live, hoping for autographs. German fans have torn up their lawns for a blade or two of souvenir grass. Yet back in Orlando, the Backstreet Boys pass everywhere in the city unrecognized.

In 1997 the United States was the final frontier for the Backstreet Boys. As 1998 approached and the band prepared for its second U.S. tour, it was looking forward to seeing whether America had taken to them to the degree everyone else had. "I think the (U.S.) market is more ready for a group like us now," Howie Dorough told USA Today. "I think at the time we released our first record, alternative, grunge and urban were hot. Now we feel that pop music is starting to come back a little bit." Their album was finally released in the United States in August 1997, nearly a year and a half after the rest of the world heard it for the first time. They included some of their newer songs on the American version, songs that were used on their second international album, Backstreet's Back. Jive promoted the album heavily, concentrating on its key female audience. Free Backstreet Boys cassettes were distributed with J.C. Penney make-up, at cheerleader camps, and with books in the teen romance series, "Love Stories." "The Backstreet Boys have made a great choice in selecting their music. When you listen to it you'll know why they are probably going to be the next new thing," wrote Christina Psoros, a 12-year-old reviewer for Newsday.

The Backstreet Boys were also working on broadening their musical foundations. All members of the group took up songwriting -- though in December 1997 no Backstreet Boys penned number had made it onto a record -- and all were learning how to play instruments. In addition, they have focused more attention on dancing, which has become a major part of their stage show. The group realizes that almost everyone in the world expects them to disappear completely after a year or so. Yet the Backstreet Boys are determined to prevent that from happening.

This article was taken from Contemporary Musicians, April 1998 (Volume 21) by Gerald E. Brennan

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