Itís been five years since the release of the first Backstreet Boys disc. Backstreet Boys (Jive) went on to sell 14 million copies, launching the teen-pop explosion that ruled the charts at the turn of the millennium. Britney Spears and íN Sync soon joined the party, and together the three Jive labelmates came to rule the pop charts before most of them were old enough to order a beer. Now Britney is about to turn 21, and the boy-band wars have entered a new phase: 21-year-old íN Sync star Justin Timberlake and 22-year-old Backstreet Boy Nick Carter have just released their first solo albums. With bubblegum dance pop faltering on the charts, the boys are trying to breathe new life into their careers by moving in a more mature direction.
Justin is the youngest, cutest, and most prominent member of boy-band nation: heís the one who got to date Britney, and heís also the one most likely to make a George Michael transition from teen idol to respectable pop star. He was the lead songwriter on the most recent (and best) íN Sync album, Celebrity (Jive), which featured inspired collaborations with A-list producers BT and the Neptunes. Working with the Neptunes production team, he was responsible for the íN Sync hit "Girlfriend," so itís not surprising that the same players are on board for his new Justified (Jive).
The Neptunes have spent most of the last year concentrating on their own outrageous rock band, N.E.R.D., who just won the second annual Shortlist Prize for their debut album, In Search Of . . . (Virgin). On the first single from Justified, "Like I Love You," they cue up a slamminí hard-funk drumbeat that borders on rock, and they turn the hardcore rappers Clipse loose in the outro. Justin starts the song off whispering come-ons, then quickly slides into a smoky R&B croon; eventually he works his way up to an exaggerated falsetto. The hooks are even more obscure than those on the Neptunesí previous foray into reductivist teen pop, Britneyís "Iím a Slave 4 U." But the groove is unstoppable, and Justinís vocals put his loverboy act across.
Like George Michael before him, Timberlake has emerged from his teen-pop years with the voice of a blue-eyed soul man: he grew up in Memphis, and he says his favorite singers are Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Figure in his well-honed dance moves and itís no wonder many pop fans accused him of aping Michael Jackson when he debuted "Like I Love You" at the MTV Video Music Awards a few months ago. Thereís more where that came from on Justified, especially on the liquid bounce of "Rock Your Body," the Neptunesí sharpest MJ homage since No Doubtís "Hella Good."
And though the Neptunesí rhythm tracks are some of the edgiest and most dangerous in contemporary pop, their Virginia homeboy Timbaland puts up some stiff competition on Justified with the four tracks he produced (the Neptunes are credited with seven). He turns up the heat on "(And She Said) Take Me Now," which starts off with a funky stab of clavinet and a seductive whisper from guest vocalist Janet Jackson. The stormy ballad "Cry Me a River" is Justinís most soulful performance since the íN Sync hit "Gone"; itís also the albumís most nuanced production.
Given its 63-minute length, the disc does come up a little short on hooks. And Timberlakeís songwriting tends to be more professional than passionate. But heís got the voice to go with his looks, and his tastes are quite a bit more adventurous than you might expect from a charter member of a middle-of-the-road boy band.
Like Timberlake, Nick Carter was the youngest and cutest member of his group ó but the ratio of melody and bombast to groove and attitude is much more favorable on his new Now or Never (Jive) than it is on Justified. The album isnít as sonically ambitious as Justified, and since its October 29 release, it hasnít been as strong a contender on the Billboard charts ó unlike Justified, it failed to crack the Top 10 the week it came out. Carterís appeal is more generic; he never dated Britney; he likes rock better than hip-hop; and he still seems happy to play by the old teen-pop rules.
Thatís not such a bad thing on the first single from Now or Never, "Help Me," which amounts to a Backstreet song with one boy on the microphone instead of five. The unobtrusive soft-rock beat is familiar, as are the hopeful coming-of-age lyrics: "Help me make the right decisions/Know which way to turn, lessons to learn/And just what my purpose is here." Those arenít Carterís words, but he did have a hand in writing five of the albumís 12 tracks. His most sympathetic writing partner is producer Gary Clark, who contributes the discís most mature song, "My Confession."
Nickís secret weapon is the same as itís been since the early Backstreet days: Swedish songwriter/producer Max Martin, who wrote the catchiest material on the album. Martinís pop-metal roots are no secret, but this is the first time heís brought his rock skills to bear on a pop project. Def Leppard producer Per Aldeheim plays the loudest rock-guitar riffs teen pop has ever heard on "Blow Your Mind," and the rhythm section from the Swedish death-metal band Ebony Tears makes a cameo on the track. Martin switches over to an electro groove on the verses, and Nick has a blast with the songís psycho-girlfriend lyrics. Itís purely a matter of taste, but Iíll take Nickís "Beat It" over Justinís "Rock with You" any day.
THE BRITISH POP TRIO BBMak released their first album, Sooner or Later (Hollywood), two years ago, at the height of the boy-band boom. It yielded the hit "Back Here," which showcased the groupís intricate vocal harmonies but stayed away from the usual dance-pop instrumentation. When they hit the road with both Britney and íN Sync, it became even more evident that they werenít your average boy band: instead of prancing around the stage, they strummed acoustic guitars and threw in a few rock covers. Group members Stephen McNally, Christian Burns, and Mark Barry sang about puppy love and reveled in their youthful good looks, but they also showed skill as musicians.
Closer investigation revealed that Sooner or Later was executive-produced by alternative-rock veteran Rob Cavallo, whose credits include Green Dayís landmark Dookie (Reprise) and the last couple of Goo Goo Dolls albums. Cavallo plays the same role on BBMakís new Into Your Head (Hollywood), which pushes even farther in a rock direction. The group wrote the discís first single, "Out of My Heart," with fellow Northern England natives Tony and Chris Griffiths of the early-í90s Britpop band the Real People. As the songís pedigree suggests, itís a bittersweet roots-rocker with a huge chorus, a tasteful slide-guitar solo, and little evidence of any boy-band roots.
BBMak wrote more than half the songs on their first album, and they get a songwriting credit on every track here. The highlight is the inspirational "Staring into Space," which recalls vintage Teenage Fanclub with its sunny harmonies and sophisticated arrangements. The group offer up a convincing variation on the Goo Goo DollsĖstyle folk-rock lament with "Get You Through the Night," which breaks into a fancy chamber-pop vocal interlude halfway through. The UK rock community probably isnít ready to accept them as a full-fledged Britpop group, but itís getting difficult to call their music by any other name. And the Brits certainly didnít have any trouble accepting Robbie Williams, the former Take Four teen-pop star, as a grown-up rocker reinvented as a mainstream Britpop sensation.
Like Now or Never, BBMakís Into Your Head isnít doing very well on the charts. Which isnít surprising: BBMakís unassuming roots pop isnít the most commercial style on the market, and the hype surrounding Justified hasnít trickled down to the rest of boy-band nation. Still, a couple of other significant boy-band albums are coming out this month. O2 (J Records) is the new disc from O-Town, who formed on the ABC-TV series Making the Band and went on to have their homonymous J Records debut certified platinum. Like many of their teenage peers, O-Town, who are scheduled to play the Tsongas Arena December 11, were more involved in the writing of their sophomore effort. The first single, "These Are the Days," is a melancholy ballad that sports a more organic, less processed sound than anything on O-Town.
But the best boy-band single of the season comes from one of the most commercially irrelevant of the boy bands: LMNT, who were formed by original O-Town member Ikaika Kahoano and a few stray Making the Band semifinalists. LMNTís first album, All Sides (Atlantic), came out at the beginning of the summer, and theyíve since parted ways with the label. But not before their harmony-rich lite-rocker "Juliet" (as in, "I just want you to know, I wanna be your Romeo") went into rotation on Radio Disney, where itís been spinning ever since.
"Juliet" was written and produced by Fredrik Thomander and Anders Wikstrom, a talented duo of Max Martin protégés who showed up a couple of years late to the teen-pop party. Their Swedish corporate-rock roots run even deeper than Martinís: Wikstrom was in the í80s pop-metal band Treat, who released three albums in the US. Thomander and Wikstrom have more than one infectious Radio Disney hit on their résumé: they also wrote "I Say Yeah" for the nascent underage boy band Dream Street.
The first Dream Street album, Dream Street (Edel), recently went gold with little mainstream radio play, just as four of the groupís five members quit in a contract dispute. That didnít stop their lone remaining teen pin-up, Chris Trousdale, from signing a new record deal under the name Dream Street, or from starring in an upcoming kidsí movie about the group, The Biggest Fan. A new line-up has yet to be assembled, but the soundtrack, which includes the new single "With All My Heart," is due on Columbia later this month. Which just goes to show that though teen pop may have lost some of its momentum in 2002, there are still plenty of teen-poppers with music, and money, to make, and a large core group of fans who are more than willing to go along for the ride.