In pop music, you can age like milk or you can age like wine. You can live life with a sell-by date, counting the days until everything goes sour and a new shipment of 2% takes your place on the shelf. Or your career can be like a fine Bordeaux, and you can make the kind of music that only improves as time goes by.
Backstreet Boys isn't ready for the wine cellar yet. But the group seems tired of being the liquid refreshment of choice on schoolkids' lunch trays. The Boys' new CD, "Black & Blu"e (Jive), is a half-hearted attempt to leave the never-never land of teen pop for the always-always land of established pop icons. Two of the boys (Brian Littrell and Kevin Richardson) are married, and the entire group (rounded out by Nick Carter, A.J. McLean and Howie Dorough) seems to have more than puppy love in mind. You get the sense that, like most teen bands, they'd like to be more sophisticated, they'd like to be more respected basically they'd like to be the Beatles. And pretty much like every band, they're a long and winding road away from that goal.
"Black & Blue" does not break new musical ground for pop, and it doesn't break much new ground for Backstreet Boys either. From its debut with a self-titled album in 1997, Backstreet's music has always been a blend of cooing ballads designed for slow dancing at school proms, and springy anthems that bounce and tumble like beach balls on a hardwood floor. "Black & Blue" offers only a slight variation on that very successful approach: the beats aren't quite so rubbery and the melodies are a trifle more subtle than they've been on past Backstreet releases. But the core pattern is still the same: bring the fun on some tracks, bring the love on the others. Repeat.
The group tries to deepen its lyrics on a few numbers, striving to be more pensive and mature. On "Shape of My Heart," the Boys sing of "looking back on the things I've done," and they deliver the line as if they're looking back at decades instead of, say, a long weekend. On one of the more successful tracks, "Yes I Will," they sing "Yes I will/ Give you everything you need/ And someday start a family with you." Clearly the Boys are courting a new, more adult audience. And none too soonóRichardson, the oldest member, is 28. Can songs about changing diapers, Rogaine and 401(k)s be far behind?
So the Boys are changing, however slightly. The real stars of this album, however, are the marketers involved in pushing it. Besides Backstreet Boys, Jive Records has an all-star roster of pop performers including 'N Sync, Britney Spears and R. Kelly. All these acts have posted huge, headline-grabbing first-week sales this year. 'N Sync's album "No Strings Attached," despite pans from the critics, sold 2.4 million copies in a single week, more than doubling the old industry benchmark. Now the folks at Jive are looking to top that with Backstreet.
If only there had been more focus on quality and not just quantity, on changing the substance of the Boys' sound and not just making slight alterations in their style. The Boys' vocals remain both wispy and overdone kind of like their facial hair and none of the songs seem deeply felt. Backstreet's doing nothing that other contemporary vocal groups haven't done better: Jodeci had more personality, Blackstreet had better material, Boyz II Men are better singers. And, going back a bit, Backstreet has never recorded a song as soulful as the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" or as instantly adorable as the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back." Sure, Backstreet is fabulously popular. But so were Wilson Phillips, New Kids on the Block and the Spice Girls.
So what makes Backstreet think it can stay on top? The last song on "Black & Blue" is a ballad titled "How Did I Fall in Love with You." The vocals are quiet and breathy, the harmonies on the chorus are sweet and fluttery, and it's all supported by sighing strings. The Boys sing lines like "I cannot hide I can't erase/ The way you make me feel inside/ You complete me girl that's why." The gushing, unapologetic pathos of the song may stink like rotten milk to some listeners. But if you're willing to accept sentiment in place of emotion, corniness in place of craft and corporate marketing in place of your own free will, it can be intoxicating.