The Backstreet Boys! Yeah, I know, I should have told the joke before I got to the punch line. In 2005, though, the Backstreet Boys are both. The mere mention of Orlando's most popular musical export conjures up images of a pop juggernaut crashing under the weight of its own excess, leaving a nation of aging teenyboppers desperately trying to conceal a past spent drooling over highly stylized images of adolescent masculinity. The glossy posters of the half-dressed heartthrobs have been burnt, the CDs buried deep in the Dumpster, and the flames of teenage lust satiated by real lovers. And though these flesh-and-blood boyfriends may not induce riots, they won't charge you $40 to watch them "perform" either.
But I digress. Here's the joke: Which concert did I recently attend?
That's right, the Magic City's gulliest and most glamorous columnist made the trip to West Palm Beach's Sound Advice Amphitheatre to witness the opening show of the Backstreet Boys' reunion tour, the very dubiously dubbed Never Gone. It might seem like an odd choice for a night out, but everyone loves a car crash, especially when it's accompanied by 10,000 screaming girls.
And by all accounts, the tour is a pileup of epic proportions. Reports out of the Boys' camp tell of poor ticket sales. And although their recent CD, also called Never Gone, debuted at number three on the album charts and sold more than 400,000 copies, it's a far cry from the Boys' last album, 2000's Black and Blue, which sold a whopping 1.6 million its first week and went on to sell more than eight million copies.
Evidence of the decline was obvious throughout the concert. Nearly half of Sound Advice's lawn was empty, and a good portion of the attendees seemed to be there for opening act Click 5.
"[Click 5 is] more pop punk, and pop punk is taking over the boy bands," concertgoer Heather told me.
She may be right, but Click 5 is really more postpop punk than straight-up pop punk. The Berklee College of Music graduates lack the piercings and sneers worn by members of bands such as Blink-182 or Green Day. Instead Click 5 looked vaguely British in black suits, yellow button-downs, and black ties.
After Click 5's well-received set, a representative from the Backstreet Boys took the stage to rally the crowd. "We called MTV and asked them why they didn't play the video for the single," he screamed to the audience. "They said that there wasn't enough requests for it. We need you all to call up MTV and show your support."
Smart move: Blame your few remaining fans for your declining popularity. But the concertgoers seemed unfazed -- in fact they seemed energized.
A few minutes later the crowd reached a fever pitch when lead heartthrob Brian Littrell was joined by his wife and young son, Baylee, onstage. I'm not sure how 10,000 fans in a giant amphitheater noticed a 30-pound baby, but the entire audience turned around and oohed and aahed as the child was taken back to his seat. You would've thought Obi-wan had just unveiled a young Luke Skywalker to the Imperial Congress.
"How do you know that's Brian's child?" I asked a girl in her early twenties standing beside me. "Oh, we just know," she replied matter-of-factly. Use the force, my shrieking Padawan.
Fatherhood wasn't the only sign that the Backstreet Boys were no longer boys. For one thing, they all looked much older. Nick Carter, who was recently ordered to enter rehab, looked tired and bloated. AJ McClean, who graduated from rehab a couple years back, wore a thick Mohawk and looked like Dennis Hopper after a week-long binge. There also wasn't as much synchronized dancing as before. For the most part, they just moseyed around the stage, smiling at themselves and a few lucky audience members (Apollo Kid was not among them).
But the Backstreet Boys' days of larger-than-life stage shows are over, and they know it. The fans at Sound Advice were the die-hards. For them this is like visiting a long-lost relative. And the family metaphor is one that's repeated often by the fans.
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"It's not just a teen thing," commented Nikki, who has been listening to the Boys for seven years. "They're family to us, and we're not giving up on them."
"We run into the same people at these shows," added Lindsay, another fan, who's almost 30. "It's as much about that community as it is about the music."
And elitists can smirk and laugh all they want, but it's the same desire for community that fueled Deadheads to travel around the nation decades after Jerry got too fat to wrap his four fingers around the guitar neck. And it's not that different from the gaggles of punk rock groupies who kept that genre afloat for decades despite a worn-out aesthetic and diminishing social import.
And though the concert was pretty much an endurance test for me, more power to the Boys. After all, who is Apollo Kid to piss in someone's pool?