Brow Beat

The Decline and Fall of the Backstreet Boys

The boys in their prime.

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

In the opening scene of the new warts-and-all Backstreet Boys documentary, the former heartthrobs are hiking through the woods. A.J. McLean, the former bad boy, is straggling, and the others shout at him to hurry up. “This is really shitty for my knees,” he moans.

Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of is filled with pain—both physical and psychological. Two decades of harmonizing and synchronized dancing have battered the erstwhile boys. The documentary follows them as they record the 2013 album In a World Like This and prepare for their 20th-anniversary tour. That’s right, 20th anniversary: The group was assembled back in 1992 by Lou Pearlman, then an Orlando blimp magnate and now a disgraced, imprisoned Ponzi schemer. The guys spent several years learning to dance, finding their sound, and promoting themselves at schools across the country before they finally became famous in Europe in the mid-’90s. In the United States, their heyday was approximately 1999–2002, and then “Kinda out of nowhere, it just stopped.” But despite Kevin Richardson’s brief departure from the group in 2006—he later returned—the Backstreet Boys never broke up. They range in age from 35-40, but they will always be boys.

Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of, which is for sale on iTunes and Amazon, is filled with conflict and resentment and complicated affection. The boys fight over who gets to sing what part (a longstanding struggle, apparently; Howie Dorough speaks with bitterness about how he was originally the lead singer for the group but was shoved aside after they began working with producers like Max Martin). They grapple with Brian Littrell’s failing voice. In a thread that mirrors some recent Blink-182 drama, they suspect one another of not working hard enough, of not being sufficiently committed. But when tempers get too hot, you can see that at least some of them have invested in therapy: “How about speaking from a place of love instead of anger?” Kevin suggests calmly when Nick Carter erupts at Brian in a meeting.

Their professional and personal lives having been entwined for so long, they know one another in that cutting way siblings do—able to home in on one other’s worst insecurities. When discussing A.J.’s substance abuse, Howie says, “A.J. wanted to be this bad boy so badly. I think in his own mind he thought he was rock ‘n’ roll, not realizing that he was in a boy band.”

While watching the documentary, I felt a little guilt. The Backstreet Boys were the men in my teenage life. I so adored them that I wrote pages of terrible fan fiction about them. But around the time I got my first real boyfriend, my ardor cooled. The pictures came off the walls; my fan fiction site collected virtual dust. I had moved on, just like millions of other fickle young things. In my mind, they were two-dimensional—they were characters I could cast in fantasies about being loved in a sweet, simple way. When I didn’t need their bright pop or nonthreatening good looks any more, I discarded them and tried to keep my former fandom a secret. (That is, until I went on a Backstreet Boys cruise in 2013. I was briefly in their presence. It was overwhelming.)

As a 15-year-old, I thought I “knew” the boys. I remembered their birthdays, their favorite colors, the fake-personal factoids they shared in interviews. I couldn’t have imagined that the real Kevin knew how to say “Can you give me a blow job?” in German—a souvenir of their early success in Germany.

But even if you won’t admit to bopping along to “I Want It That Way,” Backstreet Boys: Show ’Em What You’re Made Of is worth the watch for the way it portrays the music industry’s cruelty and fickleness.