In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. This installment looks at Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, which went to No. 1 on June 5, 1999, where it stayed for 10 non-consecutive weeks.
The years straddling the turn of the 21st century—roughly 1997 to 2002—were the music industry’s last big boom period, a heady era where albums smashed sales records seemingly every month or so. Seven of the top 10 fastest-selling albums in the U.S. (post-1991, when Nielsen SoundScan started tracking such things) were released between May 1999 and May 2002, which means that for three years, new sales high watermarks were being set, on average, every five months or so. It’s not just that these albums were getting multi-platinum, or even diamond, certification; it’s the speed with which they were attaining those certifications, hitting the platinum mark in under a week, sometimes in a matter of days. The first-week-platinum record still happens occasionally even in this fractured musical age: Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift have both recently reached it. But it’s become an anomaly rather than the matter of course it became around the turn of the millennium—a course that was established by Backstreet Boys’ Millennium, which kicked off a three-year sales race between two of the era’s biggest pop acts.
It should come as no surprise to those who lived through the millennial boy-band wave that Backstreet Boys and N’Sync account for four of the top 10 fastest-selling albums of all time. While the late ’90s/early ’00s were lousy with mid-tier groups of singing, dancing young men sporting ridiculous hairstyles and coordinated outfits—98 Degrees, Five, LFO, and O-Town, to name a few—Backstreet Boys and N’Sync were the bicameral legislature of the country’s pop-musicocracy. The rest of the era’s one-week-sales wonders were either strongly associated with the two groups (Britney Spears, who arose from the same Orlando kiddie-entertainment cabal) or ran in staunch opposition to them (Eminem, whose outspoken dislike of the teenyboppers with whom he shared the Total Request Live green room fueled his own meteoric rise).
The similarities between Backstreet Boys and N’Sync were legion. They had similar origin stories, both birthed from the ample bosom of Florida blimp magnate/Ponzi schemer Lou Pearlman. Both spent a couple of years cultivating overseas fame before being ported over to American audiences, resulting in highly polished, practiced Stateside introductions. In the early years of both groups’ careers, they shared and swapped managers (Pearlman and Johnny Wright), producers/songwriters (Max Martin, Kristian Lundin, Rami Yacoub, and others), choreographers, music-video directors, and so on. The number of surface parallels—and the fact that for a couple years, one group seemingly couldn’t be mentioned in the media without a follow-up mention of the other—made Backstreet Boys and N’Sync seem fundamentally interchangeable to detractors, or even to just neutral parties, i.e. the parents of the groups’ primarily preteen and teenage fan base.
But the same similarities that rendered the groups indistinguishable to outside parties engendered a staunch rivalry between them, or at least between their respective fans, who embraced the ephemeral variances between the groups as concrete advantages each had over the other. Boy-band anthropologists trace this rivalry back to July of 1998, when the Disney Channel began airing a concert special featuring N’Sync—which was originally offered to Backstreet Boys, who had to back out due to one of its members’ impending heart surgery. (Cue the “awwws.”) This special would effectively launch the younger group’s career, which exploded in a matter of weeks, launching the U.S. version of N’Sync’s self-titled debut from a meager No. 85 on the Billboard 200 to a robust No. 9… right on the heels of the Backstreet Boys’ own self-titled debut.
N’Sync’s rapid U.S. ascent, ostensibly a byproduct of Backstreet Boys’ bad luck, created a schism between the groups in the eyes of the media and, more importantly, their fans. Backstreet fans viewed N’Sync as usurpers, as copycats, as a lesser version of the original. N’Sync fans viewed Backstreet as passé, corny, and easily bested. It was a rivalry of nuances, of young libidos, and of the sort of fierce devotion and insularity that arises from a group of teenage girls who have marked another group of teenage girls as The Enemy.
By early 1999, N’Sync was ascendant over Backstreet Boys, whose 1997 U.S. debut was by that point rather moldy, despite still sitting comfortably in the Billboard Top 20: Most of Backstreet Boys had been cobbled together from the group’s first two international albums, Backstreet Boys (a different one) and Backstreet’s Back, meaning many of its songs were recorded as far back as 1995. Four years isn’t that long in the grand scheme, but in the teen-pop universe, which thrives on momentum, it might as well be four decades.
So anticipation for Millennium was high, as were expectations; Millennium was the Backstreet Boys’ second debut, their re-introduction as the universal, stadium-filling cultural force they’d become, rather than the scrappy kids who’d clawed their way into America’s consciousness via radio tours and BOP pictorials (not that those ever stopped). Ironically, though Backstreet Boys were bigger than they’d ever been, they were the underdogs at this point, the usurped Kings Of Harmony hoping to reclaim their throne as the premier boy band of the end of the 20th century. At least, that’s the narrative that was fueling fans to descend on record stores en masse to buy Millennium immediately upon its release, to show those upstart N’Sync fans what real boy-band devotion looks like.
Teenybopper obsession is nothing new, nor is the type of group that inspires it. But the Backstreet Boys/N’Sync era was unique in the scope of its commercial and cultural force, as represented in those numbers from the first paragraph. It’s impossible to quantify the exact reasons behind this particular surge, but three interrelated forces almost certainly contributed to it. The first was the success of MTV’s Total Request Live, the after-school music-video countdown show that formed a symbiotic relationship between the network, pop stars, and their young fans. Those fans had a direct influence on the content of TRL, an influence that stemmed from factor No. 2: the Internet.
By the late ’90s, the Internet had reached a level of ubiquity that pretty much anyone could use it—including boy-band fans who pumped out Geocities and Tripod-assisted fan sites and newsgroups faster than Max Martin was pumping out hit singles. These online fan circles functioned as primitive social media, publicizing and reinforcing the groups’ success much more effectively than the traditional media model could, by perpetuating each group’s narrative and facilitating the sort of fan campaigns that sent singles, albums, and music videos to the top of their respective charts. This sort of thing still occurs today online, but in a much different form and capacity that’s been fundamentally altered by factor No. 3: File-sharing.
For more than a decade, file-sharing has been considered the archenemy of album sales, but in 1999, the brand-new Napster was still a user-friendly novelty that allowed fans to pass around bootlegs and preview snippets of songs, but not necessarily full albums, whose large file sizes combined with most people’s slower Internet speeds meant it was still easier to go out and actually buy an album at that point. This wouldn’t last long, but for a brief moment in time, file-sharing was theoretically one of the main motivators of the boy-band sales wave. (Millennium itself predates Napster by just a few months, so it didn’t get much of a boost, but the subsequent Backstreet album Black And Blue, along with N’Sync’s No Strings Attached and Celebrity, would all be heavily hyped via file-sharing methods.)
This new, and therefore unpredictable, model was vastly different from how teenybopper acts had previously been marketed and sold, a burgeoning new paradigm that most labels had barely noticed at that point, much less figured out how to manage. It would continue to evolve over the string of sales-busting Backstreet and N’Sync records that would follow Millennium, but at the time, Jive records was still resorting to old-school tactics to promote the album, including the hilariously quaint notion of previewing the album as a hidden track on a debut record from a buzzing labelmate: Britney Spears, whose …Baby One More Time ends with Spears herself piping up to offer her fans “a private sneak peak of an album by some labelmates of mine,” followed by 30-second clips of three Millennium tracks, complete with commentary from Spears. (“That was called ‘I’ll Be The One,’ and I think it’s going to be number one!”)
This sort of monolithic, label-driven artist symbiosis is almost adorable in hindsight, so far removed from what record labels and artist publicity have become. While there’s no way to measure such things, it’s unlikely that Spears’ endorsement had a major effect on Millennium’s fortunes—especially considering that the preview doesn’t contain the song that would ultimately do more for the album than any amount of fan campaigning or rivalry could: “I Want It That Way.”
Released in April 1999 as the advance single off Millennium, “I Want It That Way” is arguably the best pop single to come out of the millennial boy-band culture. (N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” which would propel the group’s No Strings Attached beyond Millennium’s sales record a year later, is the other major contender.) It topped pretty much every worldwide chart it could, and was critically well-regarded and Grammy-nominated; even today, it’s not too hard to get even the most pop-averse curmudgeon to acknowledge at least begrudging respect for “I Want It That Way.” It’s a midtempo delight stacked with signature Max Martin theatrics—That bridge! That key change!—and delivered by the five Boys with a panache that supersedes the borderline-nonsensical lyrics. It’s probably still too early to deem “I Want It That Way” a timeless pop classic, but it certainly has a legitimate claim to the title.
“I Want It That Way” ensured Backstreet Boys’ place at or near the head of the boy-band pantheon; it’s the watershed moment of the millennial boy-band wave, a high that Backstreet, N’Sync, and their many imitators would spend the subsequent years chasing—and, going strictly by sales numbers, surpassing. Millennium’s record as the fastest-selling album would last less than a year, with N’Sync’s No Strings Attached more than doubling Millennium’s 1.13 million copies sold in its first week—thanks in large part to fans buying multiple copies of the album specifically to best Backstreet Boys’ record. The pattern would repeat a few months later for Black And Blue, then again for N’Sync’s final record, Celebrity—neither of which topped No Strings Attached, which still holds the fastest-selling record by a comfortable margin, but both of which easily topped the once record-shattering numbers of Millennium.
In many ways, the end of N’Sync was also the end of Backstreet Boys, at least the world-conquering version of them that pop-music historians will remember. The group has continued on in various permutations—including a merger with their spiritual forebears, New Kids On The Block, in 2011—right up to the present day. But without the N’Sync rivalry goosing it, Backstreet fan hysteria cooled considerably. (In the U.S. at least; the group remains a formidable overseas force.) A maturing core audience—the bane of all teen-pop acts—and a right-on-cue turn of the pop-music cycle away from sunny dance-pop certainly contributed to the group’s decline; and the continued rise of file-sharing and online music consumption all but ensured that no act, boy band or otherwise, would be able to topple those early-’00s sales highs.
But without the N’Sync-Backstreet rivalry, the boy-band era lost its central, grounding force, the zeitgeist that motivated fans, annoyed detractors, and captivated pop-music philosophers, all while selling millions upon millions of units. Millennium wasn’t the catalyst of this conflict, but it was its defining moment, the album that marked the boy-band era’s transition from pop-music outlier to an all-consuming cultural and commercial force (for a couple of years, anyway). While “I Want It That Way” is the Millennium track that’ll be most remembered, it’s not the album’s definitive song. That would be the opening track and second single, a pandering fan paean that doubles as a big, noisy celebration of the Backstreet Boys’ pop-cultural position at that moment in time: “Larger Than Life.”