Backstreet Boys
The Axis at Planet Hollywood
March 1, 2017

At Planet Hollywood's Axis theater in Las Vegas, “everybody” is watching the Backstreet Boys emerge in proper ’90s fashion from five giant floating TV screens hanging from the ceiling. Wearing white suits (with AJ McLean in his sunglasses — obviously), Backstreet's back for the first of 26 shows here through July 1.

Tonight marks the dawn of a new era in Backstreet history, 24 years after they formed in Orlando, Florida, and played their first gig at SeaWorld. Similar to soon-to-be extinct killer whales there, AJ, Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell have served their audience for decades. They remain the biggest-selling boy band ever, 130 million records down and eight albums in. At their peak, their bombastic concerts were driven by hysteria, explosions and costumes that wouldn't look cheap in a Marvel blockbuster.

“If you’ve ever been to a Backstreet Boys show,” Brian said after the dates were announced, “it’s gonna be that on steroids.” With the residency titled “Larger Than Life,” you pray he isn't literally suggesting they'll be pumped with high doses of Dianabol.

Onstage, AJ reveals that the past eight weeks have been dedicated to rehearsals intended to give you “the best show Vegas has ever seen.” Tonight kicks off with energetic takes on “Larger Than Life,” “The One” and “Get Down.” There's sweat, there's breathlessness, then there's not one, not two, not even three but nine back-to-back ballads. Someone clearly left the steroids back in Florida.

As I arrived in Vegas earlier in the day, my once-teenage mind was melting. I never expected to actually shriek at the sight of a signed BSB poster awaiting me in my hotel room. But I did. There's a welcome edible statue, too (a guitar and quaver made out of marzipan, because BSB are real musicians, duh), one I'd seriously have considered denouncing Justin Timberlake for back in the ’90s. And for the record, we all know deep down in our hearts that *NSync are the better boy band — but this isn't the time to be *NSync purists, so let's leave that debate for another day.

My BSB edible arrangement; Credit: Eve Barlow

My BSB edible arrangement; Credit: Eve Barlow

Planet Hollywood is where my formative heroes have come to be institutionalized. The resort isn't just home to BSB — it's hosting Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez, too. Their head-to-toe portraits decorate the façades of all the elevators and room keys. There's even a roulette table with Spears' name on it.

You'd never have bet on Vegas being ’90s pop's safe haven, but it makes sense. The ’90s was a ride rough enough to make Sin City seem like a Salvation Army. Lopez, constantly disappointed in love, will return in May, having now survived Drake's advances. Feb. 21, 2017, marked 10 years since Spears beat a car with an umbrella and shaved her hair off. If you've seen BSB's 2015 documentary Show ’Em What Youre Made of, you'll know that they've survived AJ’s and Nick’s drug battles, outlasted Brian's open-heart surgery (which he had midtour!) and overcome their fraudster manager Lou Pearlman, who recently died in prison. Even now, BSB continue to fret that Brian’s shaky voice will struggle to soar to the angelic heights it once did when he was a kid on a basketball court. Vegas is a piece of cake for these soldiers.

My relationship with BSB began in 1997 when my pen pal Mike — who had a crush on me — sent me their European-only release Backstreet's Back as a wooing gift. It worked out brilliantly for me but was a disaster for him. I fell in love with 26-year-old Kevin, 15 years my senior. Poor Mike faded from view.

Beyond my amorous feelings toward Kevin, the hits “Everybody (Backstreet's Back),” “As Long as You Love Me” and “All I Have to Give” blew my mind, as did cuts such as “Hey, Mr DJ (Keep Playin ’This Song)” and “If You Want It to Be Good Girl (Get Yourself a Bad Boy)” — a self-explanatory title, and yet I was naive enough to think “If you really like it hot, like someone who hits the spot” was about tongueing a BSB at the mall. My favorite track, “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” was the group's take on P.M. Dawn's 1991 hit, which itself was built around Spandau Ballet's “True.” I would come to discover the other songs later and assume both were covering BSB.

Following Backstreet's Back came the seismically successful album Millennium, which reminds me now of the great spelling debate of 1999. As kids in school would point to some erroneous copies of the Oxford English Dictionary — which insisted the word was spelled “millenium,” with one “n” — others would correct them by saying, “The Backstreet Boys’ spelling is the accurate one.”

A whopping 17 years into a new millennium, BSB are no closer to changing their name to Backstreet Men, and I've traveled 300 miles from L.A. to Vegas to attend my first BSB concert. At the age of 30, I'm only four years older than Kevin was when our eyes first met — his paralyzed behind a plastic CD holder.

Facebook friends despair with envy. One sends me a drawing she made of BSB when she was 12. “You should show them this,” she says. “Actually, please don't.”

Credit: Denise Truscello

Credit: Denise Truscello

The lights go down on the Axis for an hour and a half and each member plays his original character, to the delight of every fan. Badboy AJ (who, you may have forgotten, has the figure “69” tattooed around his belly button) addresses the crowd: “Who right here is drunk already? If not, keep going.” My gent Kevin, however, settles the tone: “Tonight we have met folks who have flown from all over the world to be with us. Thank you.” Nick, the original self-obsessed heartthrob, relishes his solo turns and ensuing shrieks from the crowd. Brian plays the goofy kid, his jokes falling flat. “Twenty-four years! Is it OK if we have another 24?” he asks before suggesting lyric changes to “Everybody (Backstreet's Back)”: “Oh ma gawd, we won't go away. Backstreet's old, OK!” Howie is Howie, ecstatic to get the chance to sing alone, even if for a few milliseconds.

The dance moves are frankly ridiculous, particularly on ballads like “Drowning,” where every lyric has a corresponding gesture to heighten the emotional flow. In general, BSB's dance skills have waned compared with those of Spears and Lopez, who continue to be Olympian-like athletes. A troupe of male and female backup dancers are employed to do much of the original New Jack Swing choreography here. AJ, however, does love a good air guitar, often strumming along to the songs' edgier moments with his varnished nails.

Of course, for the finale, the five pull off their iconic, “Thriller”-aping “Everybody (Backstreet's Back)” dance, and they resurrect the chair-assisted routine for “As Long as You Love Me.” Everyone is grateful for this. When the lads emerge for the show's second half after the aforementioned nine ballads, they do a string of upbeat classics beginning with “The Call.” A man behind me screams, “Fucking finally!” However, these high-energy moments have clearly been carefully plotted. It looks tough out there. Particularly for my Kevin, who's — y’know — 45 years old now.

Vocally, AJ and Nick shine above the others. Brian fluctuates, especially on oldie “Quit Playin’ Games.” When he addresses the crowd toward the show's final numbers, he sounds hoarse. It makes you appreciate the heart of this whole exercise. The struggle of transitioning from boy band to man band is real.

Vegas has freed BSB from touring the world as husbands and fathers. It could free others, although contemporary boy bands of that era — 98 Degrees, B2K and O-Town, bless them — couldn't string a show of hits together combined. (O-Town tweeted in solidarity earlier tonight: “Good luck to our buddies @backstreetboys making history tonight in Las Vegas! #boybandslive.”)

Credit: Denise Truscello

Credit: Denise Truscello

In many ways, this quintet began as a vocal harmony group and are returning to fulfill that lifelong ambition. In shiny jackets and black pants (their second of three outfit changes), they get to do their swoon-worthy take on The Four Seasons. It kinda works. As Brian and Nick hold each other's gaze and sing, “Now let me show you the shape of my heart,” it's hilarious, but it's so genuinely touching, too. As at SeaWorld, it's what customers come to see.

The evening's biggest treat comes during the classic “All I Have to Give,” as each BSB suddenly pops up in different seating areas in the venue. Lo and behold, Kevin — my Kevin — appears right in front of me. With his piercing blue eyes darting between the rows, he eventually looks straight at me, no longer from behind a plastic CD cover, and sings: “Without you I don't think I can live.”

Even though I got to him too late, even though he now resembles Christopher Lee as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings (a young Saruman, mind), it's still a destiny fulfilled. That is the magic of teenage pop. A chart hit for a listener can form a wish upon a dream. At a concert that dream becomes a truth, however fleeting.

Tonight, as a bunch of dads sing “We've Got It Goin’ on” — the lyrics of which are “Jam on ’cause Backstreet's got it, come on now everybody” — you realize the real truth. It's life, not the Backstreet Boys, that's absurd. “We've Got It Goin’ on” was once just a debut single from 1995. In 2017, it plays out as a bonkers premonition for five men who still do have it “goin’ on for years.”

Set list:
Larger Than Life
The One
Get Down
Quit Playin' Games (With My Heart)
Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely
I'll Never Break Your Heart
Anywhere for You
On Without You
As Long as You Love Me
The Call
We've Got It Goin’ on
Get Another Boyfriend
More Than That
All I Have to Give
Shape of My Heart
I Want It That Way
Everybody (Backstreet's Back)

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