New Kids on the Block had a bunch of hits, but that was a little before my time, so I don’t know any of their songs as well as I know the song that goes “New Kids on the Block had a bunch of hits,” which is an awful pop monstrosity/Abercrombie and Fitch commercial called “Summer Girls,” a song by a boy band, about a different boy band, during that brief period in the late 90s/early 00s where I’m pretty sure more people were in boy bands than not in boy bands. If you want to know what turn of the century America was all about, this song will tell you everything you need to know.
Recently, while waiting for a smog check (relax, I passed), I invented a fun game called How Much Useless Information Do I Know About Something I Don’t Care About? The following is everything I know about 90s/00s boy bands. I did absolutely zero research or fact-checking in writing this post. Everything here is just something I knew.
The one member of New Kids On The Block I can name is Donnie “The Stephen Baldwin of the Wahlbergs” Wahlberg. I can’t name any members of LFO, the group that performed “Summer Girls,” but I do know that LFO stands for Light (or Lite?) Funky Ones, that Chinese food makes them sick, and that they think it’s fly when girls stop by for the summer, for the summer. But any conversation of 90s boy bands needs to begin with the twin titans of the genre, ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys, who towered over the industry like a pair of clean-shaven colossi, gently ushering a generation of adolescents into womanhood by merely looking into the camera and pouting wistfully on the downbeats.
One of the Backstreet Boys’ earliest singles was “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and the very first line of the very first verse was “Oh my God, we’re back again,” a line which basically communicates, “You don’t know who we are, but you’re sick of us already and so are we.” A salvo was fired, heralding the start of an era that would last roughly six years, ending only in 2002 when The White Stripes and The Strokes taught America that it’s okay if bands play their own instruments and write their own songs. It was an epoch that engulfed my entire high school career, smothering the world in tight harmonies, tighter abs, and vaguely sentimental lyrics (Can someone please show me the meaning of “show me the meaning of being lonely”? What is the “that way” that the Backstreet Boys never want to hear you say you want it?).
The Backstreet Boys were Nick Carter (the cute one), Kevin (the slightly more alternative cute one you could be proud of yourself for thinking was cute), Brian (the one who looked like Charlie Brown), Howie (the one who was named Howie), and The Other One (the one who was the other one). I have no recollection of the fifth Backstreet Boy, I can’t picture him at all, but I’m guessing his name was probably A.J. Also, I think Brian sometimes went by B-Rock.
Their biggest album was called Millennium, their disappointing follow-up to Millennium was Black and Blue, and their attempted comeback album was called Never Gone. And again, these are all things I know. I actually owned a Backstreet Boys CD when I was in middle school (their first, called Backstreet Boys), because it was a period in my life during which I believed that if there was a band, and they had a lot of songs that played on the radio, that meant the band was good. This, of course, is not true, and when I discovered in college that all along there had been amazing albums I could have been listening to like The Boy With The Arab Strap or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, I was angry — the same kind of angry as when you discover your parents have been lying to you for years about the tooth fairy.
The yin to the Backstreet Boys’ yin, the peanut butter to their peanut butter, the Starsky to their Starsky, was of course ‘N Sync. If you wanted five blandly good-looking white guys who knew how to dance, but you didn’t for some reason like boys from the backs of streets, you were in luck, because, Tada! ‘N Sync! The fierce rivalry between ‘N Sync fans and Backstreet Boys fans, as if there was some great idealogical difference between the two, often felt like something out of an Orwell novel, a crass strategy of The Industry to sell more records. All you had to do was pick a band and swear your undying devotion (ka-ching, ka-ching). The ‘Boys made this plain in their lyrics: they don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did — as long as you love them.
‘N Sync was Justin Timberlake (better remembered as the voice of Boo Boo in Yogi Bear), JC Chasez (whose “C” in “JC Chasez” stands for, no joke, “Chasez”), Joey Fatone (or “Joey the Fat one”), Lance Bass (who, when Caroline and I spotted one night walking the streets of Chelsea, gave us a “Yep, I’m Lance Bass” look), and Chris Kirkpatrick (the one whose head looked like a mop). Did you know that I knew the first and last names of every member of ‘N Sync? Because I didn’t, until just now. ‘N Sync’s biggest album was No Strings Attached, whose title and first single “Bye Bye Bye” were both references to them firing and suing their long-time manager Lou Pearlman, a man so named because he is perfectly spherical, like a pearl-man, a pasty white globe, sculpted out of butter.
Standing on the shoulders of these giants while simultaneously nipping at their heels (just picture it) were a plethora of lesser boy bands like O-Town and 98 Degrees and 5ive (pronounced “five-ive”). These groups were laboratory-ready examples of what happens when you have a whole band made up of “And The Other Guy.” Take 98 Degrees — these Ringos of history included the boring one-two punch of the Brothers Lachey, and also a couple non-Lacheys thrown in there just for kicks. I don’t know any of their songs and neither do you. One of them dated Jessica Simpson, but then they broke up, but then they got back together and married, because of September 11th. That’s true by the way; you can look it up: Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson got married because the attack on the World Trade Center reminded them how precious and fleeting life is, making the Iraq War only the second dumbest thing to happen because of September 11th. As it turns out, a large-scale terrorist attack maybe isn’t the best reason to get hitched, because eventually Nick and Jessica got divorced (a nation wept). Then Jessica Simpson dated John Mayer in what can only be described as a lateral move, and that right there is everything I know about football.
And again, I was a never a fan of any of these bands, but I was acutely aware of all of them.
And of course all of this knowledge is still taking up space; there’s precious real estate there taken up by the knowledge of what you should Quit Playing Games With (answer: My Heart), and what is Tearin’ Up when I’m with you (again, My Heart). There are so many useless facts, and I’m reminded of every one of them with every forgotten name, every dropped birthday and unreturned phone call, every repetition of the lie “Well, if it was really important to you you’d remember,” as if memory were a filing cabinet dedicated only to important things.
If there is a link (and I’m not sure there is one), it’s the opposite: the things we remember become important to us, not because they’re important, but because we remember them. Out of thousands of instants, millions of songs, oceans of arguments and aching hearts and I love yous, the ones that really matter are the ones that stick with us, that are subsumed into the pile that is us, the odd, un-take-apart-able collage of our experience. As much as I can claim not to care, these bands, along with everything, add to that pile; these moments, along with everything, are a part of me.