Backstreet Boys – I Want it That Way (1999, Jive Records)
Why It’s Perfect: Although in my teen years I couldn’t abide this type of unabashed pop trifle, as I get older it seems increasingly absurd to hate something merely for being sweet. It’d be like running down the freezer aisle at the grocery store screaming “FUCK YOU, ICE CREAM!” Fact of the matter is, the Backstreet Boys’ unquestioned highwater mark I Want It That Way is one of the most sublime slabs of teen pop ever crafted. Produced by the controversial Max Martin, I Want It That Way is like some Swedish pop-bot’s idea of what sad music sounds like, replete as it is with pensive acoustic guitar picking and melodramatic synth accents, but it fails gloriously to inspire any emotion save for idiot grin sugar rush play-that-thirteen-times-in-a-row glee. The track’s great secret is the way everything subtly bounces; the percolating “drums” are a jaunty juxtaposition to the melodrama of the vocals, and the pizzicato strings both accent and sweeten the yearning chorus (an effect Martin would exploit to similar success on a number of early Britney Spears singles). But hey, don’t give Martin all the credit. Although the Backstreet Boys failed to produce a solo artist with the cleverness of Justin Timberlake, they were a hell of a group of pure singers and the harmonies in this song are simply exquisite. They have a natural interplay comparable to the best vocal groups, and it results in a much greater dynamic range than we hear from competitors like *NSync. The melodies and phrasings subtly shift over the course of the song, and it contributes not only to the sense of palpable lifting one feels when they hit the chorus, but to their ability to make that already heaven-high moment rise still further with each successive iteration.
Defining Moment: Brian Littrell’s showstopping “Teeeeeeeeeeeeeelll me whyyyyyyyy” in the last chorus. As far as teenpop nirvana goes, it’s a moment worthy of gospel. So worthy I had to resort to mixing the concept of nirvana and gospel to describe it.
Other Great BSB Singles: Though the Backstreet Boys never cut anything else at quite this level, As Long as You Love Me is another superb ballad let down only slightly by a limp bridge. I would argue that their second greatest effort, however, was actually the arena-sized sci-fi schlock Larger Than Life, which is, incidentally, arguably the least convincing “fame is hard” song ever written.