In 1993 five seemingly random teenagers found their way to each other in Orlando, Florida. A high school friendship, a familiar face at a local auditions, a distant cousin. They named themselves the Backstreet Boys, after a local flea market that doubled as one of the area’s biggest teen hangouts, and twenty years ago today they released their very first album.
So many fans focus on the superficial memories of this generation’s first boy band (sorry, New Kids on the Block, but you missed the cutoff): Who had the best hair, whether they could pull off the all-white suits, where you were when you first heard “As Long As You Love Me.” But on today’s anniversary their story is one that’s more relevant than ever, especially given what’s been happening to their musical predecessors.
When the five vocalists—Brian, AJ, Kevin, Nick and Howie—coined themselves as BSB it was only the first in a long list of steps to fame. Enter Lou Pearlman. The would-be music manager and household name was already a wealthy man when he met the newly-formed boy band, thanks to a widely-denounced-as-shady business deal involving his blimp company. (Yes, you read that right. Blimps.) Pearlman was looking for a new and lucrative business venture and was inspired by the cash flow that befell The New Kids on the Block. He placed an ad in the Orlando Sentinel calling for young male singers and folklore has it that he auditioned several members of the would-be boy band in his blimp hangar (again, we can’t make this stuff up) and spotted a potential cash cow in the young singers.
The group wasn’t exactly a hit straight out of the blimp hangar, but there also wasn’t a lot of struggling to be had for the Backstreet Boys. They were handled by the former NKOTB road manager and spent their early days performing at local malls and theme parks. A few of their first songs did well in the European markets—while flopping in the States—but then came their full self-titled debut album. Singles like “Everybody” and “Quit Playin’ Games” flew to the top of the charts and BSB was nominated for a Best New Artist at the 1999 Grammy Awards. They had made it.
Then in 2002 things began to slowly unravel. First Nick Carter decided to pursue a solo career, leaving the remaining four members to record an album without him. That led to an almost-two-year long run in which the band wasn’t seen publicly as a full unit. They planned a comeback album, Never Gone, which was panned by critics when it was released. Then it was Kevin Richardson‘s turn to leave the group, citing “personal reasons” and nothing more.
The next decade involved a few more albums and a few more reunions but they never made it back to the initial success of that first album.
It’s a similar path to the one that One Direction is currently following. The supergroup is British talent show X-Factor‘s biggest success story—its five members originally auditioned as individuals but a suggestion by guest judge Nicole Scherzinger put them all together. Ironically, they only came in third place during their season, but Simon Cowell spotted major potential and signed them to his own record label. The rest, as they say, is history.
1D went on to become the first British band to debut at the top of the Billboard charts. They went multi-platinum with several albums. They spent the next several years touring the world for sold-out stadium shows. But barely four years after their debut album hit shelves, they were already down one band member. Zayn Malik, who was often absent during promotional appearances, decided to quit the band. The rest of the members announced their hiatus in 2016 and today the band is all but officially disbanded.
So what goes wrong? What factors are at play during those years between the utmost success and the full dismemberment of the bands?
To start, the pressure is often suffocating. The tale of young talent suddenly becoming overwhelmed with a life in the spotlight and all the scrutiny and prying that comes along with it is anything but new, but musicians have it particularly bad. If an actress finds themselves feeling weary of attention they can cut back on press appearances, dig deeper into filming and the art. But boy bands live their life on stage and their collective livelihoods depend on performing for live audiences. If a member develops anxiety they often have to go to great lengths to suppress it.
It happened to AJ McLean, who has battled addiction since his start with the Backstreet Boys. He went to rehab in 2001 and 2002 following an intervention by fellow bandmember Kevin, and checked in again in 2011 in preparation for one of the band’s reunion tours. He has spoken openly about his struggles with drug and alcohol.
It happened to Zayn, too. His stress didn’t manifest as an addiction, but he has had to take time off repeatedly to focus on his mental wellbeing. It began with a six-day-long break from On the Road Again tour (Malik cited stress as the reason), and eventually was the reason he left One Direction permanently. It still affects him in his solo career, and he has given interviews and written letters apologizing for missing appearances or concerts as a result.
Sometimes the opposite problem persists. Occasionally members of a boy band are too comfortable in the spotlight, too predisposed to fame and too talented to be contained among their peers. This is what leads to the solo careers, which we all know is a death sentence to boy bands. As much as the pioneering young singer may express their interest in doing both a solo career and the band, it never happens that way. Justin Timberlake, Nick Carter, and what we now know is every member of One Direction. Ultimately joining a pop group is just a stepping stone to more direct fame and sometimes that’s successful (JT, Zayn, Niall) and sometimes it isn’t (cough…Nick…cough).
And other times bad management and disappointing leaders can spell the end of a boy band. Teenagers, no matter how savvy or talented, can’t be expected to lead their own careers or make their own business decisions, and how everything plays out often depends on who is taking the reins. Cowell managed to steer One Direction in the right direction, even if he was powerless against the other forces at work. For the Backstreet Boys, Pearlman was anything but positive. After putting BSB together he went on to create LFO and NSYNC, among others, but behind-the-scenes it was all going downhill.
He created wholly unfair contracts for all of his talent, going so far as to list himself as the sixth member of BSB and make millions while the band was making a fraction of that. He was eventually sued by all of the musical acts he represented, exposing him as a fraud in the industry, but the damage to their collective paychecks had already been done.
And even when there is no foul play at work, sometimes boy band simply fizzle because its members grow up and find new interests. There wasn’t much ill will in Harry Styles‘ new pursuit of an acting career, but it makes it nearly impossible for 1D to get back together nonetheless.
But the dissolution of a boy band doesn’t have to be all bad. There is a dark side, sure. Rehab stints and lawsuits and near-mental breakdowns aren’t exactly the stuff of fairy tales. But for all intents and purposes most members come around eventually. The Backstreet Boys are back together at last, entertaining hordes of millennials in Las Vegas on a nightly basis. And all of the One Direction members are thriving—and rolling in the dough with their new ventures. Call it a different kind of happy ending.