Breaking Down Backstreet – What Is The Backstreet Boys Sound?

The Backstreet Sound.

This post is one I’ve been working on for a long time, since March but things kept coming up. But I’m glad to put this out there now. Because no matter if you’re a new fan, or a BSB lifer… Whether you’re old or you’re young…if you’re part of this fandom you’ve heard this phrase at one point or another. One thing I always strive for on this blog is to start conversations. I write to either help fans learn something they didn’t know before, or to get them thinking about something they may not have, maybe even start a debate if I’m really feeling froggy. I think this might be the start of a new series in where I break certain things. (I think I might do one about the Backstreet Experience, for example.) This all started when I was reminiscing while I had DNA playing on repeat, rereading things from a year ago, and this was a phrase I saw come up a lot in interviews surrounding this album. The Backstreet Sound. This post has not only been a long time coming as I’ve had this started for a long time now, but you’re in for a long post…including videos. So strap in as we talk about The Backstreet Sound.

But what is it?

It’s something fans have been debating over for years.

Not even kidding.

Some say it’s the lead combination, which is typically Nick, Brian, and AJ. I’d beg to differ as some of their best songs absolutely didn’t follow that formula. Others argue it’s a genre issue. Now you see, that’s a way bigger discussion. So let’s get into it, shall we?

Why the debates?

It’s because usually from album to album the sound changes. If you look at their Red Album for example, they started off with a full blown r&b sound with a mix of New Jack Swing. That’s why their music had a funky sound to it for their first two albums. Though I’d say pop started creeping by the time Backstreet’s Back rolled around. That was how many fans got introduced to their music, through one or both of those two albums.

Following next was Millennium and obviously the sound changed yet again. Not only was the music more mature in it’s growth but rock had suddenly jumped into the picture. Now clearly not on a super strong level but you can’t deny it’s influence on Larger Than Life, if ever a song was pop/rock with a splash of dance, it’s that song. New Jack Swing wasn’t a presence on this album by this point. The drastic change came at the right time and it’s why the album even today stands as strongly as it does.

So the sound shifted already by album number three (or two if you grew up in the US).

Then came Black and Blue now the Boys always say this album was rushed and shouldn’t have been. That said. the r&b definitely was the stronger source of inspiration on this album. Though if I had to describe it I’d probably say this was their pop album. That’s thanks to Jive who ended up steering them away from the r&b they wanted to do because NSYNC wanted that sound. (Typical. Also, screw you now non-existent Jive Records.) They had their remix with the Neptunes on The Call and the album as a whole had a darker tone compared to their earlier stuff. They’ve spoken on this, and their frustrations but sometimes I wonder about the road not taken when it came to Black and Blue. Who knows what would’ve happened had the original vision not been interrupted? Hard to tell…since we don’t have the unreleased songs as we do for later albums.

Now why am I giving you a play by play through their history when I literally have a whole post series dedicated to album breakdowns? Well, because I want to really take things apart piece by piece before putting together what the Backstreet Sound truly is. Because there’s a lot to this guys. I just sincerely hope I’m not boring you here. It’s also why I’m sprinkling in performance videos for you.

Following Black and Blue came the hiatus and a time I think of as the era that almost was. Now, I have a post coming at some point in the future about this exact time so I won’t go into detail here but suffice to say a lot of experimenting was going down at this point. They wanted to test the limits of what they could do. But the timing just wasn’t right.

Leading to the extended break where I stress for anyone who wasn’t a fan back then…they never broke up.

Anyway, Never Gone was their biggest departure from what they’d done to date. This album sounded nothing like the ones preceding it. It’s why to this day this album is so controversial among the fans. Debates have come up about this record since it’s creation. The harmonies were cut back (Howie’s own words) and they shifted to a more rock/pop kind of sound, away from the dance beats that always were a presence within their music up till this point and time. On that same note about thirty or so songs leaked with a more r&b driven tone filled with harmonies all throughout. They played with both extremes. This was absolutely their most experimental time up until this point. In the end we all know what won out.

Then…came the loss of Kevin for some years. With this, the sound definitely shifted again. Unbreakable was their first album for example, without any given to them by their long time songwriter Max Martin. This is actually really important to note. I’ll come back to this later. This album ended being if you put their old albums in a blender. In retrospect this album walked so DNA could run. It had a capella (only an intro but it was the most we would get until DNA), it had country, it had pop, EDM influenced pop, pop/rock – this album was diverse and absolutely experimental. They were trying to find themselves.

Did they find themselves? That was up for date.

Because now we’re here for their second more controversial album beyond Never Gone which would be This Is Us. Now this album was in BSB’s own words a return to their roots. I’m not just saying this because although it’s not my favorite BSB album, I enjoyed it more than Unbreakable and Never Gone. No. I’m legitimately using their own quotes for this. I’ve dug through the interviews for albums they made after this too as they did have a bad habit of sometimes talking down their previous works to push the new one. They don’t trash this album. As recently as 2018 Nick says it was his favorite to make.
“…they (Jive) wanted to separate the two styles of the groups, and they made *NSYNC more of the R&B group, with the duet with Nelly. We obviously went with the flow. We all knew in our hearts and our souls that it wasn’t exactly the right direction for the type of group that we are. We’re not a rock band.” – Howie.

Like I said when I was focusing on Black and Blue, the direction into full on adult contemporary was label influenced. Kevin would say multiple times that the album was not only rushed but they didn’t have the freedom they would’ve liked. It was a few of the factors that would lead to their burn out. Never Gone, an album the Boys do speak highly of today was an album that teetered on a precipice on what way should they go. This Is Us unlike Millennium definitely chased the trends of that time, in a similar way to Never Gone. That said it was the genre they wanted.

With In A World Like This, I will argue forever that this is the most telling album of anything they’d done. This was their “indie” record. There were no record label politics. They were the ones choosing who to work with, they were the ones deciding on what genres they wanted. As a result, the album goes across the board. You had more acoustic styled pop with Trust Me, and more r&b with Try, not to mention all the songs they wrote for that record. This was an album that was absolutely 100% concentrated Backstreet Boys.

So what about DNA, you ask? The reason why that album is as solid as it is, it’s that it relied on their strengths. It has multiple genres they’ve toyed with. It plays with a capella, country, 50s influenced pop, r&b, you name it. But this album has the Backstreet Sound just as strongly as anything else that they’ve done. They experimented yet again by Kevin’s own admission and is why it took so long for the album to eventually be released. This time however, we got no leaked unreleased songs though Kevin said there was enough to do another album.

The Backstreet Sound was never about genre. It’s about their vocals. That beautifully sweet sound you get when the Boys choose to blend their voices together. The harmonies throughout. That is why they’re still here. The way they’re layered upon the chorus for a polyphonic sound. It’s the crazy adlibs whether it’s Brian angelically soaring in the background, or Nick holding a note for what might be five years, or maybe AJ giving you chills as his soulful voice belts away. That’s why they can get away with experimenting or playing with music styles album after album after album. Cause while the songs are wonderful and the music is good, that’s not why we’re still here.

We’re here because they have a gift. The fact that these five men were able to blend so effortlessly? It’s not an accident. That’s why before Kevin and Brian joined the group, the group simply wasn’t working. The Backstreet Box, or the Backstreet sound is simply their voices themselves. We might debate or argue over what we want to see them do musically. I love those kind of discussions or debates myself, as you can probably tell from this lengthy post. Fans may argue and battle. We see a lot of it – especially lately. But I think this will be the one thing we all agree on. When those men open their mouths to sing? Nothing else seems to matter in that moment. We’re all just happy to hear them,

What it comes to, in the end…is their voices.
We’ll never get enough.

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