In the late '90s, the Backstreet Boys owned MTV, radio, and the souls of millions of middle-schoolers. Over the next 20-odd years, BSB became a cultural curiosity. Almost no one was regularly listening to “I Want It That Way” or “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” with any sincerity. But BSB became one of those groups whose songs people drunkenly sing full-throated at karaoke bars like a chorus of fools letting the world burn outside. They’re the kind of group that makes grown-ass women up to their necks in mortgage debt blush at the memory of owning posters featuring AJ McLean, Brian Littrell, Howie Dorough, Kevin Richardson, and Nick Carter — especially Carter.
But it's not just soccer moms who show love to BSB these days. More than 25 years after the group formed in 1993, the boy band is enjoying a resurgence of Backstreetmania. Its 2019 album, DNA, debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart in January, making it the group's first album to achieve the feat since 2000's Black & Blue.
Admittedly, the album is pretty damn good, and it received notable praise from critics for keeping up with current pop music trends. AllMusic praised the record as "elegant and unexpectedly fresh, especially on sparkling electronic tracks such as the Lauv-produced ‘Nobody Else’ and the Chainsmokers-esque ‘Is It Just Me.’” Rolling Stone noted the album's "down-to-earth sense of crisp, hooky economy à la [Shawn] Mendes and [Charlie] Puth.”
In both reviews, DNA is positively compared to modern pop acts that, truth be told, probably followed in the footsteps of the now-middle-aged heartthrobs themselves. Indeed, songs such as “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” DNA’s opener and one of the strongest tracks on the record, fits snugly within the confines of 2019 mainstream pop while retaining plenty of the group's old-school boy-band magic.
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Sunday, August 24, BSB is set to take that magic to a sold-out BB&T Center in Sunrise in what will surely be a cacophony of screeching fans, young and old (but mostly old). What could possibly ruin this return to form by a beloved pop group?
Some of their struggles are well documented and will be familiar to most hardcore BSB fans: AJ McLean has been forthcoming about his struggles with substance abuse, and Brian Littrell’s voice isn’t what it used to be due to a condition called muscle tension dysphoria, in which the muscles around the voice box constrict, impairing his vocal range.
Then there's the group's corrupt former manager, Lou Pearlman, who swindled BSB out of millions and was accused of disturbing behavior before dying in a federal prison in Southwest Miami-Dade in 2016.
But there's one other troubling aspect of the BSB story that threatened to derail the group before it rebounded with the success of DNA.
No, it wasn't that time in 2016 when Carter was arrested in Key West for allegedly attacking a bar employee who told him to leave because he was too shit-faced. Come on — that’s a regular Tuesday night in the Keys.
Instead, it's allegations about Carter's treatment of women that do not align with the group's cookie-cutter reputation.
In late 2017, Melissa Schuman, a former member of late-'90s pop group Dream, accused Carter of raping her in 2002. In a blog post, the singer-songwriter accused Carter of allegedly taking her virginity by force when she was 18. Because the rape was alleged to have happened 15 years prior to Schuman's public accusation, prosecutors threw out the case saying it was long past the statute of limitations.
Schuman claimed she told her therapist, family, and friends about the alleged assault over the years but did not come forward publicly for several reasons. “I didn’t have the money, the clout, or access to an attorney who was powerful enough to stand up against my abuser’s legal counsel," Schuman explained. "I was told I would likely be buried in humiliation, accused of being fame-hungry, and it would ultimately hurt me professionally as well as publicly.”
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She wasn’t wrong. In the aftermath of her blog post, the “vultures came out,” Schuman told the Daily Beast in 2018. One of the people who dismissed the assault allegations against Carter was bandmate Brian Littrell, who, without naming Schuman, lamented "fame seekers" aiming to "get something on somebody" because "Backstreet Boys are Top 10 on radio right now and back in people’s brains.”
Though Littrell's dismissive comment about the public's renewed interest in BSB was glib at best, most fans and much of the media did largely overlook the allegations against Carter during the promotional tour for DNA and, particularly, once prosecutors threw out the case.
Though the allegation has not taken a consequential toll on the Backstreet Boys' recent success, it can — at a minimum — taint the way people listen to the soundtrack of their childhood. The next time Carter sings, “Am I sexual?” on “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” you might not hear it in quite the same way.
Backstreet Boys. 8 p.m. Friday, August 23, at BB&T Center, 1 Panther Pkwy., Sunrise; 954-835-7000; thebbtcenter.com. Tickets are sold out.