Backstreet Boys? One of those boy bands from the 90s. Not the Justin Timberlake one, the other one right? Still knocking about I think, but what’s the big deal?
Well for one thing, the songs from their heyday. Have you listened to any of them lately? I Want It That Way, As Long As You Love Me, Larger Than Life - a near perfect expression of pop/rock if ever there was - and of course the imperious Everybody (Backstreet’s Back). One of those rare songs that gets everybody dancing with a smile on their faces. Even those who claim to hate it and pretend they’re dancing in a jokey way (you’re not fooling anyone, not even yourselves).
These and many others from the Boys are pop gems that hit the mark on all creative levels - songwriting, recording and performance and perfectly capture the spirt of their time, as all great pop does.
You may not share my views here. That’s ok - whether their music personally floats your boat or not is not the point here. The real reason why the Backstreet Boys are misunderstood is that they are important. Important to music. Important to our culture. And almost nobody realises it.
Also as an aside, unlike many pop titans, the Backstreet Boys can really sing. Really really sing. You’d be surprised (or sadly maybe not) how many people who are famous for being pop singers can’t sing especially well. Just like many people who are famous for being actors can’t actually act any better than your or I can. But the reason why these singers and these actors are world famous and you and I are not is because they have the right combination of charisma, perseverance and yes looks to become famous (although charisma and perseverance are the most important of these qualities).
Anyway, back to the Backstreet Boys. Why are they so important? Because of how they made things happen for one man and his team whose work you are definitely familiar with. The man is Dag Krister Volle, or as he chose to be known, Denniz PoP.
You may be aware of how Scandinavia, especially Sweden, has become the powerhouse of pop songwriting. The most prolific and best known today is Max Martin, the man who comes in third after Lennon and McCartney for writing the most American number one songs, having written and produced monster tunes for everyone from Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Ariana Grande to Usher, Justin Bieber, and The Weeknd. But he’s far from the only Scandinavian pop maestro at work today. Indeed you’re more likely now to be surprised if you look at the credits of a global pop mega hit and find no Scandinavian involvement in its creation.
It didn’t used to be like that. After ABBA smashed through the Anglo-American glass ceiling of pop in the 1970s there has been a steady succession of internationally successful Scandinavian pop stars - A-Ha, Europe, Roxette, Ace of Base, The Cardigans, Robyn, and plenty more. But while these artists were busy releasing international hits, when the British and American labels and music companies were looking for songwriters and producers for their pop hopefuls they almost always stuck to their own.
In 1991, Denniz PoP, then an accomplished DJ and re-mixer, co-founded Cheiron Studios in Stockholm to write and produce pop songs. Among its early employees was one Max Martin, hired by PoP in 1993, and Cheiron began racking up an impressive array of hits with the likes of Ace of Base, Dr Alban and Army of Lovers. They were all Swedish artists, apart from Alban, who was from Nigeria but only became successful after he’d moved to Sweden (to study dentistry - yes he really was a medical man).
Despite his clear skills for writing a tune that would work internationally, PoP and Cheiron struggled to get the attentions of the global music HQs in London, New York and LA. The artist that changed all that, that opened the doors for today’s Scandinavian pop powerhouses? Backstreet Boys.
While the band themselves and their management were all American, they weren’t actually signed to a US label but to a German one. The Anglo-American we-know-best mentality wasn’t therefore so prevalent and PoP and Max Martin got this gig. Their contributions to the band’s debut album included Quit Playing Games (With My Heart) and We’ve Got It Goin’ On. By album two the Cheiron songs included As Long As You Love Me and Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).
The Backstreet Boy’s German label was part of the Zomba group which was developing some other promising pop talent at this time, in particular Britney Spears and ’N Sync. PoP, Martin and the Cheiron crew were now Zomba’s go to songwriting guys and they delivered for the new hopefuls the likes of …Baby One More Time, It’s Gonna Be Me and many more.
Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of this Scandinavian pop gold and you couldn’t move through Stockholm’s international airport without bumping into aspiring and actual pop stars from all around the world.
PoP sadly didn’t get to experience the golden age for Scandinavian pop production he had done more than any one else to bring to fruition. He died of stomach cancer in 1998 at the age of just 35. The rest of the team decided to close Cheiron in 2000 as it always his creation and simply didn’t make sense without him.
The Backstreet Boys’ 1999 single, Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely, written by Martin, was dedicated to PoP. The video features a bus driven by an actor chosen for his resemblance to the great man himself, and the destination on the bus is shown as ‘Denniz St’.
Since then countless Scandinavian writers and producers have featured very heavily in the story of pop over the last 20 years and they continue to exercise an influence far outweighing the relative sizes of their homelands, bringing joy to millions of music fans all around the globe. It was Denniz PoP who really got the whole thing going, with Max Martin at his side, who he recruited and mentored, and who has been carrying the torch since PoP's untimely death.
It’s highly likely that if it hadn’t been the Backstreet Boys who were the first Anglo-American band to rise to megastardom with their Scandi-powered pop it would have been someone else. But it wasn’t someone else. It was the Backstreet Boys. They always knew it and showed due respect to this incredible creative energy they helped introduce to the wider world. And for that, for anyone who loves music that is popular, they are important and deserving of our respect.
Plus Larger That Life still really really really rocks.