September 5, 2013
The Backstreet Boys have been in comeback mode--yes, I know the album’s called Never Gone--for almost 10 years now. I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about how weird that is.
When bitter rivals *NSYNC made their comeback at the VMAs recently it was both enormously well-received and basically unrepeatable. Justin Timberlake’s schedule wasn’t the only problem: Once they’d made their grand comeback, it was impossible for them to ever be so completely and permanently ’90s again. They were suddenly, permanently, 2013.
The Backstreet Boys, at least to the outside world, have given up on remaining in 1999 forever. But inside Comerica Theatre last night it was clear that they’ve reserved the right to try to get back there on stage.
The result was a long, weird show, but as what looked like an almost-sold-out crowd filtered in we were still firmly in the present. DJ Pauly D held the floor until 8:30, basically reminding people with no dancing space that they liked "Blurred Lines." He had the crowd on his side, but there wasn't much to do with them once they got there.
Jesse McCartney was up next, exuding vaguely oily competence. He's got an undeniable set of pop songs to play with, but as a performer something about his put-on diction and tendency toward interpretive dance (this song's about a phone, like the one I'm pretending to dial) and, okay, his turquoise dinner jacket left him presenting as a hyper-confident cruise-ship entertainment director. And like a cruise-ship entertainment director, it was both unconvincing and weirdly, vaguely inappropriate when it came time to boast winkingly about having The Best In Town. (His ladies simply cannot resist having no-strings-attached sex with him. Just nothing to be done about it.)
But his set was short and basically well-received--even during the opening and closing dubstep solos, which were a real thing that happened--and his collection of more recent hits had the desired effect of easing the crowd back in time. After dubstep solo No. 2 he led the crowd in a jarringly unchanged singalong of "Beautiful Soul," depositing the audience in 2003, where Nick Carter could pick them up.
And at 9:40 he finally did. Entering the stage to the James Bond theme, for some reason, the Backstreet Boys--in matching suits, in front of a brighter-than-daylight stage--launched right into "The Call," for some reason. It's kind of a nostalgia-act power move, a reminder that they were relevant long enough to start their set with a string of b-level hits.
If you've seen the Backstreet Boys out promoting their latest album you might be under the impression that they've gone full-on American Idol adult contemporary. They have--in 2013. But aside from a few reminders that they can play instruments during the post-comeback ballads it has absolutely no bearing on their live show.
Because the way they act in 2013, outside the venue and away from the initiated, is a disguise. It's passing. Inside the venue, the people want the Backstreet Boys, and the Backstreet Boys oblige them: Matching outfits, Flying V choreography with hat-business interludes, squeaky-voiced between-songs banter. They'd sell you minidiscs, if they could.
It's jarring, but it's the right move--like any secret identity, their 2013 Backstreet Men personae are a little too weak to withstand careful examination. They wrote the last album themselves, as they're quick to note before every song they play off it, and the result is a barrage of almost identical-sounding synthpop songs with super-earnest lyrics. Did you know: They found the truth in a child's eyes? (The word "inspiring" came up a lot in the pre-song patter.)
In A World Like This doesn't hold up well in a set full of songs that were constructed in a lab to make girls scream during concerts, and while the 15-year-old harmonies were still perfect throughout they were visibly (and fairly, I guess) more interested in their new material than they were some of the older ballads.
But the serious looks and the casual dress and the second-tier inspiration-pop are all necessary, at this point, because a nostalgia-piquing comeback is a trick you can only do once on a national level. Now that we've been making "more like Backstreet Men" jokes for longer than the Backstreet Boys were unstoppable CD-selling machines, they've been roughly assimilated into the present. We have videos where they aren't carrying huge, goofy cell phones now. We've seen Nick Carter's reality show.
So on the Today Show and in music videos and doing whatever else they do, they have to be Mature, Inspiring Artists. They've come back; Twitter can only freak out about that once.
But theatre-fulls of individual Backstreet Boys fans can freak out about that more or less indefinitely. Until every last '90s Kid has satisfied her curiosity, they can surreptitiously take this show on the road.
More photos, the setlist, and the Critic's Notebook on Page 3
Critic’s Notebook: The crowd: Overwhelmingly blonder and tanner than God made them. 90s Kids in well-dressed groups of three. Overheard: “When this beat drops, I want you to fist-pump like you’ve never fist-pumped before.” - DJ Pauly D, acutely aware of the limits of chair-dancing. Random Notebook Dump: Now we are all dubstep. Admittedly Kind of Cute, Sure: Every half-drunk husband in the crowd just-kidding-but-seriously singing “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” in their lady’s ear.
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Setlist: The Call Don’t Want You Back Incomplete Permanent Stain All I Have to Give As Long As You Love Me Show ’Em (What You’re Made Of) Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely Breathe I’ll Never Break Your Heart We’ve Got It Goin' On Safest Place to Hide /10,000 Promises (acoustic) Madeleine (acoustic) Quit Playin' Games (with My Heart) (acoustic) Extended Backstreet Boys The Movie Trailer The One Love Somebody More Than That In A World Like This I Want It That Way ENCORE: Everybody (Backstreet's Back) Larger Than Life