I'm on the road for my day job a lot, and try to call my family every other day just to keep in touch. When I called my wife to check in from a meeting in Denver, the tone of her voice told me something was up. She was distant and unusually quiet
"I've got a stabbing pain in my stomach that I've never felt before," she winced.
I knew I had a habit of giving people ulcers, particularly family members, but I began to get very, very concerned. She mentioned words ending in "-itis" more than once and talked about pharmacy co-payments and a dizzying regimen of medications.
"It might be diverticulitis and I've got a lot of pain in my side. I've also got a fever and the doctor's recommending a CAT scan and more blood tests to see what is going on. I'm even calling in sick to work."
I sympathized with her medical condition, but to me, this meant only one thing. She lowered the boom: I was going to see the Backstreet Boys with my 10-year old daughter, Jessica, and several of her friends at the Tacoma Dome, along with 19,000 other screaming BSB fans. I managed to miss the last boy-band juggernaut from Florida to hit the Pacific Northwest, N*SYNC, but knew I couldn't get out of this one.
A History Lesson
When I was Jessica's age, the pop flavor of the month was marketed to Top 40 AM radio stations like Chicago's WLS, where I'd tune in to hear Superjock Larry Lujack spin the hits that included the latest from the Box Tops ("Cry Like A Baby"), 1910 Fruitgum Company ("Goody Goody Gumdrops"), or Archie Bell and the Drells ("Tighten Up"). Most of that stuff has been labeled bubblegum, and I'm pleased that these memorable one-hit wonders have resurfaced on compilations like the Bubblegum Classics series on Varese/Sarabande records. My guilty pleasures include "Yummy Yummy Yummy" by the Ohio Express, or nearly anything by Tommy James and the Shondells.
In 1968, FM hadn't hit its musical stride yet, and cable television wasn't even a dream. Tuning in to AM pop radio, I also learned that songs could tell stories in addition to being just plain fun. When Glen Campbell sang "Wichita Lineman," I thought of the wide open plains, and learned a little bit more about what my friends' older brothers and sisters were up to when Cream played "White Room" or the Bob Seger System sang "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man." Elvis was still The King, TCB baby, and the Rolling Stones had just a touch more bad-boy attitude than their British counterparts Herman's Hermits and Gerry and the Pacemakers.
Popular media spun on an axis that had American troops fighting in Southeast Asia on one end and flower power protests on the other. In between, network television, fueled by only three national networks and many local UHF stations, experimented with groundbreaking new shows like Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, 60 Minutes, Hawaii Five-O, The Mod Squad, and Adam-12. Images of the Vietnam War dominated the evening news on the black-and-white window to the world in our living room, and we still had periodic fire drills in school and notices of Civil Defense meetings in the back of the local grocery store. Luckily for me, my parents played Little Richard and Elvis Presley on the piece of furniture that doubled as a stereo for LPs (and 45's with a special plastic insert) more often than Montovani's 101 Strings.
All that pop culture history was lost on my daughter and her fourth-grade friends when Nick Carter, , Kevin Richardson, Brian Littrell, A.J. McLean and Howie D all materialized from trap doors in the stage floor behind flashpots and smoke. Their Black and Blue CD opened at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts and sold 1.6 million copies in its first week in the record bins.
The Backstreet Boys are a phenomenon, and quite a departure from the bubblegum pop of my childhood. These guys have gone platinum in 37 countries, and have raised the bar for arena rock for years to come. I thought that they'd be a Milli Vanilli clone, lip-synching all the way to the bank, or at the very least, playing to prerecorded tapes. They're frontrunners in a crowded pop field that includes BB-MAK, LFO, O-Town, or their Orlando, Florida rivals, N*SYNC.
The show's opening featured big screen video of earth hit by asteroids with a touch of Star Wars' hyperspace effects. As the flashpots and flames enveloped the stage, the Boys strutted out in long black leather coats and the screams and cries of pre-teen America shook the wooden rafters of the Tacoma Dome. A Dome staffer told me that there must've been 18,000 kids in the house, and many of them twirled a pale blue glo-stick (at $8 a pop) when the lights when down. The glo-sticks must've been a pre-teen replacement for matches or Bic lighters.
Throughout the set, the Boys were dressed in black and blue, promoting their newest disc, Black and Blue. They opened with "Everyone" and, just like a Bruce Springsteen concert, the audience sang every word. They followed with a bass-driven version of last year's "Larger Than Life," from their Millennium disc. The Boys can sing, and they sure can dance. Each song was intricately choreographed featuring moves that would impress Motown. Their seven-piece band included two drummers, and ten dancers shared the stage with the Boys throughout their 90-minute set. As they segued from "Everyone" to "Larger Than Life," I knew that these kids worked hard to overcome any comparisons to other manufactured boy bands. Their stage show rivaled the world's greatest rock and roll band, particularly on the Rolling Stones' stadium tours behind Bridges to Babylon or Voodoo lounge: there was no delay between the video and sound with the Boys, and they used a bridge to the back of the hall after a silly video visit to the dressing room.
Half-way through their set, the Backstreet Boys invited us beneath the stage where the video cameras peeked into the dressing room. They were taunting each other and wrestling, and this Tacoma Dome pillow fight flew up a notch when one of them brought out the Silly String. When the cameraman at center stage looked down, green Silly String shot up from the trapdoor in the floor, to the delight of the thousands of BSB fans.
When the silliness stopped, the Boys appeared on a stage in the back of the Dome. They began "I'll Never Break Your Heart," one of their more popular ballads.
Kevin introduced the Boys and the band when they returned from the small, circular stage in the back of the Dome. They sang as they strolled across a bridge, which stretched the length of the hall. He talked about how each of the Boys have set up their own charitable foundations.
"Part of your ticket tonight," he said, "helps us help people and the environment." The crowd went nuts.
Bad-Boy A.J.'s donations to diabetes research received a round of applause, and Nick held his nose and closed his eyes when Kevin said that his work would help save the animals in the oceans. During the Boys' two-day visit, the Tacoma News-Tribune reported on Kevin's visit to Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to explore his interest in the link between environmental problems and health.
Howie has started a foundation in honor of his late sister, who died from lupus, and Brian has his own foundation at St. Joseph's Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky.
The show's encore, "Shape of My Heart" featured five-part harmonies that have catapulted BSB releases at the top of Billboard charts. The entire evening showed me that the Backstreet Boys are truly larger than life: talented musicianship, dance moves to rival Motown, and stage histrionics equal to the best of the Glimmer Twins. BSB may be pop, but they sure ain't bubblegum the way I remember bubblegum.
Krystal, the evening's opening act, performed a short but powerful opening set from her debut CD, Supergirl. Her "My Religion Does Not Hate," showcased her great pipes. She was discovered by Kevin, who introduced her as a new artist promoted by the band. Near the end of her set, her white grand piano broke, mid-song. She continued singing solo, and closed her opening set with an a cappella version of the Jackson Five hit, "I'll Be There."