Before the Carnival Imagination has even left the Port of Miami, the Boys have taken their places onstage on an open-air deck for the “HOT HOT HOT Sail Away Party” — “Hot Hot Hot” being a song off their 2013 album, In a World Like This. They aren’t singing their own song yet, but recent-ish radio hits and the likes of “I’m on a Boat.”
It is more than a decade after their fame peaked, and yet here the Backstreet Boys are — indeed, on a boat — with a few thousand fans, fans who are screaming, shouting, singing along, laughing at every joke, shoving one another to get closer to the stage and to try to grab a hand or get a better photo. Fans who are chanting “What what in the butt?” and “Junk in the trunk” between songs. Fans who are positively shrieking when the boys dance low to “Low.”
In a world like this, it is perfectly acceptable for these men, who are just around the bend from middle age, to shamelessly, uncomplainingly wear matching sailor suits — natty white outfits, complete with epaulets and caps boasting scrambled eggs — and for women — at least one-fifth of whom must be 45 or older — to make Beliebers look well-mannered, $17.50 commemorative plastic cups of frozen rum drinks in hand.
Here, they are still boys, and we are still girls.
Soon Nick Carter — the heartthrob, now 33 — jumps down from the stage and, escorted by a beefy guy, wades through the crowd taking pictures and being groped. Behind him, A.J. McLean — the bad boy, 36 — pleads with the fans to be excellent to each other. “What’s Fonzi? Cool. Be cool.”
I’m on a deck above the scrum, trying to snap a photo, when someone behind me says, “Excuse me.” It is a bodyguard, and with him is Brian Littrell — the cute one, 38. He is right there.
My pulse beats in my ears. I say nothing, just grin as he takes a photo with the elderly fan to my left, then a woman in a wheelchair to my right. Adrenaline pricks my knees, my palms. This is closer than I have ever been to one of the Boys, and I am 14. It feels uncomfortable and thrilling, and I wish that my childhood best friend Alison, a devoted Brian girl, were here to squeal with me once he’s gone.
After the Boys depart, the crowd takes on a contemplative, post-orgasmic hush. Friends cluster together to look at one another’s pics and relive the moments. A tearful girl clutching a Chilean flag is quickly engulfed by her friends, who rub her back.
Oh my god. I’m back again.
It has been more than a dozen years since I last heard these screams. Then, in Philadelphia in the late ’90s, they were primal, yearning mating calls, even though probably only half of our heaving and reaching bodies had reached puberty. There was no self-consciousness, no posturing to appear cool or above it all. There was only high-pitched ecstasy and longing. (A fair-minded Philadelphia Inquirer critic ruled that a 1999 show “wasn’t awful, just awfully dull for anyone not motivated by hormonal urges.”)
At each of the shows, I screamed with the thousands, dizzied by the fact that I was breathing the same air as the Boys whose eyes watched me from every inch of my bedroom walls. The Boys who inspired me to write fan fiction, which led to a massive website that has its own fans and eventually reached more than a half-million hits, according to my Geocities counter. The Boys whom I retreated to in the depths of adolescent despair, taking refuge in a long-running and convoluted fantasy that involved me dating Nick Carter and being something of a little sister to the rest of the crew. The Boys whom I was ashamed to tell my peers at a Dave Matthews Band-obsessed suburban high school that I loved.
Since my passion withered, I have felt more shame than fondness when I recall how I lost my frizzy little mind over a manufactured boy band whose songs included the nasal and unsexy “If You Want It to Be Good Girl (Get Yourself a Bad Boy).” The embarrassment sharpens when I realize that I still know all the words to “Good Girl” and, worse, find myself dancing if I hear it — and of course I hear it because I pull it up on YouTube. My regret is more complicated than just embarrassment, though: I also feel some perverse guilt. I was one of the legions of fans who abandoned the group by moving on to real-life boys and new music just their own star was tumbling, thanks to changing music tastes, financial mismanagement, and that old standby, personal demons.
So in late October, I tried to come to terms with my 14-year-old self by buying a ticket to the Backstreet Boys’ 20th anniversary cruise to a Carnival-owned island in the Bahamas and back. It would be three nights with more than 2,000 BSB fans who shelled out from $699 to a few thousand dollars to commune with one another and stalk the boys — women (and a few men!) who had no shame in their BSB game.
When I arrived at the airport in Miami, I went to the Carnival counter, as my boarding pass instructed. I asked if I can be checked in. The employee paused.
“Are you sailing today or tomorrow?”
I told him today, and he said, “Since you’re on a special cruise, you’ll have to check in there” and pointed.
He didn’t want to say “Backstreet Boys cruise.” Nor did I.
“This is just the beginning,” Beth, a 29-year-old married woman from Chicago, tells me with an air of knowing. I have glommed on to her and her mother, 60-year-old Julie, and she is bringing me up to speed on what I missed in the last decade-plus. There are two big changes, she says: First of all, the Boys are nicer and more connected to their fans — or so she’s been told. She didn’t meet them for the first time until 2008, after the heyday had passed. Second, “everyone has money now.” No longer dependent on their parents’ largesse and indulgence, fans with good-paying jobs can invest in the Boys. Fans with crappy-paying jobs tell me that they take on side work so they can do things like the cruise. For instance, my randomly assigned roommate, a 27-year-old fan from Massachusetts, supports her habit — and sometimes her family — by working in government services during the week, doing security at a venue on weekends, and selling Scentsy candles.
The highlight of the first evening — one I had been anticipating since receiving the itinerary — is “Are You Smarter Than a Backstreet Boy?,” a game in which lucky selected fans compete against the group in trivia. Every time I see the event’s name, an ugly elitism flares up in me, and I say to myself, “For the love of spaghetti monster, I better be.”
But I’ll never be able to prove it. Before the games begin, their manager, Jen, takes the stage to go over the rules. As she introduces the game, the guys make PG-13 shadow puppets behind a screen: One grabs a stick or ruler or some such and sets it between his legs, prompting another to swipe at and smack it. Everyone howls in delight.
They are introduced individually, each with a high school stereotype: Nick, we are told, was “the nerd.” Say what (what, in the butt)? They compete against fans whose names are announced by Jen from a preselected list. (There is grumbling throughout the cruise about how those selected to take part in games and other events are those who paid the most.)
“Which star is closest to Earth?” This is a math question.
“What continent is Japan on?”
“What is the capital of Germany?”
“How many decades are in a millennium?” The answer that both teams give, and that is ruled correct, is 10.
At one point, when one guy incorrectly refers to the game as “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?,” Nick cracks, “A Backstreet Boy is like a first-grader.” That crystal of self-awareness almost makes me forgive him for having dated Paris Hilton.
Of course, “Are You Smarter Than a Backstreet Boy” would not be complete without some BSB trivia. It is somewhat alarming to learn that I still remember what high school class Brian was in when he got a phone call asking him to audition for BSB. (History — duh.) When asked about a late-’90s American Music Awards appearance, the Boys get the date wrong — and the fans nail it.
This one should have been easy: “Who came up with the name ‘the Backstreet Boys’?” As the fans know, the Boys know, and I know, the answer is Lou Pearlman, the sleazy blimp magnate turned manager who put together the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, and several other bands. The Boys sued him for taking too much money, but that wasn’t his worst legal problem: He is now in prison for stealing $300 million. More stomach-churningly, he has been accused of (though never arrested for) molesting members of his boy bands — in a Vanity Fair piece, Nick Carter’s mother hinted that he was one of them. (Nick himself has refused to comment on the allegations.)
But Jen rules that they are all wrong, the correct answer is, in fact, Brian. The Boys may be first-graders, but they were actually present when the band was named, so they protest until Jen admits she got the answer from Wikipedia. I’m far from the stage, but as far as I can tell, the mention of the vile Pearlman doesn’t dim their smiles or make them wince. Their grins are their poker faces. This act is their lives.
After, I wander the guts of the ship, taking in the BSB cruise door decoration contest. The displays are dramatic, thematic — a 50 Shades of Grey door with a candy thong that looks both uncomfortable and yeast infection-producing and signs that say “Brian’s Bitch is Here,” “McLean’s Bitch Staying Here,” and “Be My Mr. Grey”; a zombie pandemic-themed door with tour stops marked as “sites of infection.” There are Backstreet Boys Despicable Me minions and the Boys’ faces photoshopped onto paintings — Nick as The Girl with a Pearl Earring, Kevin as Mona Lisa. Others are interactive: a photo-video booth, trivia games, maps asking passersby to put a pin in their hometown. (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia have all sent representatives.)
My favorite is a “Backstreet Market”-themed door with merchandise — including a magazine from 2000, handed out with the Black & Blue album, that contains a blurb about my fan fiction website, may it rest in bits.
It’s day two, and it’s beach party time. As with the rest of the cruise, chaos reigns, and it takes hours to ferry all of the fans onto Half Moon Cay. In a line I spot my first Backstreet Boys tattoos: Nick’s signature, on the shoulder blade of Jessica, a pretty 24-year-old fifth-grade teacher from Ontario. I see my second example of BSB ink very soon thereafter, because Jessica also has one on her lower back, a scroll-y design with four green dots, each representing a Boy. (She got it during a six-year period when Kevin Richardson — the big brother, 42 — was not in the group.)
Jessica tells me that she saw the “Get Down” music video on TV in 1996, which would make her 5 or 6. “I was like, ‘I’m going to love them forever.’ And I’ve loved them forever.” Over the summer, she went to four concerts in five days. At one show, she stood right up by the stage, close enough that Kevin kicked her while dancing, then leaned down to apologize. As she tells the story, she fans herself.
How much has she spent on the Backstreet Boys? I ask her. Without flinching — and with pride — she estimates $10,000–$15,000 in the last “few” years alone. The money’s gone to more than concerts and the cruise and the expected accouterments; recently, she paid $250 for a 15-minute Skype chat with Nick, as part of his attempt to crowdfund a horror movie about hunters being stalked by an “evil family.” (Total raised: $155,864.)
Jessica’s even brought the Boys into her classroom: She’s used their lyrics to teach English lessons, and photos of the Boys decorate her desk. “The girls are like, ‘Wow, miss. They’re like One Direction, but better,’” she says with glee.
Normally, being in line like this for such a long time, without my iPhone, would feel hopelessly awkward — I’m a terrible conversationalist even with old friends. Which is one of the reasons the Backstreet Boys became so core to my life: It gave me something to talk about with people (online, at least, where I spent most of my time). Every person here delights in sharing her BSB story. They compare notes about recent concerts, about their most pivotal experience — and about the judgment they face from others. Everyone — whether in their twenties or fifties — has been asked condescendingly, “Aren’t you a little old for this?” Sometimes they scoff with pride: Heather, a British woman in her late fifties who now lives in Canada, pooh-poohed, “People expect me to be sitting with my hair in curlers and knitting at my age. Ain’t gonna happen.” Sometimes, it’s said softly and wistfully, like when a woman discusses how scornful her grown kids were when she told them she was going on the cruise.
The island is an artificial paradise apropos of a manufactured boy band. It’s overcast and the clouds hiccup a few raindrops, but fans nevertheless swim in the warm water and eat lousy barbecue served up cafeteria-style, flies buzzing everywhere. The Latin American girls strut around in tiny bikinis, and people take turns snapping group shots for one another. But this is not downtime: Everyone is jockeying to get a good view of the stage in front of a fake pirate ship. The smart girls claim the water not far from the stage, so that they can get in decent beach time while watching the guys. Alas, they are shoved aside when a boat arrives carrying the men of the hour. (No lie: The sky cleared soon before their entrance.)
As the boys make their way to the stage, fans crash forward and yell their names and wave pictures they want signed. As I’m trying to get a peek at Kevin, someone says “Excuse me” behind me. Again, it’s a bodyguard; again, he’s escorting Brian — this time with his wife. He has now snuck up behind me twice. Pardon my cliché, but both times, I’m struck by how very short he is offstage.
The day’s main event begins: Fans are going to play games onstage with the boys. Limbo, musical chairs, an obstacle course that few can actually see. Those who are called onstage make are rapturous, and they often linger after, taking pictures and squealing at each other, until they are firmly asked, again, to leave.
The participants’ joy gives me more of a glow than my weak daiquiri does. But then my buzz is killed. It happens during a game of coconuts, in which each Boy was paired up with a fan. They are to place a coconut between their two bodies, and without using their hands must wiggle the coconut up to between their necks. Nick’s partner is a beautiful, slender girl. Howie Dorough — the shy one, 40 — is partnered with one who looks more like me, and is more representative of the crowd: heavyset. Howie, whose BSB nickname was “Sweet D” in my day, steals Nick’s partner, to the audience’s laughter. When Howie wins, Nick pouts loudly, complaining into the microphone, “He stole my partner! He stole my partner!” If that were me — if I were the one onstage who neither guy wanted — I would react like a 14-year-old: breathless with hurt. But she hops back to her friends, glowing with the aftermath of her encounter. Whether she doesn’t speak English well or simply refuses to let the pettiness bring her down, I don’t know.
It reminds me of something that Beth, the married woman from Chicago, told me earlier. She was a fan for almost a decade before she met them, but she was OK with that. As a teenager, she weighed more than 200 pounds, and she’s heard that a couple of the guys weren’t always equally kind to everyone. That was borne out by a 1999 Spin article, in which Nick and Brian talked about how their security would play “little jokes” on them by bringing up unattractive fans to be serenaded during concerts. As a 15-year-old, I struggled to reconcile that anecdote with my idealized Boys, the ones who sang “I don’t care who you are … as long as you love me.” Those lyrics launched a thousand fan fiction stories in which the Boys fell in love with girls who were overweight.
I wander away and toward the warm Caribbean water to read. The boys depart one by one — some on a boat, some on Jet Skis — and when it’s Nick’s turn to go, he waves and looks right at me. We are talking eye contact. I am wearing clip-on sunglasses on my eyeglasses, and I have a beat-up Penn State baseball hat on, and I have my Kindle in my hand. It feels right that my first brief connection with Nick should happen when I look so utterly dorky.
It is finally, on our voyage’s last day, that each fan is entitled to be in a photo with all five boys. We’re asked to break into groups of four or five, which means it will take the group about as many hours to get through everyone.
Before my designated line-up time, I plop by the exit and watch girls emerge from their photos trembly, sobbing, screechy, unable to speak, clutching one another. Mascara drips down teary, happy faces. “I need a cigarette,” I overhear one girl say. They swap stories about who touched whose what; a beautiful 39-year-old woman excitedly tells me that she infuriated the Boys’ bodyguard by grabbing Kevin’s face — with both of her hands! — and kissing him. Another says that she was “told off” for doing the same to Howie.
It is here that I finally meet a woman I’ve been searching for: Tricia, a 26-year-old from Maine who has all five boys tattooed on her back. (Kevin, whose matte dark hair hints at a dye job these days, hurt the most, because he’s right on her spine.) “I’m still shaking from showing them the tattoo,” she says, “because I didn’t expect to meet them. And A.J. held me a little tight. I won’t complain.”
I ask a slight 24-year-old named Janette why she’s a fan, and she tells me that as a friendless kid, she found solace in the Boys. Then she erupts into tears.
“I just love them so much,” she sobs. “Without them, I wouldn’t be here.” Her BSB life story tumbles out: She says she “almost committed suicide,” but seeing A.J. discuss his problems with depression and substances on a 2003 episode of Oprah helped her commit to recovering. That’s the sort of thing that might sound trite to outsiders, but here, people nod. They — and I — understand completely. Sometimes, when you’re drowning, the stick that saves you looks a little funny.
When it’s my turn to get in line for a photo, I’m adopted by a trio: Jody, 57; her daughter Tony, 33; and their friend Janine, 27. We’re in for a long wait — 90 minutes or so — before we’ll be granted audience. Part of that time is spent on strategy: Word has filtered back about what orders the Boys are standing in, and Janine and Tony both have preferences about which guy they want to stand next to. Jody and I, more sanguine, agree to follow their orders. We also kill time by swapping rumors about the cruise. A couple allegedly got engaged on the boat — a proposal story that will befuddle their family for generations, no doubt.
As we get close to the end of the line, Janine — even though she’s met them before, has pictures with them already — announces repeatedly that she is “pee-my-pants excited.” I’m feeling the anticipation too. My heart is beating faster. My palms are slick. Splotches on my ears and cheeks feel warm. And then it’s time.
The actual minute-long interaction is blurry, but this is what I believe happened: Janine and Tony’s careful plan was corrupted, in part because Janine was trying to show each Boy her own BSB tattoo. The photographer announced impatiently that we needed to take the picture, and either Nick or A.J. grabbed me by the waist (swoon!) and maneuvered me into place. The images having been captured, I shook everyone’s hands, as if greeting royalty in a receiving line. I may have bobbed my head in respect. We made eye contact, and I told them “thank you” and meant it. More time than that, and I wouldn’t have had anything to say — hate to say it, but I never loved them for their minds. Oh, and they’re wearing the sailor costumes again.
I worried that this cruise would reawaken some hibernating teenybopper and that in no time I’d be back to writing fan fic about them. But getting through this brief encounter without screaming, and with only the mildest of palpitations, assures me that I am safe.
Nonetheless the high carries me through the rest of the day, as Brian’s wife puts on a fashion show for her line (which includes T-shirts that blare “NO EGO’S” [sic]), Howie does a solo performance (snooze), and the Boys answer a Q&A session. It’s all boilerplate about loving their fans and one another, except for when an irritated Howie refuses to answer the question, “If you were gay, which of the other guys would you sleep with?” But that bad taste is washed out by Kevin’s solo performance later, when he sings along with a piano accompaniment. When he sings “Danny’s Song,” he has to do the verse about “the girl who holds the world in a paper cup” three times, because his voice keeps cracking with emotion — and the audience breaks down too. I’m a little teary myself.
Is it weird to say that you like the Backstreet Boys for their music? Because I do. At their concert that night, I remember songs I had forgotten existed. I do not scream — I think I’ve grown out of it — but I sing and dance and smile.
And I wish my husband were with me: He genuinely loves “Shape of My Heart.” I would like to think that finding a partner who enjoys even a single BSB ditty would make my 14-year-old self happier than meeting her idols.
Since, I’ve tried to make myself say casually to people, without self-deprecating grimace, “I went on a Backstreet Boys cruise.” I doubt I will return to another, but I think that I can now look back on the time I spent as a fan without wanting to erase the memory. Some of the women I met on the cruise had tough backstories — poverty, single motherhood, mental health struggles — and the determination with which they hold onto this thing that gives them such happiness is admirable, not pitiable.
“People can judge me all they want,” Jessica, the teacher, told me. No amount of eye-rolling or laughing has made her — will make her — give up the Boys.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the title of “Danny’s Song.”