When the boy band played New Orleans as men, it took mere moments to break down the distance fans brought to the show. 

backstreet boys photo
Backstreet Boys

[This is the first piece for My Spilt Milk by new contributor Julia DeLois.--Alex]

Over the past few months, thousands of women in the New Orleans region have been exchanging emails, booking hotel rooms, and coordinating payments among themselves for tickets and matching screen-printed t-shirts with slogans like “Oh my god, we’re back again” in swirling, Pinterest-esque script. If they’re like me, maybe they giggled self-deprecatingly when telling people about their upcoming plan to attend a Backstreet Boys concert at the Smoothie King Center on August 30. Nineties nostalgia has become a shortcut to cuteness and quirkiness, a sort of performative stand-in for a personality. Even when accompanied by genuine love, it can still carry subtle undertones of irony. Isn’t that cute of me? Isn’t it funny that I’m going to that? Though I possess inside-out knowledge of the BSB discography, I admittedly still carried a bit of that self-impressed cutesiness as I put on my vintage Millennium t-shirt and headed to the arena. I was unprepared for an evening of visceral and unmitigated joy that was anything but ironic. 

The Smoothie King Center buzzed with excitement as the crowd filed in with groups of female friends, bachelorette parties, and no shortage of boyfriends and husbands in tow. The male partner at each woman’s side proved to be a fun experiment in guessing which Backstreet Boy she had pined over as a teenager. Oh, her husband’s got piercings? She’s an AJ girl. Her boyfriend is preppy and clean cut? Gotta be Brian.

Having proven our allegiance to our boy band kings by whooping dutifully through an opening set by Brian Littrell’s 17-year-old son, Baylee, an aspiring country crooner with such titles as “We Run This Beach,” fans focused up for the main event. As the lights dimmed, a dizzying orgy of lasers and pyrotechnics lit up the arena and the faces of Littrell, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, AJ McLean, and Howie Dorough flashed across the gigantic screen. At some point during the almost three-minute montage, anticipatory hysteria gripped the crowd, the noise level soared to impossible heights, and the concept of “guilty pleasure” disappeared. The visceral nature of the moment left no room for posturing. When the screen finally lifted to reveal the quintet in all their glory, the crowd seemed to be in the grips of something from beyond, screaming and lurching maniacally as a remixed medley of “Everyone” and “I Wanna Be With You” catapulted us into a giddy, euphoric two hours of pre-Y2K escapism.

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Though the tour is in promotion of the group’s ninth studio album, DNA (which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 earlier this year), the set list, to fans’ delight, leaned Millennium-heavy, with staples “Don’t Want You Back,” “Show Me The Meaning of Being Lonely,” “It’s Gotta Be You,” and “I Want It That Way.” To make room for two-thirds of the iconic album, bite-sized samples of DNA songs were scattered throughout, cutting second verses and substituting sharply blended remixes for full songs.

While DNA tracks lack the megahit power of singles by legendary producer Max Martin, who wrote and produced most of Millennium as well as a smattering of BSB’s later hits, they’re certainly not the songs of a group that’s riding its own historical coattails in attempts to stay relevant. Though BSB came up during a decade when every pop song seemed to contain an imperative to “slam your body down,” “everybody get up,” “move it all night,” and “party over here,” DNA singles “Chances” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” feel like an honest evolution both stylistically and thematically. 

The set, featuring a protruding pentagon and multilevel platforms, facilitated intricate, physically demanding choreography, and the costumes, except for the Pelicans jerseys they donned for the encore, harkened back to the futuristic blacks and whites they were rocking circa 1999. 

If the first part of the show proved they can still dance, the stretch of mellifluous slow jams proved they can still sing. From an elevated platform, the five delivered powerhouse performances of “Incomplete,” “Drowning,” and “Shape of My Heart,” displaying depth and range rivaling that of their early days. Still, even the most devoted fan can hear a hit like “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” on the radio can feel the gentle elbow of an inside joke. There’s something cheeky and self-aware about the way we perform those songs at karaoke bars now, hoping to bring the house down with a punch line from the past. But live in concert, the songs cease to be winking anachronisms. With Richardson and Dorough hitting the climactic bridge ⁠— “Baby, baby, the love that we had was so strong / don’t leave me hangin’ here forever” ⁠— fans flung out their arms and swayed with abandon. There was no irony with which to dilute our enjoyment, just the genuinely fun experience of witnessing our epochal group sing one of their most memorable songs.

Throughout the show, BSB showered profuse gratitude on fans for their part in the group’s longevity. Each reference to their 26-year reign was met with boisterous applause. “Does this mean you still love the Backstreet Boys?” Nick shouted, and the crowd roared. They thanked New Orleans for being part of “the Backstreet Boys family,” and what we may have recognized in the light of day as blatant pandering in the moment only served as further evidence of the group’s trademark graciousness and humility. Hopped up on ‘90s nostalgia and that unique boy band sex appeal, we were ready to believe it was only us and had been all along. They love us. They love us specifically. The poor fans in Tulsa the previous night had received empty versions of the same claims, but we knew the truth: it was New Orleans that was really special to them. Are we original? Yeahhh. Are we the only ones? Yeahhhhhh.

The evening ended the same way it began: with 17,000 fans scream-singing in unabashed elation, though now to a fiery, confetti-covered rendition of “Larger Than Life.” All out of the irony characteristic of our generation, we had spent a joyful, spectacular evening with a group whose music ushered us through some of our most intense and formative years.