With Westlife, Simon Cowell was finding a way to broaden the appeal of male vocal groups, and create something more stable than the firework appeal of the traditional boyband. But the old model was resilient, and more to the point, it was still astonishingly profitable. Britney Spears – who shared songwriters and producers with the Backstreet Boys – had seen her early solo aspirations dismissed as a needless risk: lone stars were finished, groups were the future. And this was why: the state of the pop art, number one worldwide, a band ascending into an Imperial Phase.
The British audience was at least mildly resistant – the Backstreets had several big hits, which was more than Lou Pearlman’s other money-spinners generally managed, but they mingled with plenty of less slick homegrown options. “I Want It That Way” is their only UK number one. In one way this is a shame – the Backstreets were at their most endearing on their upbeat hits, like “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “Larger Than Life”. Those tracks had Max Martin taking the hammer chords he used to intense, melodramatic purposes on Britney’s hits, and being more playful with them. They are boyband pop as a vaudeville romp, urgent and exciting but goofy too: more, well, boyish than the group’s best-behaviour balladry.
“I Want It That Way” has never quite delighted me as much. It’s one of those songs, like “Back For Good”, which was rapturously received by critics for its craft, as likely to win a design award as a teen choice one. In the hubbub of 1999 – a lively, crass year in pop music – I read its clean-lined simplicity as inertia, and admired it without ever really liking it.
Now it’s grown on me. The ambition of it seems a little clearer – this isn’t so much generic as platonic, Max Martin and collaborators reaching to make the perfect boyband ballad. Which they do, cleverly, by smashing the boyband ballad into fragments. Most of these things stumble because the ways they find of expressing the same set of emotions – fidelity, puppy love, pained devotion, et al. – are meagre and shopworn, and the ideas run out long before the record does. The genius of “I Want It That Way” is in how it avoids this problem by – as pointed out by comedians ever since – simply not making any sense. It takes the idea that nobody really listens to the lyrics completely seriously, constructing a song that is meaningless at a textual level and absolutely blotted with sentiment at a textural one.
“I Want It That Way” assumes, rightly, that you enjoy hearing these men harmonise around that title, and simply arranges itself to give you the maximum possible opportunity to do that, with slightly different emphases each time but no regard for whether all those swoonsome moments fit together. In between, the gaps are filled with a melange of phraselets that don’t fit whatever story the song is telling but which all sound fantastic sung, fist clenched on chest, by a handsome boy. “Fire….desire”, “you are you are you are”, “don’t wanna hear you sayyyy!”, “it’s to-oo-oo late”, all given their own lovely micro-hook and thrown into the song’s rising tide. The result is a single that I got wrong at the time – its deceptively simple framework hides a wealth of detail, and it’s arranged so that most of the big payoffs come in the final minute. Where most ballads are wheezing and gasping for fresh ideas, “I Want It That Way” is on a victory lap.