At the height of a commercial teen pop explosion in the late '90s, the Backstreet Boys emerged at the top of the boy band pack alongside friendly rivals *NSYNC, quickly trailed by a crop of imitators. Their hybrid of R&B balladry, hip-hop, and dance pop initially found its greatest audience in Canada and Europe, while success in their native land didn't follow until mainstream pop hit it big on radio and MTV in America. Early singles "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)" and "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" were their first platinum hits, rising into the Top Four of the U.S. singles chart. Benefiting from the strength of their harmony vocals and balance of heartfelt ballads with propulsive dance anthems, their third album, 1999's Millennium (home to their worldwide smash "I Want It That Way"), topped the charts and was certified multi-platinum across the globe, while follow-up Black & Blue extended their reign. In the 2000s, they took steps away from the Max Martin hitmaking sound that shot them to stardom, maturing with their fan base via adult contemporary pop on the reinventive Never Gone (2005), Unbreakable (2007), and This Is Us (2009). Nearly two decades after their previous number one, the quintet issued 2019's DNA, which returned them to the top of the charts.
The early core of the Backstreet Boys was comprised of cousins Kevin Richardson and Brian Littrell, both of whom hailed from Lexington, Kentucky. The two began singing in local church choirs and festivals while they were children, performing doo wop and R&B songs in the style of Boyz II Men. Two of the group's other members, Howie Dorough and A.J. McLean, were natives of Orlando, Florida, who met each other -- as well as transplanted New Yorker Nick Carter -- through auditions for local commercials, theater, and television. At one audition, the three discovered that they shared an affection for classic soul and could harmonize well together. Inspired, they formed a vocal trio. Shortly thereafter, Richardson moved to Orlando, where he became a tour guide at Disney World and concentrated on music at night. Eventually, he met Dorough, Carter, and McLean through a co-worker, and the four decided to form a group, naming themselves after an Orlando flea market. Littrell was later invited to join, thus turning the group into a quintet.
With the help of Louis J. Pearlman (who would later rise to mogul status on the strength of his teen pop acts), the Backstreet Boys secured management from Donna and Johnny Wright, the latter of whom had managed New Kids on the Block during the 1980s. The Wrights put the group out on the road and enlisted several A&R reps to attend the performances, which eventually resulted in a contract with Jive Records in 1994. Jive set the Backstreet Boys up with producers Veit Renn and Tim Allen, who helped shape the group's eponymous album. Released throughout Europe in late 1995, the record enjoyed considerable success, spending several weeks in the Top Ten in most Continental countries where it charted. In the U.K., the Backstreet Boys were named Best Newcomers of 1995 at the Smash Hits Awards thanks to their international hit single "We've Got It Goin' On." After scoring another European hit with "I'll Never Break Your Heart," the group released its album in Canada. Despite the Backstreet Boys' popularity in Europe and Canada, "We've Got It Goin' On" stalled in the lower reaches of the U.S. charts in 1995.
Combining their international singles with new tracks (which also formed the centerpiece of that year's European-only album Backstreet's Back), the American version of Backstreet Boys finally jump-started the group's success at home. "Quit Playin' Games (With My Heart)" and "As Long as You Love Me" proved to be popular singles, with the former track climbing to platinum status and peaking at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 (their highest charting single). The album continued to spin off hits well into 1999, with "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," "I'll Never Break Your Heart," and "All I Have to Give" all landing on the charts. Both the former and the latter were platinum Top Five hits, and the album eventually sold an astounding 14 million copies in America alone.
In the meantime, the group saw its share of turmoil as Littrell underwent surgery in early 1998 to correct a congenital heart defect. Additionally, the Boys became embroiled in lawsuits against Pearlman and the rest of their management over royalties. When the dust settled, Pearlman remained the group's manager -- though the rest of the team was fired -- and the Boys began work on their follow-up album. Millennium was released in the summer of 1999 and debuted at number one, with first-week sales topping one million copies. Buoyed by songs like "I Want It That Way," "Larger Than Life," "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely," and "The One," Millennium shattered a number of records, including the highest amount of shipments in one year and the most copies sold during an album's inaugural week. The group released its Christmas Album before the end of the year, by which time Millennium was well on its way to sales of 12 million copies in the U.S. On an international level, the album eventually sold more than 40 million units.
Once again, the group struck immediately after its previous album stopped producing hits, issuing Black & Blue in fall 2000. More Top 40 singles followed, including "The Call" and "Shape of My Heart," and Black & Blue followed its predecessor by selling over one million copies during its first week. A popular tour supported the album, but after seven years of nonstop touring and recording, the band agreed it was time for a break. In addition to issuing their first compilation, The Hits: Chapter One (which featured the single "Drowning"), Brian Littrell became a father while Kevin Richardson tried his hand at Broadway and took a starring role in the musical Chicago. Nick Carter released his solo album Now or Never in 2002, Howie Dorough did charity work for the Dorough Lupus Foundation in honor of the sister he had lost to the disease, and A.J. McLean made headlines with his stint in rehab.
In 2004, the Backstreet Boys re-formed and began work on a new album. The result, Never Gone, was released in June 2005 to platinum sales. Their first collection of new material in half a decade, Never Gone continued their musical maturity, centering on a smooth adult contemporary style with singles "Incomplete," "Just Want You to Know," and "I Still..." In 2006, after the conclusion of an international tour, Richardson quietly parted ways with the group. The remaining foursome returned to the studio to record Unbreakable. Issued in 2007, album number six was the first effort not to feature all five original members. It was also the group's first album not to go platinum, a fact that seemingly cemented the end of the Backstreet Boys' heyday. Accordingly, the quartet enlisted some serious star power for their next album, soliciting help from the likes of Ryan Tedder, a returning Max Martin (who had penned "I Want It That Way" ten years prior), Dr. Luke, and T-Pain. When songs from their recording sessions were leaked online, the group took the setback in stride, using their fans' feedback to help steer the remainder of the recording process. This Is Us was ultimately finished in mid-2009 and released that October. Backstreet supported the album with an extensive tour that hit markets across the globe, including Asia and Australia.
In 2011, the Backstreet Boys split from longtime label Jive Records. Then, joining with fellow boy band veterans New Kids on the Block, they embarked on a co-headlining tour under the supergroup moniker NKOTBSB. A joint Backstreet Boys/New Kids greatest-hits collection, NKOTBSB, arrived that year. In 2012, to the delight of longtime fans, Richardson reunited with the Backstreet Boys -- he had been performing live gigs with them on occasion -- and as the group worked on a new album, they released a holiday single called "It's Christmas Time Again" that November.
The Backstreet Boys celebrated their 20th anniversary in grand fashion in 2013, releasing an album called In a World Like This -- their first to feature Kevin Richardson since 2005's Never Gone -- which was supported by an international tour and a documentary titled Backstreet Boys: Show 'Em What You're Made Of, which debuted in 2015. This wasn't the only silver-screen appearance for the Backstreet Boys: they also appeared in Seth Rogen's 2013 summer comedy This Is the End and 2016's Dead 7, a zombie flick written by Carter that starred Dorough and McLean, as well as fellow '90s boy band survivors Joey Fatone and Chris Kirkpatrick (*NSYNC), Jeff Timmons (98°), and Erik-Michael Estrada (O-Town). They secured a Las Vegas residency in 2017, carrying Backstreet Boys: Larger Than Life into 2018. That same year, they signed a deal with RCA Records and issued the single "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," which landed on their ninth full-length, DNA. Released in early 2019, the album continued their late-era focus on reliable harmonies and adult-oriented pop, returning the quintet to the top of the Billboard 200, their first chart-topper since 2000's Black & Blue. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Neil Z. Yeung