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And They Can Sing Too

Marc Weingarten writes about pop music for Calendar

‘Briiiiaaaannnn!”

Shauna, a teenage girl with green braces, is hyperventilating.

“Brian, I love you!” she screams, clutching a poster of teen dreams the Backstreet Boys to her chest like a treasured heirloom.

She and a few hundred other female fans have been waiting for three hours at Tower Records’ Torrance store just to catch a glimpse of--and maybe, just maybe, snag a smooch from--their heartthrobs. Now Shauna has finally crossed the threshold of the store and is within swooning distance of the Boys.

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“Briiiaaaan!”

Shauna makes a beeline for the table where Brian Littrell, 22, Howie Dorough, 23, Nick Carter, 17, Kevin Richardson, 25, and A.J. McLean, 23, are signing everything from teddy bears to plaster casts. She’s positively quivering with pent-up anticipation now.

“Calm down, it’s OK,” Littrell implores, but it’s no use--this appears to be the peak moment of Shauna’s young life. Littrell gives her a hug, a peck on the cheek and an autograph, then asks her kindly to move on down the line to make room for the next fan.

For him and his bandmates, these in-store mob scenes have become a familiar ritual. But they usually take place in Germany or Canada, and the crowds are about 10 times as large and unruly.

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The Backstreet Boys, formed five years ago in Orlando, Fla., have become mega-stars throughout Europe with their spit-shined image and silky harmonizing. Their self-titled debut has sold 13.5 million copies worldwide.

Just a fraction of that figure is from the U.S., where success hasn’t come as easily or as quickly.

Two years after bombing big time with a single called “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” the Backstreet Boys finally struck pay dirt in the United States in the summer with a sultry slice of funk-lite called “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart).” Their album has quietly crossed the half-million sales mark three months after its initial release.

Why did the Backstreet Boys almost effortlessly crack the European market wide open but fail to make it on their home turf until last year?

The answer has more to do with the shifting sands of the pop-cultural zeitgeist than it does with any wrong moves on the group’s part.

The Backstreet Boys were formed in 1993 by McLean, Dorough and Carter, who had met at acting auditions. They recruited Richardson from the “Aladdin” stage show at Disney World, then brought in his cousin Littrell to complete the lineup.

“My grandfather was in a barbershop quartet, and everyone in my family plays music by ear,” says the reserved Richardson, relaxing on the tour bus with the rest of the group after the autograph-signing marathon.

“We really learned how to sing by performing in talent shows and singing in church.”

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All five members of the band are classic show-biz kids, reared in families that encouraged them to participate in talent shows and regional theater.

“Howie used to sing in pageants and stuff,” Richardson says. “Nick won a Universal Studios Amateur Hour, and I did commercials at Disney.”

Once the singers pooled their talents, their story unfurled like an MGM musical.

Responding to an ad in an Orlando paper soliciting young talent, the Boys made a demo recording on the cheap and were promptly discovered by the Wright Stuff, a management company owned by former New Kids on the Block road manager Johnny Wright and his wife, Donna.

“My whole career, I’ve always gone with instinct,” says Donna Wright. “When I first heard the Backstreet Boys, I got the chills so strong that the hairs stood up straight on the back of my neck. I could just tell there was something there.”

The Wrights immediately booked the Boys on the high school tour circuit, which has become a grass-roots rite of passage for teen acts looking to build a fan base from the ground up.

“With a band like this, it’s all about marketing,” says Johnny Wright. “That’s why we went to all those schools, performed at school assemblies and signed autographs for 16- and 17-year-old girls. We wanted the Boys to be accessible to their fans, to meet them one on one. That was almost four years ago, and those girls are in college now, which is why radio stations are now getting requests from girls that are 24 and up.”

That’s not exactly the way the Wrights originally planned it--they would have liked to sell records to those girls when they were still in high school. But back when the Backstreet Boys first tried to peddle their G-rated dance music to Zit-Cream Nation, they were stymied by the alternative-rock revolution.

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Tortured teen angst just didn’t co-exist comfortably with puppy love anthems in 1995. But a funny thing happened: “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” clicked in Germany, where it hit No. 1.

So the Boys released another single there, and it also rose to the top of the chart. At that point the Wrights decided to cut their losses in the United States and work the band in Europe.

“It was weird, because we’d play shows to, like, 10,000 fans in Europe, then we’d come back home and walk down the street and no one would recognize us,” Carter says. “It was a humbling experience, because now we want to show everybody ‘Look, this is what we’ve been doing.’ ”

After two years of nonstop touring across Europe and nearly 15 million records sold, the Boys then conquered Canada, where they recently sold out the 13,000-seat Molson Centre near Toronto for two nights.

By the time the Backstreet Boys were ready to make another run at the U.S. audience, shamelessly sunny prefab pop acts such as the Spice Girls and Hanson had infiltrated the MTV/Top 40 radio axis.

“Grunge ran its course, and now is the right time for a group like the Backstreet Boys,” says Carrie Yasuda, managing editor of Studio City-based teen magazines BB and Bop. “The market has come back around for teen groups, and the Boys have a clean, sweet image that fans can relate to.”

“I just think little girls want to put posters of teen idols on their bedroom walls, and the Boys have the right image for that,” says Jive Records vice president of artists & repertoire David McPherson. A former talent scout at Mercury Records, McPherson signed the Boys there in 1993, then signed them to R&B; label Jive when Mercury dropped the band without ever recording it. “This stuff always goes in cycles, and it just so happens that pop music has made a comeback.”

McPherson is quick to dismiss any comparisons between the Backstreet Boys and ‘80s boy-toy bands such as New Kids on the Block.

“The difference is that these boys can really sing, and that’s a major part of our marketing strategy,” he says. “We’re trying to get the media to look at them differently than the New Kids and present opportunities for them to sing in public, so people can see how talented they really are.”

Granted, the Backstreet Boys may not be the New Kids, but there’s no guarantee that their career will have a longer shelf life. To a man, they’re aware that acts geared toward the teen market never last more than a few years.

“Music changes, and you have to adapt,” Richardson says. “Look at Madonna or Michael Jackson. Janet Jackson’s a great example of that. All of her albums have a different flavor. You just have to stay true to your sound.”

Nonetheless, they all have contingency plans, just in case.

“There have been some acting offers, and we’ve all done drama,” Richardson says. “Nick has a theatrical agent. We’d like to do other things--look at Will Smith and Queen Latifah. But right now we’re just focusing on the music and seeing where that takes us.”

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Hear the Music

* Excerpts from the album “Backstreet Boys” are available on The Times’ World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: https://www.latimes.com/soundclips


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