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It's the 'TRL'-era all over again in the Grammy race for pop duo/group

It's the 'TRL'-era all over again in the Grammy race for pop duo/group
(Clockwise from top left) Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and the Backstreet Boys are up for pop duo/group performance -- a race that conjures up some serious nostalgia for the days of "Total Request Live." (Photos courtesy of RCA Records)

For the first time in more than 15 years, the Backstreet Boys are nominated for a Grammy.

That’s right, the bestselling boy band in history (not counting the Beatles) is up for pop duo/group performance for “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” — the first release from the group’s upcoming album, “DNA,” its first in six years.

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And considering the category also includes Christina Aguilera’s “Fall in Line” featuring Demi Lovato, Justin Timberlake’s “Say Something” featuring Chris Stapleton and Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You” featuring Cardi B, it’s a race that conjures up some serious nostalgia for the days of "Total Request Live," MTV's groundbreaking video countdown show that once upon a time was required after-school viewing.

For a generation who hit puberty during the great pop explosion at the turn of the millennium, there wasn’t a more pivotal era for pop than 1999-2002.

Boy band heartthrobs like Backstreet and the Timberlake-fronted 'N Sync dropped blockbuster albums, Aguilera led the wave for pop princesses everywhere, and Maroon 5 emerged with its hit-making debut, “Songs About Jane” — all of which played heavily on “TRL,” a show that was ground zero for pre-digital fandom. (Who doesn’t remember the throngs of young, screaming fans standing on the street below the network’s Times Square headquarters with signs, just hoping for a glimpse of their favorite pop stars?)

Much has changed since then.

For starters, music videos don’t live and breathe on MTV the way they once did — not with YouTube, social media and streaming platforms making clips easily accessible on our smartphones.

Timberlake is nearly two decades into a thriving solo career (as evidenced by that nomination with Stapleton for their stellar R&B-tinged country-rock ballad, “Say Something”).

Maroon 5 has become one of the biggest bands on the planet — though they don’t have much competition in that field — while the Backstreet Boys and Aguilera are fine examples of how pop artists can survive and thrive, something that was on Aguilera’s mind when she released her comeback album, “Liberation,” earlier this year (the largely R&B and hip-hop offering also landed the singer a nod for rap/sung).

“I feel like a brand new artist,” Aguilera told me over the summer in talking about her latest album. “I'm back to a place where I just feel like I don't have to have these expectations. The most commercialized successes that I had early in my career with ‘Genie in a Bottle’ and ‘What a Girl Wants’ and things like that, those were amazing moments that I cherish and am so grateful for getting my foot in the door … but I was still miserable because I wasn’t connected to the music and wasn’t being able to change it. [This album] was about my need to feel liberated in my own skin again and to take my power back as a woman and standing for things that I just wanted to say and getting back to myself really.”

Backstreet Boys, Timberlake, Aguilera and Maroon 5 face some serious competition. They’ll battle Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s heavily nominated duet, “Shallow,” as well as “ ’S Wonderful,” a collaboration between Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, and Zedd, Maren Morris and Grey’s behemoth hit, “The Middle.”

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