Backstreet Boys - DNA (Review)


From the olymp of pop to mere playlist fillers


Here they are again. Again.
In the 90s, the Backstreet Boys became the greatest boyband that ever rose to fame. While Take That may have had bigger musical ambitions and at a certain point felt more like a collective of singer-songwriters that just happened to be all male than a boyband, but it were BSB who delivered the hugest amount of hit singles that would forever remain in people’s memories. Even 20 years later, songs like Quit Playing Games (With My Heart), I Want It That Way or Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) still blast through the radio speakers, just to name a few. Although they weren’t actually involved into the songwriting process, they brought along the charme to embody the music, something that Britney Spears perfected soon afterwards. They played the role of the bad boys with the soft hearts that actually only want love and tenderness with the right mixture of kitsch and style to be truly entertaining. One of their albums of their first era (which lasted from 1995 to 2001) guaranteed a good time for lovers of a good pop earworm.

Their ability to adapt new styles was best shown on Never Gone, their first comeback album released in 2005, which had them taking a dive in the pop rock of its time, and which features one of the best songs of its decade, Incomplete. What followed were Unbreakable (poppier than Never Gone but rockier than their old stuff; somewhat decent), This is Us (harmless and solid urban inspired dance pop) and In a World Like This (harmless and solid house pop, if you like that style). Now DNA comes along as their most successful work since their first absence of pop music, which began in 2001, and it is, by far, the most forgettable collection of songs they delivered so far. Apart from Never Gone, none of their outputs after their comeback was great, but not one of them had as little peaks as their newest effort.

The one song that’s essentially the highlight of the selection, the one that stands out most and spreads the most positive feeling is Just Like You Like It, which brings in a healthy amount of nostalgia, as it sounds close to the cinematic rock ballads of the 90s, which is where the singers are most confident and experienced it. Their singing style, with the lines “you are the one, girl” captured in between every note, fits the instrumental like a fist to the eye, like the German saying goes. You’d almost expect the additional title “Love Theme From High School Romance XY” put in there.

In contrast, the undeniably much more modern counterpart, Chances, brings in the problem that will be heard throughout: their singing style, still aimed at bringing young hearts to swoon, feels completely drown out on instrumentals that are closer to the music of Ellie Goulding, and loses all of its characteristics in the mix. Drowning it in flangery autotune on the sugary sweet ballad Nobody Else does not do them justice either - they are not BTS, who admittedly are the better boyband of the 2010s with the more innovative musical ideas.

That is not to say that the new strategy of marketing the Backstreet Boys is turning them into American K-Pop idols. No, their style is closer to a male version of Rita Ora or Anne-Marie, featuring conventional electronic pop without the urban influences of a Beyoncé or Ariana Grande. Other influences are Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran, especially when a slight touch of acoustic finds its way into the music. The Way It Was has the latter’s style written all over it. Specifically, there are moments when you could sing the lines “but darling, just kiss me slow” perfectly in tune with the sound. Pun intended. No Place pretty much does the same by copying his trademark songwriting, and has that certain Love Yourself vibe, just being a whole lot more overproduced. Also, who butchered the vocals this gruesomely? That’s almost as messy as Camila Cabello’s vocal production from last year. In both cases, the original songs are to be preferred and in direct comparison, offer the more nuanced execution. Some fun comes along with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, which, if it wasn’t mixed so loudly and used a key so typical for the 2010s, could easily pass as an 80s synth pop hit by Modern Talking, with its falsetto vocals, the uber-heavy snare and its reliance on twinkling keyboards.

In the end, the team of songwriters and producers behind DNA chase trends of pop artists who are just that, pop artists, and intimate their signature direction without the same feel for a catchy tune. The songs on the new album are erased from the memory as soon as they are heard, even though for the most part, there are no actual missteps, just nothing truly noteworthy. We live in a time when pop music and creative songwriting can go hand in hand. Rihanna, Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus released unconventional and heavily experimental albums that challenged the idea of a hitmaking formula, Adele, Harry Styles and Lana Del Rey showed that vintage styles and traditional music making work just as perfectly today, and Ariana Grande, Poppy and Melanie Martinez combined albums filled to the brim with radio ready earworms and rich lyrical ideas that have personality and cleverness. DNA is none of all of this, and even for an album that solely wants to entertain, it is a fairly unimpressive experience that contains no new ideas, no irresistible melodrama, no sing along melodies to be stuck in your head and not even a beat that invites to dance to. Disappointing, judging by the fact that the Backstreet Boys were among the artists that influenced an entire generation of pop music with their criminally infectious radio hits. But then, they are only as strong as the material they are offered to work with.