Beast of the Month - June 1999
Lou Pearlman, Bubble Gum Pop Mephistopheles
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
The late, great comedian Bill Hicks ranting about the evils of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson & The New Kids on the Block
In the aftermath of the Littleton massacre, a lot of fingers are being pointed by the establishment at the usual suspects as the "blame" on this tragedy. Of course, there is the attack on guns, highlighted by supposed "Queen of Nice" (and K-Mart shill) Rosie O'Donnell proving herself to be a mean-spirited, phony-ass bitch by her nasty treatment of Tom Selleck. Then there's the predictable condemnation of pop entertainment, including videogames like Mortal Kombat and movies like The Matrix. Ultimately, however, such attacks are minimal as compared to the criticism heaped upon the current flavor of the month whipping boy, Marilyn Manson, the self-proclaimed "Antichrist Superstar" of rock 'n roll, whose shock-rock neo-metal is supposedly the soundtrack for the goth Trenchcoat Mafia set. Never mind that Mr. Manson (whose real name is Brian Warner) is arguably not even on the level of Twisted Sister (much less Ozzy, Alice Cooper, or Kiss) with his derivative shtick.
The truth is, as his so-far relatively unimpressive album sales totals would verify, Brian Warner is a phantom menace, a diversion from the real evils in pop music. Far from being a time when loud, dark and gloomy rock rules our youth's mind, the end of the millennium is a time when bland, soulless bubblegum pop is the king.
Ten years ago, a visit to the most requested videos list on MTV would lead to songs by the likes of Def Leppard, Guns 'N Roses, Motley Crue and Aerosmith, bands that would celebrate hedonistic values, independence and rebellion with a high-decibel sound (and also throw out some cigarette lighter-ready ballads for the chicks.) Today, a visit to MTV's most popular videos show (whose host, the dorky Carson Daly, is deserving of Beasthood in his own right for the clear unjustice of having Jennifer Love Hewitt as a girlfriend, but that's another story) reveals a more depressing trend.
On most days, the most popular video will be from The Backstreet Boys, a quintet that specializes in wimpy pop of the worst kind. Their first album (cleverly titled The Backstreet Boys) has sold in excess of 10 million copies, earning it the elite Diamond certification by Billboard. This was a mere warm-up, as on May 18th, the day before Star Wars Episode One was unleashed onto the public, a similar (yet less hyped) pop culture event happened, when the B-Boys released their Y2K-compliant album Millennium. On the first day alone, throngs of teen girls swamped their local shopping malls for the CD, selling over 500,000 copies in the first 24 hours, enough to go Gold. By the end of the week, it had Platinum sales of over one million copies, making it the most successful one-day and one-week totals for any album in history, breaking records previously set by Garth Brooks.
Of course, The Backstreet Boys are not alone in cranking out crappy music that makes teen girls squeal: they have some competition with the even more wimpy 'N Sync, their top MTV nemesis, whose own album has sold in excess of 6 million copies. 'N Sync actually almost make The Backstreet Boys look good in comparison (well, almost) as their manufactured garbage is even more refined, distilled of any hint of testosterone.
The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync (as well as the other boy band wannabes, 98 Degrees and C-Note) certainly aren't the first to exploit the "cute boys making music for girls" strategy for success. The New Kids on the Block became pop music kings in 1989-1990 with the same formula of fabricated fluff. Then there was Menudo, the youthful Hispanic ensemble of sissified singers and dancers, from which came current music sensation Ricky Martin (who is the most blatantly obvious closeted homosexual pop star since George Michael wiggled his butt in "Faith" - not that there's anything wrong with that.) There is even some more prestigious history to the blueprint, having been partially used by both New Edition (whose members included Bobby Brown, Johnny Gill and future supergroup Bell Biv Devoe) and The Jackson Five (led by a talented young Michael Jackson, before he became consumed by megalomania and perversion.) That said, the general rule is music geared specifically towards teenage girls is atrocious. Still, even at the highest point of New Kids-mania, the bubblegum pop market was fortunately focused solely on one act: now it is dispersed on multiple artists, and the proliferation only seems doomed to continue. Females are involved again, as Britney Spears updates the Tiffany-Debbie Gibson act. There is even some nostalgia involved, as former NKOTB wusses Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre are back on the comeback trail.
Which leads us to the Beast of the Month: there is a particular link that the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync have (besides, of course, as noted rock critics Beevis and Butthead would point out, that they both SUCK.) That link is Lou Pearlman.
Who the hell is Lou Pearlman? Good question. Pearlman is the head of Orlando-based Trans Continental, a collection of companies ranging from charter planes, travel agencies and Chippendales dancers. In the early nineties, Pearlman saw the enormous success of NKOTB, and smelled a recipe for success. He then began searching for his own bubblegum boy band, and found it in his backyard, thanks to the suspiciously named Backstreet Boys. Pearlman signed on as manager. Unfortunately for them, the big music trend was in the direction of the Seattle grunge sound (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden) and gangsta rap (Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Tupac.) Lollapalooza was in, shopping malls were out. Pearlman remained undaunted, knowing that the tide would eventually turn cyclically back. He was right: thanks to the still suspicious deaths of Kurt Cuban and Tupac, grunge rock and gangsta rap lost the higher currency it once had. Soon, they were on their way to the top with puss pop domination.
Naturally, as they should know from ripping off NKOTB themselves, success brings on imitation. Enter 'N Sync. The B-Boys could feel the heat of their younger competitors, and were stunned to discover that the manager and mastermind of 'N Sync was, surprise surprise, none other than Pearlman. Feeling betrayed, the B-Boys, to their credit, soon dumped Pearlman's ass.
The sad thing about this is, for all the admitted hard work the B-Boys put in their bland product, they have hardly benefited from it so far like they should have. As bad as their music is, even they deserve a fair slice of the pie that is made from the fruits of their labor. According to member Nick Carter, "The truth is that we haven't got that much money." Last year, they filed a lawsuit against Pearlman and Trans Continental, for shafting them with slimy business deals. For the five year period covered under the lawsuit and $10 million they had earned for Trans Continental at that point from recording and touring, they had only received $300,000 total. During the battle over the lawsuit, there were several deaths of family members, and elder B-Boy Brian Littrell underwent open-heart surgery. Pearlman eventually offered a settlement, and the Backstreet Boys, apparently weary from their personal misfortune, agreed to the deal. All of which makes the B-Boys actually quite sympathetic: in interviews, they claim of wanting to be taken seriously and growing musically. (The Konformist wishes them luck, though is betting against them.) 'N Sync, meanwhile, remains under Pearlman's thumb, at least until they realize they're being screwed as well.
"Wait a second," some of you may ask, "why does any of this qualify as Beasthood?" For those who ask, the answer is simple: to manage both The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync is like the exact polar opposite of managing both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. This is no hyperbole: thanks to grunge, gangsta rap, and artists such as Nine Inch Nails, The Smashing Pumpkins and Beck, the nineties had been a period of great rock music, when an "alternative" sound (for all the silly marketing behind it) really was important. With a relatively independent music scene, independent thinking is encouraged: Lollapalooza became a code word for the unusual and the unique. Granted, much of this was contrived, but ultimately, any movement which has part of its philosophy an encouragement of independence will ultimately become a threat to the establishment. That is why the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur were so devastating: here were two guys who could actually use their music to get their audience asking important questions. The rise of bands like The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync represents the final burial of this decade's rock scene, an announcement that rock indeed is dead.
Perhaps you may think that, at a time of deadly battles in Kosovo, mass murder in high schools and Chinese spy scandals leading straight to the White House, such things like the state of popular music is a trivial matter that shouldn't be focused on. Au contraire: as Bill Hicks (the last great comedian of the century) would put it, in defense of his vicious (and deserving) rants against the evils of Michael Bolton, Billy Ray Cyrus and Vanilla Ice from arguments that their music is harmless, "No! They're demons set loose on the Earth to lower the standards!" Indeed, that is what Lou Pearlman has unleashed on society, literal demons to dull the minds of our youth into mindless acceptance of authority. As Love-lucky VJ Carson Daly put it in a recent interview about today's young music audience, "Teens don't have any attention span anymore. They just want to feel good for those four minutes, then go hit the Internet. They don't want to take things too seriously, and wanna move - tempo is everything."
Whether it was intentional or not, there is a symbolic value behind the deaths of Cobain and Tupac, that of the ritual crucifixion of rebel kings. Into this vacuum, the diabolical Pearlman brew of wimp pop has emerged, backed heavily by mammoth korporate giant MTV, stamping out the supposed rock revolution they had previously supported. The standards are indeed being lowered once again, and unless voices such as The Konformist speak out, the gates of hell will indeed be opened.
In any case, we salute Lou Pearlman as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Lou!!!
"The Backstreet Boys Year In Hell," Jancee Dunn
Rolling Stone Magazine, May 27 1999
"Britney Spears: Inside the Heart and Mind (and Bedroom) of America's New Teen Queen," Steven Daly
Rolling Stone Magazine, April 15, 1999
For More on Bill Hicks:
Post Office Box 24825
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