Twenty-six years ago, my best friend in the entire world killed himself. He was my life, my confidant, and my kindred spirit. We were 11.
That was my catalyst towards being a Backstreet Boy fan for life, and for the last 26 years they have been a signal beacon that led me away from isolation and loneliness an gave me hope that there was something new and exciting on the horizon, and I’m grateful they changed my direction.
In 1994, my whole world – I was homeschooled, so my world consisted of about 20 people at the time – was gone. In an instant. I was Inconsolable, Lonely, Heartbroken. To an 11-year-old, when something like that happens you developed some serious trust (and later, I found out, anxiety) issues. How could I trust anyone again when they were always leaving me?
A few months later, my military family relocated all the way from Nebraska to England. I left behind everything to start a new life in Europe, and to an 11-year-old, the world suddenly becomes a very, very big – HUGE! – place. When you’re homeschooled and a military brat, you spend a huge amount of time being isolated, so you quickly figure out what your talents are. I was good at precisely two things: writing and singing. I had an ear for music, specifically choir. So I threw myself into singing, dancing, and writing from the time I was 12 years old. My characters in my stories were always blond and looked a little like him. Sometimes they were him. If he had lived, what would my life be like?
That isolation also meant I spent a lot of time listening to music, too. When I saw the cover of this cassette tape at the Based Exchange (BX) on Mildenhall Air Force Base in Mildenhall, England, in 1996, I was so excited. Look at the boy on the right! He’s blond like my best friend was. He looks a lot like him. The same hair and face really. According to this new thing my Dad had, AOL,(the internet) he was THIRTEEN YEARS OLD. Like me! Like my best friend would be – if he had survived. This boy’s name was Nick. And boy, could they sing.
They sang about playing games with hearts, and being close to people, and that longing I had for friends and connection was filled just a little bit. In fact, by the time their second album rolled out in 1998, I knew all their names: AJ, Kevin, Howie D, Brian, and Nick. Nick and B-Rock were my favorites. Quit Playing Games with my Heart is still one of my favorites. Here I was in the foreign country, and so were they (the album was recorded in Germany) and I felt like I knew them, somehow. They were my age, and I wore out three different cassettes in my stereo by the time we left England in 1997.
So, you know, fast forward a year, and it’s 1998. I’m back in America and isolated again; after years in Europe I struggle making American friends again. I go to summer camp, and my world gets a little bigger. I find friends that ALSO love them, and we spend hours on the Internet singing, downloading midi files of them, and creating crappy fan pages on homestead and angelfire, all with our dial-up modem. The background on my computer is Nick Carter but sometimes it’s AJ, because secretly, tattoos are hot, and my friends and I argue constantly over who can sing better: Brian or Nick. My best friend Holly is really into Kevin, and I’m not because his brows are creepy, and I don’t like guys with dark hair (jokes on me a year later…). I’m going to marry a blond like Nick and that’s final. And we sing and dance to Anywhere for You, All I Have to Give, and Backstreet’s Back and Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) at the top of our lungs because this new things called a CD has hit the shelves and it’s expensive, but we each have a copy and we wear it out until it’s scratched and nearly ruined (and I still have mine somewhere!) Nick is still the best, but AJ is really growing on me for some reason…
Millennium drops in 1999. MTV TRL airs their new video, I Want It That Way.
I am absolutely in love. I have to stand in line at Sam Goody and use my allowance to pre-order the CD. I have the album on tape AND CD, so I can listen to it literally everywhere. Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely speaks to me in such a deep way, because I’m at this point and I haven’t found a boyfriend. All my friends have boyfriends, and I’m a weirdo. I get a job and start working and listen to Millennium every day.
In December of 1999, I met my husband. He was NOT blond. In fact, he had the same glasses AJ wore on the first album. He was skinny and tall and looked a little like Kevin. He was NOT a Backstreet Boy fan. In fact, he made me a mixtape of Metallica and Godsmack. What was this garbage?! I hated it! But, since he made it, and he was kinda cute and liked me, I gave it a chance. And my music tastes evolved a little. And I hated his eyebrows.
All along I thought I was going to get a blond guy like Nick: who would sing and was extroverted and charming as hell. Whoa, did life ever have different plans. Instead I ended up with a Kevin. Tall, gangly, shy, dark haired, and after a while, didn’t stick around (but that’s another story entirely – I’ll get there!)
In 2001, a little after Backstreet Boy’s 3rd album, Back and Blue, hit, my then boyfriend of 18 months asked me to marry him. Six months later, 9/11 happened, and we moved our wedding so he could leave for the Marines. Shortly after, I found out I was pregnant with our son. America was reeling from the largest domestic terrorist activity in history and my life was plunged into turmoil. I had a Millennium cassette tape in my car on repeat – until I heard Shape of my Heart. And The Call. And More Than That! AJ had a solo. My husband mailed me a copy of The Hits Chapter One and Black and Blue from bootcamp. He got it – he finally understood why I loved them!
The story gets a little boring here, because I was a mom and a college student, and I didn’t have time for silly boy band things. I read somewhere that Howie D has an Associate’s degree. If he can do it, so can I. I enroll in college classes in 2005. Really everything is pretty good until 2006, when my husband and I separated briefly, and I ended up moving 500 miles away. For the third or fourth time in my life, I was isolated and alone, AGAIN. Never Gone had just dropped, and I found Incomplete on YouTube. Then Unbreakable hits with Inconsolable, and those two songs become my life motto pretty much. Unsuspecting Sunday Afternoon and Helpless When She Smiles become personal favorites because I was living that horrible truth. I’m 21 now, and Nick is still hot. But AJ is now covered in Tattoos. Even better! And even though my life is absolutely shit, I still have the Backstreet Boys.
In 2009, two major things happened: I met my best friend and I contracted the swine flu. I’m a senior in college now, and I am the sickest I’ve ever been in my ENTIRE life. I’m one year too old for the vaccine. The illness sweeps my family; I see on the Internet that Brian has it, too. My heart goes out to him. I feel a little less sick, though I’m definitely dying, or so the doctors tell me. And I survive – miraculously. I go on to graduate college with a 3.75 GPA and speak at my gradation and get accepted to graduate school. Oh, and remember that best friend? He happens to be tall, blond, and into football and video games, just like my childhood friend was. I wonder if reincarnation is a thing. I still wonder to this day. We’re still best friends.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I’m finally a college graduate. It’s 2014 now. I have my iPod full of songs, a mixtape (CD this time!) I burned from my computer, and I own ALL their albums in one form or another. In A World Like This is released, but I’m unemployed with two college degrees and I can’t afford to go to a concert – they don’t come anywhere near Oregon, anyway, and I can’t even afford to pay rent or buy food. Every week I’m in line at the food bank and then spend long afternoons at the employment department filling out job applications. I start filling Walmart bags with food from the food bank, so my kids don’t know that we don’t have enough to eat. And sometimes I listen to Drowning and cry because life never feels like it’s going to get better.
In September of 2014, I’m offered my dream job teaching: It’s just one college class. To celebrate I listen to Backstreet’s Back and sob tears of joy. The dean tells me If I survive, they might give me another one (admittedly it was a very tough class). And they do, and then they give me two more. And two more after that! After 6 years, I’m still teaching college, and I love every minute of it. And on my one-mile commute to campus I’m STILL singing Backstreet Boys on at the top of my lungs. The same year, I published my first book, Postcards From Paris. My theme song for that book is Quit Playing Games with My Heart. Rochelle and Elijah, the characters from that book, have a few songs that inspired me to write them, and in their prequel novel, they actually sing one of their songs in the car after a tragedy.
Fun Fact: The soundtracks of ALL my books have at least one Backstreet Boy song. If you ever questioned their versatility 😊
It’s 2019 now and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart from DNA is … AMAZING. I LOVE it. I play it every day on my way to work. Chances hits – written by Shawn Mendes, my other
obsession favorite artist – and I am on cloud nine. I buy the album and the tickets, and the tickets to their concert come with copies of DNA. I have 4 copies now. Good, one for every room of the house. AND… by this point, I have written 42 books. That song is Rochelle and Elijah, it’s Ambrose and Vicki, it’s Liz and Micah, it’s Lydia, Clinton, and Sean, all the characters from my books and their chance encounters. I watch the video on YouTube WAY more than I’d like to admit (and so do my friends – you know who you are!)
P.S. AJ is now SUPER hot. Jesus when did he get so hot? And so is Nick. And Brian. And Kevin, and Howie D. No, I will not apologize for that. They might be 35-45 years old, but man, they have aged well.
And guess what? I finally made enough money to go see the DNA tour in Portland, Oregon.
Last night, as a matter of fact. It turns out Oregon was the SECOND tour stop they EVER made in 1995, so they have a special heart for it. The show at the Moda Center in Portland is sold out, and it takes hours for my vocal chords and ears to recover. I scream, cry, and sing SO much afterwards I am deaf for like two hours.
I’ll never forget the moment the screen rose and revealed them on stage. It was 1996 all over again and here I am standing in the music aisle of the BX, staring at a tape cassette and wondering who this blond kid is on the cover and why he looked like my best friend that I lost. And I’m standing next to my own real-life Kevin, my husband of 18 years (this September!). My husband later explained that the look on my face was “complete and utter bliss.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Seeing them on stage was magical, amazing, exciting, heart-pounding. Bliss? That doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was a dream come true.
So today I still cry at most of their songs and embarrass my kids by singing along to them. I own Dead 7 and This is the End just to see my boys. I got my teenage daughter obsessed with them as well. She knows the songs, too. We all sing I Want It That Way, Andy Samberg, style from Brooklyn 99. My best friend (he’ll always be Nick 2.0) texts me ridiculous memes and gifs of them to brighten my day.
And today my life is just a little less isolated and a little better than it was in 1996, but I still have a long way to go. You might be thinking, “Wow, she’s 35-years-old and still obsessed with a boy band?! That’s crazy!” If you are, and I hope by this point to realized they aren’t “just” a boy band to me. No, to me they are so much more than that. In the beginning they were an escape and an alternative to the lonely world I lived in, and reminded me that once upon a time, before Graham died, I was a happy child. Today they are an expression of everything I have grown to be: successful, complex, and still a little musical. Not only do I continue to sing, but so does my daughter, and my son plays multiple instruments. It’s amazing what a little $15 tape cassette in 1996 can do: save a life and spawn a legacy, or so I hope.
In the end, thank you, Nick, Brian, Kevin, AJ, and Howie D for an amazing show on the DNA tour. You not only changed my life, but you kept my faith that my life would get better, for me and my family.
And it did.
I can’t be grateful for anymore than that.