Singled Out: "I Want It That Way" by Backstreet Boys

Revisiting the popular singles of yesteryear.

The last installment of Singled Out re-examined “Pop” by ‘N Sync, which, in retrospect, turned out to be nothing more than a decarbonated relic of the bygone Boy Band Era. Having taken a look at the transient and disposable side of boy bands, I thought it would be appropriate to examine a song on the opposite end of that spectrum something timeless and indispensable. And that song is “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys.

“I Want It That Way” was released on April 12, 1999. Fourteen years later, it sounds just as good as the first time you ever heard it. Speaking of which, think back to that first time. You knew all of the words before the song was over. It might sound lofty and ridiculous, but something about this song just makes sense (and I mean that on a cosmic level as opposed to a contextual one). “I Want It That Way” feels like it's been here forever; like it spent millions of years vibrating through the cosmos, bouncing from planet to planet, careening through orbits, and pulsing past celestial bodies until it finally rained down upon Earth in a magnificent sonic tidal wave forcing our tuners onto its frequency. The Backstreet Boys were just five Earthlings: A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, and Brian Littrell; but “I Want It That Way” was, and remains, otherworldly. It was as good as the Boy Band Era would ever get. Let’s take another listen.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible (albeit difficult) to discuss the Backstreet Boys without mentioning their counterparts, ‘N Sync. However, a comparison of their music will be insightful in this case. By looking at the evolutions of both bands, we can see where they diverged creatively and glean some insight as to how ‘N Sync churned out a disposable piece of music like “Pop” and the Backstreet Boys ended up with a classic like “I Want It That Way.”

The bands have plenty in common, especially regarding their origin stories. They were both founded and managed by The Tyrant Lou Pearlman. Both bands were formed in Orlando, Florida: The Cradle of Boy Band Life. Each had five members. Both groups debuted in Europe before coming to America. And both would eventually file massive lawsuits against Pearlman. But it was upon completing this litigious right of boy band passage that the creative trajectories of 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys seem to diverge.

The Right Way To Write

One big difference in this post-Pearlman world was each band’s involvement in the songwriting process. On their debut albums, no member of either band has a songwriting credit (although ‘N Sync did share a collective credit on “Giddy Up”). This is generally how things remained for the Backstreet Boys. Their second album, Backstreet’s Back, included one solo writing credit for Littrell, while their follow-up, Millennium, featured three co-writing credits from Littrell and one co-writing credit from Richardson. But things were different for 'N Sync. Members Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez had their hand in the writing process on a combined total of five songs on their second album No Strings Attached, and ten songs on their follow-up, Celebrity.

Obviously, I do not know the extent to which any of these artists participated in the actual writing of the songs or what their contributions to the songwriting process were. However, I find it plausible to assume that if one lets a bunch of inexperienced songwriters in on the songwriting process, it is foreseeable that the songs they produce will be worse than the songs a professional songwriter would produce. Of course it’s also possible that a young and inexperienced songwriter might be more likely to take risks and get more adventurous in the songwriting process. In fact, it seems this was the case with ‘N Sync (as evidenced by “Pop”). However, just because a song is more “adventurous” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better, or even good for that matter.

On the contrary, the Backstreet Boys songwriting strategy seemed to be “let’s just leave well enough alone.” Although that sounds rather bland, it’s also a very intelligent game plan: let the songwriters write the songs. Of course, by taking this less adventurous approach, they ran the risk that their sound might become stale; but that’s not such a big risk when you hire arguably the best pop songwriter of the last 25 years to pen your hits. And that is exactly what the Backstreet Boys did.

The Master

“I Want It That Way” was co-written by two Swedish songwriters, Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson. Odds are that you have never heard those names before, but they are responsible for an inconceivable number of hits over the last quarter-century. Martin alone has been named the ASCAP Songwriter of the Year five times (1999, 2000, 2001, 2011, 2012). A list of his notable songwriting credits would go on for pages, so here’s a brief sampling:

For the Backstreet Boys, he penned “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” “Larger Than Life,” and “I Want It That Way” amongst more. He wrote “I Want You Back,” “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” for ‘N Sync. He wrote a ton of Britney Spears’s hits, including “…Baby One More Time,” “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” “Oops!… I Did It Again,” “Stronger,” “Lucky,” and “Hold It Against Me.” For Celine Dion, he wrote “That’s The Way It Is” and “Love Is All We Need,” as well as Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and “Behind These Hazel Eyes.” He wrote “It’s My Life” for Bon Jovi, is responsible for just about every Katy Perry hit single except for “Firework,” and has writing credits for Pink, including “So What” and “Raise Your Glass.” More recently, he’s responsible for “Blow” by Ke$ha, “Domino” by Jesse J, “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz, “One More Night” by Maroon 5, andJustin Beiber’s “Beauty And A Beat.” And that’s not even to mention Taylor Swift’s most recent two monster hits, “We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble.”

If you’re having a hard time believing one man is responsible for so many of your favorite songs, here is a more comprehensive list of his writing credits. And fear not, there’s also a Spotify playlist of his work. On the other hand, if you’ve spent the last 25 years waging war against this type of pop music, now you know who that burning effigy should look like. So much for Swedish neutrality.

Nevertheless, regardless of your opinion of pop music, when it comes to writing it, there is no denying that Max Martin is The Master. So if you hired The Master to write you a hit song, instead of sitting over his shoulder telling him “I want it this way” and “I want it that way,” why not just sit back and let him work his magic? The Backstreet Boys did, and thus, the greatest pop song of the Boy Band Era was generously bestowed upon them.

[Note: The Backstreet Boys actually became more involved in the songwriting process on their 2000 album, Black & Blue. Each member received three co-writing credits on a total of six different songs, except for their most experienced songwriter, Littrell, who only received two. And of the three singles released off that album, two were penned by Martin; zero by Backstreet Boys.]

There was recently some discussion around the World Wide Web regarding “perfect” pop songs and whether or not they exist. The answer to that question might still be up for debate, but if a “perfect” pop song ever has existed, “I Want It That Way” is it.

Subject Matter Matters

There’s no denying the fact that ‘N Sync’s “Pop” has a very original concept. The song is a commentary on the role of boy bands in pop music at a specific moment in time. The problem with “Pop” is that it’s a commentary on the role of boy bands in pop music at a specific moment in time. It might have sounded relevant at the time, but “Pop” went flat. It was born with an expiration date, and it didn’t take long to arrive.

On the other hand, “I Want It That Way” is, generally speaking, a love song. There have literally been millions, maybe billions, of songs written about or because of love. It is a completely unoriginal concept for a song, but unoriginality is not a bad thing in this case. There always has and always will be a demand for love songs. So if you’re going to have a timeless song, it’s only logical that it has to be about a timeless subject. And love is eternal.

Mimic, Don't Gimmick

The easiest way to date a song is to use some sort of gimmicky instrumentation, and “Pop” uses just about every one. There’s beatboxing, remixed beatboxing, stutter edits, robot noises, guitar riffs with many different effects, slap bass, drum machines, rattles, record scratching, and the list goes on. For a more recent example, look at “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen, a song that prominently features a synthesized violin. It sounded fine in 2012, but what about fourteen years from now? Or how that synth riff on “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen (and the Cheese-E Street Band)?

On “I Want It That Way,” the instrumentation is minimal. There’s guitar, bass, piano, and drums. Unoriginal? Yes. But they’re all tried and true in the realm of popular music. Aside from the computerized drum beat sounding slightly dated at times, these instruments will always be in style. And so will this song.

Share The Love

“I Want It That Way” also features every member of the band, which is a rare accomplishment for a boy band. Not to slight the importance of being a good harmonizer, which is usually the designated function of a few members in each boy band, but it’s nice to see every member of a vocal group get a chance to shine. And yes, a “vocal group” is exactly what the Backstreet Boys were trying to be. According to Richardson in a 2000 Rolling Stone interview, they never claimed to be “entertainers” like New Kids On The Block, but wanted people to look at them like Boyz II Men, a vocal group with four lead singers (who may or may not fall under the definition of “boy band,” depending on how the lines are gerrymandered). On the contrary, “Pop” was released near the end of ‘N Sync’s run, and by this time most of their songs could have more accurately been credited to “Justin Timberlake featuring ‘N Sync.” But on “I Want It That Way,” the Backstreet Boys spread the love around and capitalized the fact that they had five talented singers in their band.

You Want It What Way?

The true genius of “I Want It That Way” is the song’s lyrics. They are completely meaningless. Why is this so genius? I’ll get to that, but first let’s look at how they came to be.

According to co-writer Andreas Carlsson, the original seed for the song was the line “you are my fire, the one desire,” which Max Martin had come up with. A pretty fantastic line to use as a spark, but from there, things went awry for the duo. As Carlsson put it, “We tried a million different variations on the second verse, and finally we had to go back to what was sounding so great, ‘you are my fire, the one desire.’ And then we changed it to ‘am I your fire, your one desire,’ which made absolutely no sense in combination with the chorus…”

Aside from the fact that the chorus of the song doesn’t match the verse, there’s an even more confusing problem, which is the song’s titular line: “I want it that way.” Let’s unpack this line for a moment as it appears in the chorus. For clarity during this analysis, the “I” will be Jack, and the “you” will be Jill. Here are the ways this line can be read:

1. I never want to hear you say, “I want it that way.”

This interpretation literally means that Jack never wants to hear Jill speak the phrase “I want it that way.” In other words, Jack never wants Jill to provide her opinion on which way she wants “it.” In this scenario, Jack is one cold dude. But on the other hand, the line can be read as…

2. I never want to hear you say I want it that way.

Here, the line means that Jack never wants to hear Jill tell him the way he does or does not want “it.” In other words, Jack does not want Jill to ever presume which way he prefers “it.” Still confusing. Or there’s…

3. I never want to hear you. Say “I want it that way.”

Here, Jack is basically telling Jill that he never wants to hear her make a sound. He then condescendingly orders her to affirm that that’s the way she wants it, too. Presumably, after she obliges, he’d respond with something like “I thought I told you to shut up?” This is clearly the darkest reading of the line and is, admittedly, a stretch.

Nevertheless, if that’s not enough of a grammatical brain-bender for you, we still don’t even know what the “it” is that they’re talking about. To make it even worse, the line “I want it that way” appears not only at the end of each chorus, but also at the end of each verse. Because the verse and chorus have nothing to do with each other (as Carlsson explained earlier), we can’t even contextually guess at the line’s meaning.

For my sake and yours, I’m going to wrap up the explication here. The lyrics have been examined elsewhere on the web. Plus, unpacking the entire song would take weeks of intensive study and I seem to have misplaced my Strunk and White.

So why do these nonsensical lyrics help make this the best song of the Boy Band Era? Good question. Recently, I wrote about how careless lyrical gaffes are running rampant through popular music and how much they bother me; but this case is different. There’s nothing careless about this song. The decision to release “I Want It That Way” with the current, nonsensical lyrics was a calculated decision by Martin, Carlsson, the Backstreet Boys, and their record label. I know this because they recorded another version of the song with alternate lyrics that actually make sense. As mentioned earlier, “it made absolutely no sense in combination with the chorus,” but Carlsson continues, “but everybody loved it! And Zomba [the record label] thought it was an all time classic. For a while there was another version of the song that Mutt Lange helped to write, but that version never made it because this was the one the band loved.” The other version is called “No Goodbyes” and you can listen to it right here, right now:

It’s almost there, but it’s missing something. It’s Coke Zero instead of Coca Cola Classic. So what’s a pop group to do when the nonsense version of their song sounds better than the one that actually means something? Simple, just release the one that sounds better. As Richardson put it in a 2011 interview with LA Weekly, “There are a lot of songs out there like that that don’t make sense, but make you feel good when you sing along to them, and that’s one of them.” The song might not make any sense, but at least the responsible parties were aware of that when they created it. And guess what? They made the right decision.

Get Innocuous

And there’s one more, less obvious plus side to the nebulous lyrics of “I Want It That Way.” Without any meaning tied to them, the lyrics do not have the capacity to alienate a listener. Instead, they conform to the listener’s mood. This way, the listener is always open to hearing the song. The lyrics feel appropriate if you’re going through a breakup or madly in love. Since there is no inherent meaning in the song, it can mean whatever the listener wants it to mean. It can be whatever Gotham needs it to be. “I Want It That Way” is the Batman of pop music.

So that is why “I Want It That Way” is the pinnacle of boy band achievement. It reached number one in over 25 countries. The band received Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal (somehow losing them all to “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas). It is far and away the best song of the Boy Band Era. And in the great debate as to which boy band was better, Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync, “I Want It That Way” is the one question ‘N Sync has no answer to.

But what’s more important than all the accolades is the fact that “I Want It That Way” has stood the test of time. It has been covered by Ryan AdamsSelena Gomezhair metal bandspop punk bandspsychedelic rockers, and everyone in between, including these guys:

It’s been banned from the Internet by China’s Ministry of Culture for national security purposes and it also received Music’s Highest Honor in 2003 when it was parodied by Weird “Al” Yankovic. With nine seconds of freak-out time, it remains one of the all time greatest bar songs, and you can still hear it wherever there’s a dance floor and couple of Gen-Yers. And speaking of dancing, the music video is home to some of the worst dance moves, hand gestures, and facial expressions ever captured on film.

All in all, “I Want It That Way” is just a three and a half minute pop song that was recorded and performed by a trendy boy band at the turn of the millennium. It’s about a completely unoriginal subject, uses completely unoriginal instrumentation, and its lyrics are contradictory, confusing, and ultimately meaningless. But who really cares? I want it that way.

Here's a Spotify playlist of music either mentioned in or relevant to this article.

This article was originally published on Halftime Hennessy.