Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell On The Group’s New Documentary And The Underbelly Of Fame

Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In 1997, the Backstreet Boys launched millions of teenagers across the world into mass hysteria. Nick, Howie, AJ, Kevin, and Brian were five attractive guys with smooth voices and equally smooth moves — enough to drive any 13-year-old to tears because of the all the feelings they induced. When you saw them in magazines, they were sexualized. (Like this Rolling Stone cover, where the boys inexplicably had their pants around their ankles.) Simply put, the Backstreet Boys were it. For many fans, this is how the group is remembered now, nearly 20 years later. But, in a new documentary, Backstreet Boys: Show 'Em What You're Made Of, the boy band reunites to tell the real story behind their fame. It's a dark look at the underbelly of celebrity and the personal troubles each member faced. The documentary also takes you to each member's hometown. You learn things that alter your perception of boy bands permanently. Like any hard-truth film, it’s difficult to watch. The film was perhaps most challenging for Brian, who shares his own experience of seeing a therapist for his vocals. I spoke with Brian about the documentary, how the emergence of *NSYNC changed their lives, and the struggle of finding your true identity once the pop star label has ripped away.
What was it like reliving the BSB experience through a more serious lens? Especially with the problems you're experiencing with your voice?
"It's a huge deal to me. Reliving it was pretty difficult, to be honest with you. We have a lot of great memories, but we also have a lot of jacked-up memories. Reliving it was an emotional rollercoaster. I always cry at the same spots [of the documentary], even though I know they're coming. It's like writing a song: It's your baby, you nurture it and watch it grow, and then you have to open it up to ridicule and comments from people who are going to judge you." In one portion of the documentary, you and Nick get into a heated argument over the track listing for the latest album. What happened there?
"There are a lot of people as fans that maybe 12, 13 years ago, were like, 'Oh, I love the Backstreet Boys,' you know? 'How about they just get along, and everything is perfect and PG and wonderful.' But, this is real life. It's really not a piece of cake. We're dealing with a lot of grown-up, adult things. It kind of evolved right in front of our faces as we were filming."

Kevin actually left the group in 2006 because he felt "uninspired." Can you speak to that experience?
"For Kevin...I mean, Kevin was the oldest member. He was already 21 when we first started. Ten, 12 years later, he's in his 30s, and he's trying to look for respect from the industry. We had been working for over a decade at that time. [For him] it was like, 'well, I'm kind of tired of it. I want something different for my life.' So, that's what he did. He stepped away. That takes a lot of balls to step away and say, 'You know, I don't want to do this anymore. I'm not inspired. I don't want to deal with labels and the management, and people that are like, "oh, let's do this, come over here and do that."' It's tough. You have to kind of go back to the drawing board and find your inspiration. And, for Kevin, at that point, he was like, 'I don't know if I want to this for the next three, four, five years.' "To be honest with you, I was kind of hoping that he would come back. The door was always open. He was an original Backstreet Boy, and he's the reason I'm in the group. We're first cousins — he's the one who called me when I was 18 and said, 'Hey, I'm singing in this group in Orlando.' I mean, that was 22 years ago. A lot has happened in our lives and in our careers."
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images.
Completely. And, a real game changer for BSB was when *NSYNC came onto the scene. In the documentary, it seemed like you all felt *NSYNC was sort of a carbon copy of your group.
"That's exactly how we felt. It was kind of like we were older brother who went off to Yale or Harvard, and it just wasn't good enough. How could it not be good enough? You go off on a four-year paid scholarship, and then your little brother comes along, and it's like the world was handed to him because of all the shit that you knocked down. So, for us, it was tough. Same management, same label, same promoters, same writers, same producers, same everything. Seriously a carbon copy. That's when we kind of realized that this is a business. People really don't care. You've got five guys that really honestly care about what they do, and then you realize everybody around you doesn't." Yet, for all the harsh reality we see in the documentary, I have to say I'm surprised that the newer songs address none of it. The lyrics are very much the same as when we were teens — about unrequited love, and that sort of thing. Where are the songs about friendship, loss, and betrayal?
"From an artistic view, when you look back and really listen to the lyrics of some of the old songs, you pick up on those experiences that we've been through. Now, we might be pretty vague, but it's there. Look at 'Larger Than Life.' I wrote the majority of [that song], and when you think about the lyrics 'I may run and hide when you're screamin' my name, alright' — there's a lot of innuendos that are happening right then and there that maybe  a 14- or 15-year-old didn't think about. When you listen now, and you know the story [of our lives], it kind of makes sense. It makes a whole lot of sense." So, the lyrics take on a new meaning over time.
"Yes. 'Time,' a song off the Black & Blue album that I co-wrote with Babyface, talks about all the things that we've been through, summed up into one little statement: 'Time, look where we are and what we've been through. Time, sharing our dreams. Time goes on and on.' You know, it might be vague, but at the same time, those are experiences that come out lyrically. And, after seeing the documentary and really thinking [about it], there might be lyrics that come out and go, oh, okay, I get it. "When you were 12 or 13, you didn’t know about taxes and the world, and how your job works, and the stress of life, and paying rent and making a car payment. So, it's kind of like how you stay connected to your generation that's grown up with you. I'm full of pride when I think about how we made vinyl records. We had vinyl records, since the beginning. You know, Backstreet Boys did studio mixes and club mixes of 'We've Got It Goin' On,' I have 45s and 10- and 12-inch vinyl records of our stuff. I have cassette tapes of our stuff. I have CDs of our stuff. And, now, our stuff lives in the airwaves on the Internet. Technology's kind of come and gone, and you just can't fall behind, you gotta keep moving." And now that story lives in a documentary. In the film, you said BSB was kind of like the Pinocchio story in that you were manufactured but on your way to becoming something real.
"The way it worked for us is somebody tells you you're getting together with a group, and then you start singing and rehearsing and working your butt off. And, everybody around you tells you that you're amazing, and you’re going to be a star — but you're not. If you look at Pinocchio as a little wooden boy, he wasn't real. He didn't have a heart, he didn't have feelings, he didn't have any of those things. But, as people speak those words to you and you work, and you work, and you find that your dreams eventually do come true, then you blow up as a pop star and you become that person. You become somebody that really did something with their lives, so those hopeful dreams become a reality, and when that happens, that's when you kind of take charge of your own life. You have your own views. You realize that you have to make your own decisions. You know, for myself, going from 18 to almost 40 years old — in three weeks I'll be 40 — and I have a wife and a son who's 12 years old, and, life doesn't stop. Life keeps going.  "For me, there's something very 'Pinocchio' about speaking those words into fruition. It's really what happened with our career. We believed it. We were told that we were gonna be big. We trusted that. We had no other expectations than to work as hard as we could to make it as far as we did. And, then you look back, and you realize that none of the people from the very beginning are with us anymore. It comes down to just five [of us], because at the end of the day, we all had the same dreams. So, as you fulfill those dreams, you realize, wow, life doesn't stop. Even though you're on top of the world, you have to somehow manage it. You have to somehow pull it together and make the right decisions, because you are living your life in the public eye. And, that's not easy. You start juggling. Juggle what is right for you: having a record, and albums, and CDs, and tours, and now movies, a family, and a real life. It just becomes kind of a balanced path where you have to do what you can." Backstreet Boys: Show 'Em What You're Made Of hits theaters and iTunes January 30.

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