I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
On January 30, 2015, almost four years ago to the day, the Backstreet Boys documentary Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of was released on iTunes. My friend Lisa came over for a viewing, and when we couldn’t get it to download, I made her watch the One Direction documentary This Is Us instead. I had already seen it twice, but I was a 28-year-old semi-deranged Directioner, having submitted completely to boy-band hysteria during a prolonged identity crisis that would eventually result in my coming out as gay. Boy bands made me feel safe, like I was reverting to adolescence, when attraction was easy and actionless, and everyone liked one of five possible boys.
Historically, I was only a Backstreet Boys fan in the sense that I was a teenage girl in the ’90s, and the allure of boy-band sexuality hung in my middle school’s hallways like B.O. I had the requisite, personality-defining crushes (Nick, not Brian; J.C., not Justin) but neither attended concerts nor cut their pictures from magazines. At the time, I was primarily into Shakira.
But anyway. Later in 2015, when I finally did get Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of to download, I became not only an ex post facto BSB fan, but also a kind of historical revisionist. Because watching this movie as an adult makes one thing in particular totally, startlingly clear: Kevin Richardson is, and always was, the hottest Backstreet Boy.
It’s so obvious if you look at even one picture of them from back then, but let me explain the hotness hurdles Kevin Richardson faced even as an objectively handsome young man. In 1996, when the Backstreet Boys were just beginning to take off in the United States, Kevin Richardson was 25 years old. Nick Carter was 16. (The TV show Bob’s Burgers has a great running joke about this dynamic in the form of a band called Boyz 4 Now, in which the youngest member appears to be 12, and the eldest has a mustache.) I don’t know what it was like where you grew up — and no judgment, I guess — but at my school, liking Kevin best was simply not an option. You liked Brian or you liked Nick, and maybe, if you’d smoked a cigarette before, you liked A.J. Howie was a dork (no offense), and Kevin was an old man.
I can’t blame us, then 12- and 13- and 14-year-olds, for our age-appropriate crush restraint. If anything, it was healthy of us to look the other way. But oh my God, when I look back now, a grown woman of 32 — Kevin is so much hotter than the other Backstreet Boys that it’s actually a little embarrassing. His bone structure? Unparalleled. His eyes? Sage or slate, depending on his mood. His eyebrows? Are you kidding me? He looked good with facial hair and without. He’s also six-foot-one, according to the internet. He was first to quit the Backstreet Boys, in 2006 (hot), and after taking some time to rediscover his love of music, he rejoined the band (dignified, and therefore hot). Kevin has been married to his wife, Kristin, for almost 19 years, which I think is really nice. In the documentary, he wears either cargo pants or cargo shorts, depending on the weather, and guess what? He still looks hot.
This speaks to Backstreet Boys as a whole, and not just Kevin, but another thing the 2015 documentary did was to effectively make One Direction look like a bunch of amateurs in comparison. And I say that as someone who loved One Direction very much, and who will hold a candle for Harry Styles till the day I die. But man, those kids had it easy. Did you know that the Backstreet Boys toured middle schools and high schools, for free, for like a year when they got started? Did you know that they toured in Europe for three years after that, releasing their first album there and not here? (Did you know that’s why the first album we heard from them was, confusingly, titled Backstreet’s Back?)
When I watch this movie now, and I see them sleeping on airport floors, and harmonizing beautifully in front of unimpressed preteens, and practicing choreography for hours on end, I am filled with genuine admiration, and a little horrified by the ruthless, relentless American pop-star machine. BSB somersaulted through the air on high wires for us. They danced in matching, flashing bionic sex suits for us. They put on a show. They committed to the high-concept music video. They were earnest, and worked hard. Watching these scenes now, I feel proud of them then, but also worried. It’s as if they’ve stayed that age forever, and I’ve grown up to be their very young mother.
There is a moment toward the end of Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of in which Kevin, the paternal peacemaker — the Diplomatic Daddy — serves as mediator between Brian and Nick, who are still, all these years later, fighting for the lead-vocalist spotlight. Nick is angry because nobody is being honest with Brian about the fact that his voice isn’t what it used to be, carrying a couple decades’ worth of second-best baggage in his pulsing neck veins. Brian is angry because his voice has weakened, and with it, his stature in the band. Kevin calms them, but the band is still glowering as we cut to footage of them years earlier, singing the National Anthem — a cappella — at some hometown high-school hockey rink, well before they get famous. They sound incredible, and look so young, and I am crying, because life is so short, and you spend so much of it being wrong about who’s hot.