The Friday Flash Review:

Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”

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I asked for a 90s Boy Band track to review.

And y’all decide to deliver me a 1999 late-stage 90s boy band track that not only seems to defy logical genre descriptions (“pop ballad” appears to be the consensus, however this seems like a cop-out to me), but sports a title that Andrew Unterberger of PopDust claims is “devoid of inherent meaning.” 

Cool, guys. Cool. 


In-a-Flash Review:

What happens when something is too perfectly honed for its own good and thusly collapses into a musical singularity?

“I Want It That Way” is apparently what happens. I honestly can’t even wrap my brain around this track, as it transcends songdom and enters into the realm of “lots of sounds in sequence that people are inherently designed to like.”

It’s almost like I’m not hearing it, but rather it’s being programmed into me.

It’s an odd sensation. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a good s-s-s-something! I’m just not prepared as of yet to call it a normal song. Whatever it is, though, it’s effective. 

LET’S GET METAPHYSICAL SCORE: 7/10!


The Full Friday Flash Review

Given that this otherwise throw-away song has spun me into a mini existential crisis, this review would be so much easier if I could use irrational numbers. Unfortunately, I don’t think this website supports irrational numbers, so regular numbers will have to suffice.

“Et tu, Wolfram?”

Production: 7/10

Right off the bat, there’s some sublime weirdness going on: the intro guitar riff was actually inspired by Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” (welcome; you will never be able to unhear that now).

Yes, a Metallica-inspired Backstreet Boys song is a thing that we all now have to acknowledge…

…no matter how many brain cells collapse upon themselves in the process. 

I’m just glad we’re all in this together. 

Don’t even get me started on the “wah-wah-wah” guitar-yet-not-a-guitar type thing bouncing around in the intro acappella chorus, which somehow is crucial to the zeitgeist of this s-s-s…track despite its very limited use. 

OK, exiting the intro, we immediately get a cool bass slide (as if it’s a real bass player – ha!) into the groove, which locks in like a metronome’s metronome. This production is as tight as the night is dark. The rhythm section sounds purely unnatural but in a completely inoffensive Swedish way.

Definitely not a product placement ad. We’d never.
But, I mean, if you should need a stackable bookcase…

But also, what are those percussion sounds? They’re not really drum sounds. They’re not block sounds. This is what I mean about this track – it’s pure inscrutable loveliness. 

Oh, did I just say its lovely? Yeah, I did. Despite my reservations and consternations and all the other -ations, everything just gels into this congealing form of sounds that effortlessly flows over me like a waterfall without water. 

Add in a key change three-quarters the way through that gives the ‘boys permission to “riff” (ha – there’s no riffing in this production!), but they sound like they’re riffing, and that’s actually plenty good enough. 

Leave it to Max Martin to programmatically optimize production to the point where vocal riffing is as programmatic as the drum machine. Point deducted! 

Songwriting/melody: 7/10

Honestly, I feel like something bad might happen to me if The Great Swedish Algorithm found out that I didn’t give the songwriting here perfect marks. This song is so expertly written to idyllic perfection that, at the risk of repeating myself (oh, there’s no risk – it’s absolutely going to happen), it almost transcends traditional songdom. 

Yet – yet! – it’s all a bit too idyllic, isn’t it? Yes, it is.

Points deducted for being that chocolate cake that is so rich that it makes you want to puke even as every cell in your body wants to devour more of it.

Oh, Great Algo, please have mercy on my soul! 

Vocals: 7/10

At this point, I feel like I’m just giving up and defaulting to 7’s, because 7 is the most programmatic/inoffensive “better than average but not great” score, which is really BSB’s wheelhouse, right? These vocals are, in a word, buttery. They go down smooth and easy, and while notionally tasty, they don’t have a ton of substance.

Even toward the end where they “let loose,” they’re really not letting loose at all.

It all sounds really nice and fine and dandy, but there’s nothing truly emotive happening here.

And, it’s honestly not surprising given the (spoiler alert!) situation with the lyrics.

Lyrics: 6/10

So, let’s just kick this section off with a funny coincidence:

Not only was the song inspired by Metallica, of all groups, singing about how nothing matters, but it appears the lyrics were inspired by the same Metallica song as well: because nothing here makes any sense, and it doesn’t matter.

But the best part of this fact is that making no sense was 100% on-strategy.

Allow me to excerpt from Wikipedia: 

In an interview with HitQuarters, Andreas Carlsson confessed that the song was a play with words. According to him:

“When Max came up with the original idea for the song, it already had the line ‘you are my fire, the one desire’. 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 – but everybody loved it!”

Many critics over the years have questioned the song’s lyrical meaning, mainly the line, “I want it that way.” Ben Westhoff of LA Weekly dissected the song, writing that its lyrical content “makes zero sense”. For Westhoff, “Mainly, the meaning of ‘that’ is at issue.”

While analyzing the lyrics, Westhoff perceived that, “None of the sentiments in the chorus seem to go with any of the other ones. Even worse, no further explanation is given for what ‘that’ is.” The critic assumed that in the song “someone simply doesn’t like it when his lover expresses preferences, never wanting to hear when his girlfriend says she wants things in particular ways”.

This is truly great stuff:

The song drove people nuts.

Who knew? I certainly didn’t. I was just gliding along in an idyllic sonic dreamscape created by Max Martin. With Max, it’s all about the syllables and the vowels, not the actual words, silly!

But guys… seriously….

Fast forward to anarticle dated, that’s right, April 12, 2021 (22 years later!) where there’s a complete rundown of the story summarized above, but with more drama and detail.

Yeah, two plus decades later, “I Want It That Way” is still creating content juice for websites. 

BONUS TRIVIA ALERT: One of the “well known producers at the time [hired] to redo the song” referenced in this article was none other than…Mutt Lange. 

So, yeah, points for massive amounts of drama about essentially nothing. Points for creating an entirely different version of the lyrics because what is meaning anyway? But points deducted for creating a two-decade fugue state for one too many people. 

Ear Worminess: 7/10

This rating surprises no one, including me. Frankly, “I Want It That Way” has a bunch of earworms, including the inspired-by-Metallica guitar riff and the bouncy guitar-not-a-guitar thing not to mention the super-melodic verses and the programmed-to-worm chorus melody. So, points for all that.

But, there’s no top-tier stuff anywhere. It’s all better-than-serviceable but not cream of the crop. Really good but certainly not epic. 

HYPNOTIZED BY “BIGGIE” MAX MARTIN SCORE: 6.8…
rounds its way up to:
a 7/10!  

TL;DR: 

So, look:

There’s two ways to approach “I Want It That Way” as a reviewer in my mind: You can find the most efficient path from A to B and just talk about what tofu would sound like if it were music.

“Cool. And, also, ‘Yecch.’

But I chose to take the long way home and explored it through the musically mechanistic machinations utilized to compose and craft this simple and almost hypnotic piece of work. 

I still feel odd about all the ratings to be honest. 

There’s a part of me that views “I Want It That Way” in a pretty poor light –

it’s weaponized mundanity put to music.

But technically, I cannot help but to be impressed by the spectacle of what was accomplished.

This is why I would have preferred to use irrational numbers in my ratings! 

mathematical theorist and tofu aficionado Jon Deutsch

I definitely blame the song for this.

But I’ve galaxy brained myself into a 7/10. I’m curious what everyone else thinks.

Cheers!

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” upvote!

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cstolliver
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May 19, 2023 5:42 am

As sacrilegious as it sounds, I’m not a huge fan of “I Want It That Way.” I like the Backstreet Boys sound a lot but — like KC and the Sunshine Band before them — their hits all have a sameness to the instrumentation. To me, “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” > “I Want It That Way” > “As Long As You Love Me.” But I’ll take either “All I Have to Give” or “Show Me the Reason for Being Lonely” over any of them.

Last edited 1 year ago by Chuck Small
cstolliver
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May 19, 2023 9:43 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

… “Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely”… that’s what my brain gives me when it’s not sun-up yet.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 19, 2023 6:28 am

Quality tofu tastes like heaven.

(And yes, I know just what you’re gonna saaay…🎼)

mt58
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May 19, 2023 8:47 am

Pan-seared, with just the right amount of seasoning is my favorite.

Pretty tough to find in most airports, but I’ll keep searching.

Phylum of Alexandria
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May 19, 2023 9:10 am
Reply to  mt58

Next stop: Narita!

cappiethedog
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May 20, 2023 2:56 pm

That on the cliff a forlorn Robert Smith is perched upon, crawling on hands and knees, “alone above a raging sea,” Smith knows and pines for the heavenly seaweed that lies beneath it.

stobgopper
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May 22, 2023 2:48 pm

Hated it as a kid, love it as an adult. Would like to say it was my palate maturing, but I think it was Mom’s cooking. Sorry, Mom.

Last edited 1 year ago by stobgopper
Virgindog
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May 19, 2023 7:36 am

Personally, I want it the other way. Good write-up though.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bill Bois
JJ Live At Leeds
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May 19, 2023 10:12 am

7?!?! Just like the polka, that was unexpected. Their only UK #1, how wonderful that I get the chance to revisit it. While I don’t appreciate the song, I do appreciate the trivia around the opening guitar being inspired by Metallica and the nonsense of the lyrics.

Those first few Metallica inspired seconds I’d rate as OK and that wah-wah-wah is an interesting sound but other than that it’s flat and lifeless, writing by numbers to my ears. Give me Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) over this any day.

cstolliver
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May 19, 2023 1:56 pm
Reply to  JonDeutsch

I never could get past the boy crooning, “Am I sexual?” and the others responding, “Yeah…” I get the giggles every time.

dutchg8r
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May 20, 2023 6:38 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

Yep, that’s the worst part for me. It’s just sooo out of place and awkward in the song. I mean, who says ” Am I Sexual?” Aside from Buffalo Bob.

Eek.

dutchg8r
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May 21, 2023 1:34 am
Reply to  dutchg8r

D’oh, just noticed my typo. Sorry to Buffalo Bob. I was trying to say Buffalo BILL, ya know, lotion master? Moth lover?

Now I’ve creeped myself out. Again.

Aaron3000
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May 23, 2023 10:02 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r

Ha, I didn’t even catch the typo. Now I’m imagining a very different answer to the question, “Hey kids! What time is it?”

thegue
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May 19, 2023 1:54 pm

I barely paid attention to this boy-band song of the late 90s…in fact, I think it was my wife who offered up a boy-band evaluation to allow me to know the differences between all of them.

How can I possibly repay her??!!

I’d give it a few points less…maybe 2π-1.

Pauly Steyreen
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May 20, 2023 12:28 am
Reply to  JonDeutsch

Insert Barnable reference here…

thegue
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May 19, 2023 1:55 pm

Also, perfect image editing by mt, but I REALLY wanted to see mt in the IKEA picture.

Same sweatshirt, but in Swedish colors. Was that too much to ask?

mt58
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May 19, 2023 7:44 pm
Reply to  thegue

Coming soon!

blu_cheez
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May 19, 2023 5:56 pm

I get everything you’re saying here, but (and this is coming from an abashed non-fan of the Backstreet Boys) “I Want It That Way” a gigantic, nuclear, DNA-changing 10/10.

Edith G
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May 19, 2023 6:58 pm

I liked your honest review Jon, it was an inescapable song back in the day and it’s probably one of the classics among the big pop return from 1998-1999.

Max Martin has the touch for creating bangers, but his songs of that era were easy to identify because they had the same structure, I don’t know about music, but is that way to sing the chorus in the final part, after the bridge, with or without a key change and then returning to the original singing. In the next years it changed, but at the time that structure made the songs seem like formulaic.

Ozmoe
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May 19, 2023 7:22 pm

Great writeup every step of the way, Jon! To me, the enduring legacy of I Want It That Way is the way it appears as a parody at number one on this top 10 list on David Letterman’s old show. To me, these lyrics really do make sense and are perfect for the song. Skip to 5:10 to see it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30J4d6YGAOI

dutchg8r
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May 20, 2023 7:11 pm

I use the excuse alot that having lived in Orlando, Boy Band Mecca, throughout those years, it made my disdain for them 10x’s greater because it was so inescapable. I mean, I know all the names of Backstreet Boys and N’Sync guys. Me. I know Joey Fatone was the most relatable of all those guys, he had fun calling in or hanging out in the studio with the various radio stations in town.

If I had not been pummeled with all that info from local radio, I would never, ever be able to distinguish one group from another. Formulaic is a common term used to describe these songs, with good reason. Because they were. I never got any personality coming through on the songs. Nice harmonies, whatever, it all sounds the same after 3 seconds.

Granted, I was in my late 20’s by this point, but I don’t think I’d have felt any different if I was 11 during this time.

The only reason I Want it That Way stood out a bit more in a positive light is because it was still a well built song, and the Backstreet Boys hadn’t quite broken big yet. And frankly, the songwriters knew exactly what they were doing, leaving the lyrics so vague. Open to all interpretations. Devious Swedes.

Sounds like you need a big heaping bowl of average vanilla ice cream after that write-up, Jon. 😁 Thanks for making the sacrifice for us!!!!

PeiNews
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May 22, 2023 4:21 pm

Okay, let’s see what’s going on on the dot-com today…

“Friday Flash Review… I Want It That Way”. Hmmm. I have a vague recollection of…

(Scroll, click, scroll)

Yup, guess this was my fault.

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