Horror Is Metal: Backstreet’s Pop-Gothic Detour - Tor Nightfire

Horror Is Metal: Backstreet’s Pop-Gothic Detour

It’s a fantastic setup to a good old-fashioned horror story, when you think about it. A broken-down bus in the rain, a spooky gothic castle, and a bunch of unsuspecting tourists ushered inside, completely at the mercy of the spirits within. Their dreams are plagued with horrors as they take part in a ghastly masquerade, as each finds a role for themselves in this crumbling, ancient manse. Yes, it has all the trappings of a really great horror movie. Alas, it’s just a boy band music video. 

It’s easy to take the low road here and be a punk-ass edgelord about pop music (and boy bands especially). They’re low-hanging fruit, culturally speaking, especially if you spent your teenage years like I did, refusing their siren song and listening to a shitton of Bauhaus instead. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t make me better as a person than someone who enjoys pop music. Pop music and boy bands get shit on so often (despite usually being competent musicians and dancers) because they’re usually adored by young women and girls, whose interests are often thought of as silly by Serious Music People. 

Which is utter bullshit, if you ask me. 

Pop music is fun, it’s catchy, and honestly, some of my alternative friends are also some of the biggest pop fans I know. One friend in particular is both a huge metalhead and also unironically loves Taylor Swift. He’s probably the only person in history to attend one of her concerts in a pyramid-studded leather jacket and a Cannibal Corpse t-shirt, and for that I respect him. Hell, even I enjoy a little K-pop every so often, know all the words to Robyn’s stone-cold banger “Dancing On My Own,” and had two very good friends use the pandemic to get me really into Carly Rae Jepsen. I mean, I grew up with the Spice Girls! It’s really fun to be into metal or punk music, but that doesn’t mean I don’t listen to Folklore on rainy days. We all contain multitudes, and one of those multitudes is thinking the Backstreet Boys’ video for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” is hilariously awesome and a Halloween staple. 

Listen, it was 1997. No matter what else you were into, you watched MTV. Yes, they were dark days, no question about it. Back then, popular genres mixed a little more than they do now. You could see a music video by Green Day or The Offspring right after a video from NSYNC or Britney Spears. Here in 2021, we get to be a lot more specific and granular in our genre tastes, but back then there were two music channels on TV so you got what you were given and liked it. You’d have to watch a lot of pop music to catch a Nine Inch Nails video. Plus, in my house, my younger sister often controlled the TV we both shared and she loved pop music and boy bands. Thus, slightly against my will, I was introduced to the Backstreet Boys and this bonkers video. 

Like all the best Halloween things, the video for the single “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” off the group’s self-titled debut US album was released in the middle of the summer. The band fronted the money for the video themselves after their label dismissed the idea entirely. The Backstreet Boys wanted to make another video like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and cement themselves in pop culture history. Their label wanted them to dance real good and get teenage girls to buy their album. Why not kill two birds with one stone? 

The Backstreet Boys were kind of onto something here. Horror can be incredibly sexy in the right hands, and the 90s exemplified that. Tons of insanely hot gothic horror movies came out in the 90s, like Interview With The Vampire, Sleepy Hollow, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It was a legitimate vibe back then. To top it all off, Buffy the Vampire Slayer began its run on TV only a few short months earlier and quickly asserted itself as a cultural juggernaut. It was the perfect time to try to make a pop-gothic horror version of “Thriller,” and they completely succeeded. 

The castle used in the video is the same set that was used to film the 1995 Casper movie (starring Christina Ricci) and it looks dusty, dark, and pitch perfect for the video concept. The lighting is kept dark and menacing. The mummy dances in an Iron Maiden, Dracula stalks a beautiful woman down a decrepit hallway, and Doctor Jekyll vogues in front of torture devices on a wall. It’s a very convincing set and it’s a relief that it too isn’t made too pretty or clean. It could have easily tipped into Rocky Horror territory but instead maintains an air of crumbling disuse and ill-tidings. Half of the rooms featured look like they’d give you tetanus or tuberculosis, and isn’t that what gothic horror is all about? 

I keep saying “gothic horror” for a reason. This video is a prime example of the genre, as bewildering as that sounds. They could have chosen any flavor of horror to use. Slasher films were big back then as well (Scream was released barely a year before this music video and was a massive hit) or they could have been more literal in their homage to “Thriller” and gone with zombies or other generic monsters (as it is, the opening dance sequence uses more than a few MJ moves). But no, they dusted off some classic novels and decided to dress up as Dracula and the Wolfman. They knew one irrefutable fact: gothic horror is the sexiest of all horror genres. 

Despite being a boy band music video, the characters are not pretty boy caricatures of well known Hollywood horror tropes. Sure, there’re some parts of the video where they’re dancing in loose poet shirts and smoldering at the camera, but other parts of the video contain costumes and scenes so well done they could legitimately be pulled off the set of a big budget horror movie. That’s the beauty of this music video, really: somewhere, someone involved did their homework, and they understood the assignment to a T. They aren’t trying to be stylish. Stylized, yes, but the band is fully committed to the gothic horror vibe. It’s wonderfully–almost lovingly–gross. Pop music doesn’t often let itself be ugly or horrific, so it’s a strange delight when you see what are being presented as very sexy men with vampirically appropriate dirty fingernails and yellowed werewolf fangs. We’re so used to pop idols wrung through the music business machine and made sparkling and perfect that it’s almost unreal to see them be anything else.

For my money, the standout role here is AJ McLean as the Phantom of the Opera. It’s wonderfully grotesque. He’s in a perfect old-fashioned suit and half his face is clearly ruined and scarred, partially covered with a mask. Even Hollywood productions of Phantom don’t nail it the way he did. Plus, the tableau he’s presiding over is an exquisite mix of disgusting and beautiful. Rats run rampant all over his table, where beautiful women in period dress laugh and grin. Even the women are dressed more for gothic horror than sex appeal. They could be in tight-laced corsets and low cut blouses but instead they’re in voluminous evening gowns dripping with jewels, or demure Victorian maidservant uniforms. There’s nothing wrong with being sexy, of course, but there’s something really fascinating in the costume choices here. It has a slight air of “we were short on money and raided a community theater’s costume closet” and yet it totally works with the aesthetic. 

It’s a visually fabulous video. Each band member gets a compellingly shot vignette, though some are more successful than others. There is a debonair Dracula (Howie Dorough), wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, (and giving Gary Oldman a run for his money, I daresay), and a fantastically done Doctor Jekyll (Kevin Richardson) in a smart tweed suit and eyeglasses who turns to the side to show a great Two Face-style transformation into Mister Hyde. Less successful are a slightly awkward werewolf (Brian Littrell) in an oversized fur coat, while the last member of the band (Nick Carter) is stuck in a truly, hilariously weird mummy outfit. It’s awkwardly bad and has like… less than zero sex appeal (and he’s the one singing the “am I sexual” line!). Why they didn’t go for Frankenstein with his Bride or something else is a question I ponder still to this day. Poor Nick Carter, stuck as a weird mummy wearing a nonsensical harness in the basement while his bandmate gets to be a sexy vampire. Isn’t that just always the way. 

Horror and pop music don’t often intertwine, so it’s even more fascinating when they do. That’s part of the reason why “Thriller” stands out as one of the best music videos ever made and why the Backstreet Boys wanted to attempt it as well. Pop music tends to turn unfamiliar tropes into campy stereotypes, but this video slyly sidesteps that, playing each scene like it’s a serious horror movie production. The costume choices are smartly thought out and sharply done, the band members still look attractive while being gothic and brooding, and let’s all be honest, the song is a straight-up banger even after all these years. It always finds a place on any Halloween playlist I make, the song and video eternally linked in my mind. “Am I original?,” the song asks and, you know what, I really think it is. Maybe it’s silly, maybe it’s a little over the top, but this music video might be one of the coolest pieces of horror media the 90s gave us. 

I hope you have an absolutely wonderful spooky season. Join me next month when we go back to metal and find out what happens when some bored Norwegian teenagers decide to start a band. Spoiler alert, the answer is one of the foundational albums of the black metal scene, some burned churches, and, uh, literal murder…

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