When I was seven, “Quit Playing Games (with My Heart)” by the Backstreet Boys was the only song in the world. The ballad, a cloying and catchy Max Martin written and produced song, was the first US single released from the Backstreet Boys. While simple, mindless lyrics like, “Sometimes I wish I could turn back time, impossible as it may seem” don’t quite make for an epic pop song, they do get stuck in your head. Two decades later, you still remember them.
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I remember liking the music video for the song far more than I liked the song. The video begins with the five Backstreet Boys sitting on the basketball court of an Orlando middle school. Behind them are oaks draped with heavy Spanish moss, confirmation that this is Florida, these are Florida boys. Their ears are pierced with diamond-studs and their t-shirts are bleached a Clorox-white by their mom. They reminded me of the guys my older cousin hung around with, lanky South Florida teens who smoked weed behind the Publix dumpsters and lost their virginity at age 15, but still said “please” and “thank you” to adults.
Halfway through the video, just as Brian cries out “Quit playing games,” there’s Florida rain. If you think that all rain is just rain, that it’s either raining or it’s not raining, then you’ve never seen a Florida storm. When it rains in the sunshine state, the sky transforms into a sobbing child. Drops come down fast and passionate, pounding down on the asphalt and the strip malls. It’s the ideal weather to be in when you beg the person you love to please stop playing games with your heart.
I obsessed over the music video with my best friends at the time, Allie and Amanda*, twin sisters lucky enough to be a single degree away from personally knowing the Backstreet Boys. The twins were the goddaughters of Lou Pearlman, Orlando blimp magnate turned music industry maven. “Uncle Lou,” they called him, and told me how he discovered the Backstreet Boys. What they didn’t know—what possibly no one at the time, except Lou himself knew–was that Lou didn’t care much about the Backstreet Boys. He didn’t care about music at all. Like so many people in Florida, Lou’s great love was money. After seeing the success of Boyz II Men and New Kids on the Block, Lou, a vulgar arriviste, created the Backstreet Boys in 1993 by placing an ad in the Orlando Sentinel and then holding auditions in his blimp hanger. The boy band achieved success in Europe and Canada throughout the early 90s, it wasn’t until the summer of 1997 that Backstreet Boys took over America.
At seven, being friends with people who knew the Backstreet Boys, or at least sort of knew the Backstreet Boys, felt like the luckiest thing in the world. Amanda and I both loved Nick Carter. We knew everything about him, which is to say his favorite color (forest green) and his astrological sign (Aquarius). Allie loved A.J., the bad boy. This made me sincerely weary about Allie. One weekend in early 1998, the twins invited me to spend a weekend a Lou’s colossal mansion with them with them and attend a private Backstreet Boys concert in his home. I gave them an immediate yes.
Like most early childhood memories, the concert at Lou’s house has faded into a hazy dream. I know we took a white limo to his house because there’s a faded Polaroid of it and I know we swam in his underground pool because there’s a photograph of that, too, but I don’t really remember either of those things. My memories of the night come in bright, vivid flashes. Seeing a tiny garden lizard in Lou’s kitchen. Watching Kevin do a handstand. Taking a group photo with the band and Nick telling us, “Okay. Let’s make a silly face.” I stuck out my tongue, the silliest face I could imagine. The median age of the Backstreet Boys was only 21 at the time, but to my seven-year-old self, they registered as so much older. These weren’t boys at all. These were men. The next morning, Lou took Allie, Amanda, and I to SeaWorld. I kissed a dolphin and pretended it was Nick Carter.
Everything about that weekend has been written over with what happened soon thereafter. Within the year, Backstreet Boys brought a lawsuit against Lou. It was revealed that from 1993 to 1997, the members had made a cumulative $300,000–only $12,000 per person. All the money–hundreds of millions of dollars–was going to Lou. After filing the suit, the Backstreet Boys learned that Pearlman was legally a sixth member of the band. By the end of 1998, the Backstreet Boys had extricated themselves from Lou, though not without surrendering a cut of their future profits to him.
Eight years later, Lou was accused of running one of the largest Ponzi schemes in American history and given a 25-year-prison sentence in Orange County Jail. In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lou claims his Ponzi scheme was smarter than any other scheme because of the Backstreet Boys. “[Bernie Madoff] didn’t have any real way to make money,” Lou said. “But I had the music. Backstreet Boys each made well over $50 million apiece.” The screaming adolescent girls, the saccharine-sweet ballads, the matching outfits–it was all choreographed to serve Lou’s scam.
I don’t think there’s any musical act in history with a story more Florida than that of the Backstreet Boys. There are the obvious, simple ways in which they embody the southernmost state. They’re named after Orlando’s long-gone Backstreet Flea Market. Three of the band members are Florida natives. One of the two members not born in Florida spent his pre-BSB days working at Disney World, dressing up as Aladdin and Goofy. The first ever Backstreet Boys concert was at SeaWorld. But the Backstreet Boys’ connection to Florida runs deeper than hometowns and theme park concerts.
Their story didn’t simply start in Florida. It embodies Florida, a state swamped by greed and deception. Everything is turned for a profit in Florida. There are the theme parks—the megalithic Walt Disney World and Universal Studios and SeaWorld. There’s alligator wrestling and mermaids shows and monkey jungles and parrot jungles. In my hometown, there’s Butterfly World, where you can pay $26.95 to see America’s first and largest butterfly house. Everything from coral to coconuts to conch-shells can be bought as a souvenir. The last time I went on a Florida road trip, I saw cans of Florida sunshine being sold at a rest stop. They were just empty cans with the words “Florida Sunshine” written on them in yellow script. The entire state is a business. A boy band created by a blimp salesman to subsidize his epic Ponzi scheme: it sounds like a plotline from a movie about Florida. But it’s the truth. Florida has never really needed any fictionalized accounts of its oddities.
In the 2015 documentary Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, the band visits Lou’s estate, now stripped bare by the IRS. “Hey, Lou. Are you here?” asks Howie to an empty hallway. “We’re here, Lou,” he calls. “Where’s our money?” The house is mostly just wood beams and empty walls but there’s still the grand staircase, which I remember or at least think I do. The story of Lou Pearlman and the Backstreet Boys reminds me of Florida’s own story.
Everything was once so huge and alive–for the Backstreet Boys, there were the sold out world tours and the record-breaking albums, and, for Florida, there was the once lush, rich agriculture–but everything ends. Girls outgrow boy bands. Temperatures rise and so do sea levels. It’s estimated that by 2060, the water around Miami will rise up two feet. Miami only has an elevation of 4.4 feet. Florida is sinking. In a hundred years, no one is going to remember the Backstreet Boys. It’s possible they won’t even remember Florida. Both of these facts claw at my heart. I loved them.
“Poor Florida,” writes Joy Williams in an essay on the state. “Once so pretty and now so battered and worn.” It’s easy to apply that same sentiment to the Backstreet Boys. The band still performs music–they have a Las Vegas residency beginning in early 2017–but they’re hardly the phenomenon they once were. About five years ago, at my hometown’s Blockbuster closing sale, I realized I was standing in line behind Nick Carter.
It’d been 15 years since I’d seen him in person, back when he was a skinny, platinum-blonde teenager ruling the world. Now his hair was a dirty blonde and he had a tattoo of a shark on his left shoulder. He had facial hair. Everything about the world had changed since the last time I’d seen Nick Carter. His body was proof. “That was Nick Carter,” I told my 11-year-old cousin after he left. I could still feel my heart beating fast. She stared blankly back at me. “Who is Nick Carter?” The Backstreet Boys, Florida–they’re going down and it’s only a matter of time before they’ll be completely underwater.
*Names have been changed