In my first brush with an irresistible icon, I fell prey to television, not music. The year was 1994, and the man was Zach Morris. The star of Saved By the Bell may have had every girl in America swooning for his swoosh of blond hair, blinding pattern sweaters and futuristic brick-sized mobile phone, but in my young mind he only had eyes for me, and it was love.
In fact, I loved him so much I managed to divorce him. You may not have known it, but we were already married and living in Paris. Or so my young self believed when I wrote him a dear John letter, having the profound realisation that at age 7, I was not fit to be living with a man twice my age in a foreign city.
It was just as well I ended our eternal union because another set of young men were to come along and change my life: the Backstreet Boys. I first heard their song “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” on the radio when I was 10. At that age I, like every other insecure child, needed someone else to tell me if the song was cretinously stupid (obviously the cool attitude) or a beautiful, heartfelt creation that must be memorised at once. My heart was in the latter camp, and luckily my twin sister Rajni felt the same way - and so an obsession was born.
We played their second album, Backstreet’s Back, over and over on our cassette player that summer of 1997. And 1998. And 1999, at which point we traded up for Millennium on CD. I’m pretty sure I still have some muscle-memory for the dance moves to I Want It That Way. My sister and I struck a diplomatic agreement - she could have mustachioed Kevin and blonde bowl cut Nick, while golden-voiced Brian and rebellious hottie AJ were mine. No one wanted Howie.
Of course we listened to *NSYNC and 98 Degrees and every other cookie-cutter boy band gem of that time, and *NSYNC definitely had better dance moves. But when I listen to their stuff now - only because it comes up when I have iTunes on shuffle, I swear! - it just sounds tinny and nasally and every other adjective you can now use to describe Justin Bieber et al. But hey, at least none of it ever touched the level of Rebecca Black.
I discovered ‘alternative’ music when I was 12 and the Backstreet Boys fell in the ranks to bands I’ve now forgotten. Then there was the time I listened to crooners and musicals, alternating Alanis Morissette and Rufus Wainwright with the old-favourite Disney and Broadway tracks I had managed to download on Napster and LimeWire. When I went away to university, Ray LaMontagne, Jamie Cullum, Coldplay and the Dave Matthews Band all had their turn as the soundtrack to my late-night studying.
But as I discovered at the quirky parties of my lovably nerdy undergrads, none of us had completely lost the taste for the sugary pop of our youth. Most parties would end as a tribute to Britney Spears, Backstreet and all the other one-hit wonder songs we somehow knew (but the last song was always Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing - I can’t hear that song without smelling cheap beer and the smell of frat house basements).
So it came as no surprise to my friends when I turned the first 30 seconds of Quit Playing Games into my phone’s ringtone. I refused to pay 99 cents for a chunk of a song I already owned, so I cut the file myself using Audacity, and went through a rather laborious process to get it onto my Motorola Razr. (We forget how easy we have it with the iPhone!)
That effort must have been a beacon. Because not long after, I moved to London to study for a half-year. My twin sister was also in London studying for the year; after going to universities 300 miles apart, we were together again for a few months. By coincidence, both of us happened across news that the Backstreet Boys were playing in London. It turns out we realised this at the same time, because when I text-messaged her about an amazing discovery, she knew exactly what I was going to say. We bought tickets five minutes later.
So there we were on concert day, two 20-year-olds united with the band that had stolen our hearts ten years earlier. And by the looks of everyone else at the O2, ours was a common story.
The Boys really outdid themselves in the concert - they were almost all safely in their 30s, but they danced the entire evening. We were treated to some forgettable songs from Unbreakable, their latest album at the time, and each played a solo act as well - Nick surprised us by actually being able to play an instrument (the drums), Brian serenaded with a soupy God-tinged love ballad, and AJ and Howie each sang mediocre ‘hot new singles’. But forget about that stuff. They didn’t let us down as they powered through their greatest hits - Backstreet’s Back (quite the relevant concert starter, I must say), Larger Than Life, The Call, Incomplete, I’ll Never Break Your Heart, I Want It That Way, and of course, Quit Playing Games.
Ever since I made that song my ringtone six years ago, I can’t hear it without reaching for my phone. But at that concert, all thoughts of the here and now flew out of the window - it was just me and the Boys, once more.