Tag Archives: bubblegum pop

How The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” Became Less Romantic Over Time

Some love songs are just assumed to be romantic, regardless of what the lyrics say or how the song was inspired. You hear it on the radio. You see the music video. Like a reflex, you think love. It might be the cheesiest kind of romance there is, but it’s still romance none-the-less.

It has its place in pop music. I certainly appreciate music like that to some degree, but it only works if you don’t think too hard about it. To really enjoy it, you just have to turn off your brain and let it feel like it’s in a bad romantic comedy. This was, to a large degree, a part of what made boy bands so popular in the late 90s and early 2000s.

I remember that era. I was still young at the time. I heard all those cheesy love songs and the fanatical girls who squealed with incoherent joy whenever they heard them. I wasn’t a big fan, but I didn’t hate boy bands. I see their music like overly processed cheese. It’s good, but you can taste how bland and superficial it is.

To me, the absolute apex of the boy band era came with the Backstreet Boys and their sappy super-hit, “I want it that way.” It’s hard to overstate how big this song was in 1999. You could turn on any radio, find a random station, and hear it at some point. It was played on a loop at proms and middle school dances. I imagine more than one teenager lost their virginity because of this song.

It is, by far, the quintessential boy band song. It’s cute hot guys singing about love. You can’t get much more basic than that. Just listen to the music video that MTV played at least once an hour from that era. Even if you weren’t alive during that era, the romantic undertones are overt.

All that said, I doubt anyone who was alive in the late 90s or ever really scrutinized the lyrics. Even though the pace of the song is slow and every word is understandable, I don’t think anyone takes the time to read them in their entirety. The tune and the backdrop is just so romantic that the ambiance overshadows the actual words, but when taken as a whole, those words undermine that romantic intent.

I started noticing this years after the boy band crazed die down. Being a romance lover, I have a tendency to scrutinize all things romantic more than most. I’ve already shared some of my favorite love songs and at one point, this song was on that list. However, over the years, as I’ve listened closer to the lyrics, the song just got less and less romantic.

For reference, here are the lyrics without the backdrop of an attractive boy band and a soothing overtone. Read it closely. Really think about what they’re saying.

Yeah
You are my fire
The one desire
Believe when I say
I want it that way
But we are two worlds apart
Can’t reach to your heart
When you say
That I want it that way
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake
Tell me why
I never want to hear you say
I want it that way
Am I, your fire?
Your one, desire
Yes I know, it’s too late
But I want it that way
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake
Tell me why,
I never want to hear you say
I want it that way
Now I can see that we’ve fallen apart
From the way that it used to be, yeah
No matter the distance
I want you to know
That deep down inside of me
You are my fire
The one desire
You are (you are, you are, you are)
Don’t want to hear you say
Ain’t nothin’…

Parts of it are romantic. I don’t doubt that. When taken in their totality, though, it walks a fine line between love and obsession. I won’t say that it echoes with the sentiments of a stalker or someone with a creepy obsession, but it does walk the line. I would argue it’s way too close to the line.

Those first few lines about someone being their one singular desire are sweet, but more than a little obsessive. Making someone your deep, loving desire is one thing. Making them your only desire is a little unhealthy.

Then, there are the parts about heartache, being apart, and drifting away. Those are concepts inherent in many great love songs, but it doesn’t quite work here. Again, look at that first line. It’s telling someone they don’t want to hear them say they want something a certain way. It sends the message that what someone else wants is wrong. That’s not really romantic. That’s an accusation of a thought crime.

Wanting someone to love you is one thing.

Wanting them to not want something is very different. It also has some disturbing implications.

The lyrics alone tell a story of two people drifting apart and separated by distance. One person wants it that way. The other person doesn’t. On top of that, the other person has a singular focus on the other and doesn’t want them to feel that way. Is that sentiment love? Is it even romantic?

You can twist the meaning through music and context. You can make the song about longing for someone over a distance, but it requires a hell of a stretch with the words. Anything that requires that much of a stretch shows just how lacking the romance is.

I’m not saying this song isn’t a great song. I think it is. It’s popularity and staying power is proof of that. As a love song, though, it’s one of those songs that gets less and less romantic the more you scrutinize it. For any song that’s supposed to convey a romantic sentiment, why would you ever want it that way?

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Filed under Marriage and Relationships, political correctness, romance, sexuality

Love Or Obsession: Pop Music First Edition

Any form of media can seem innocent if presented in a cheery, upbeat form. You could probably present tax law and traffic tickets in a positive light if you just used a combination of boy bands, catchy tunes, and bland lyrics ripped from a Hallmark greeting card.

It’s an odd quirk of human psychology. If music is upbeat and catchy enough, we tend not to care what the lyrics say or what the song implies. Musicians like Van Morrison and Bob Dylan built entire careers on this quirk. Nobody can say it’s wrong because it really works. You can’t complain too much about the flaws in our brain wiring when it works so damn well.

If, however, you can dig beyond to upbeat tone and catchy lyrics, which is a pretty big if in many cases, you may find the contents of these songs can be a bit off. There are near infinite amounts of songs flowing through the various channels of media. A good chunk of those songs involve love, sex, and the pursuit of both, sometimes to distressing degrees.

Now I admit I’ve patronized many of these songs. My smartphone is full of sappy love songs, sexy dance songs, and gangsta rap that glorifies the female ass as if it were a holy relic. I love music and I’ll even dance to it, although it usually takes a certain amount of alcohol consumption. I think many of us are guilty of that in some form, sober or otherwise, at some point in our lives.

However you feel about the kind of bubblegum pop music that has been making teenage girls scream and teenage boys horny for decades, there’s no denying its impact on pop culture. It’s a part of our society. It’s a part of our lives. Hell, some of us may have even been conceived with help from these songs so we shouldn’t take them lightly.

With that in mind, I’d like to conduct another one of my “Love or Obsession” exercising on a few pop songs. I’ve already done it with TV shows and literature. Music is the just the next logical progression. Given the sheer volumes of bland, bubblegum pop music in the world, this will only cover a few songs. I intend to do others down the line. This is just the first and if someone wants to suggest a song to assess, I’ll gladly listen.

For this post, consider this the first edition of this analysis. I’ll stick to pop songs for now, but I’ll definitely consider genres for future assessments.


Britney Spears: Hit Me Baby One More Time

Love or Obsession?
Obsession

Let’s face it. Catholic school girls in mini-skirts are sexy as hell. Britney Spears found this out the easy way around the turn of the millennium. Being young, beautiful, and willing to dress like a sexy Catholic school girl, which is very much a fantasy of a good chunk of the male population, was a good way to achieve success.

Perhaps it’s because of that sex appeal that nobody looked closely at the lyrics to the song she sang in her first hit, “Baby One More Time.” The song talks about loneliness, being blindsided by a breakup, and wanting to stay in a relationship that clearly has some issues.

Now sometimes you do stay in a relationship out of love, hoping to make it work. However, when wanting to requires that someone “hit you one more time,” it’s getting dangerously close to abuse. You don’t endure abuse unless you’re trapped or obsessed. Given the context of this song, I go with the latter.


Backstreet Boys: I Want It That Way

Love or Obsession?
Love

Alongside the rise of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys proved that basic sex appeal and catchy lyrics can sell a fuckton of records. These kids were on the top of the world in the late 90s. They sung cute, sappy love songs to get the hormones of teenage girls going and it worked. It worked very well.

One of their biggest hits, “I Want It That Way,” epitomized their appeal and was, by far, one of their biggest hits. Given the tone and structure of the song, it’s kind of hard to hide the lyrics. They’re a bit messy. If they were on a greeting card, it would be a very confusing greeting card.

However, at the core of the song, there’s the sentiment that someone doesn’t care about the flaws or shortcomings of a relationship. They don’t want to change it into something it’s not. They, aptly put, want it this way.

As sappy as it is, it’s actually pretty damn healthy in terms of love. Real love involves accepting both strengths and flaws in someone. This song nicely embodies that and is probably one of the healthiest love songs a teenage girl can listen to.


Aerosmith: I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing

Love or Obsession?
Obsession

This song was another big 90s hit that made Aerosmith relevant again. That alone is a hell of an accomplishment. It also accompanied a big Michael Bay movie of the time called, “Armageddon.” So between Aerosmith and Michael Bay, this song had a lot going for it.

Unfortunately, the sentiment in the song, despite Steven Tyler’s screaming, isn’t exactly very loving. It talks about just watching someone sleep and never seeing anything else when you close your eyes. The love he’s describing is literally something you can never not think about and not missing it seems like a live-or-death imperative.

This is the kind of song that Edward Cullen lives his life by. This is the kind of song that hopelessly-obsessed stalkers turn to when they want their obsession to seem like love. The implications are as distressing as they sound.


Rick Astley: Never Gonna Give You Up

Love or Obsession?
Obsession

Before it became an overplayed internet meme, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” was a big freakin’ deal in the 80s. It was very much a product of the polished, prepackaged pop music of the time. Take a handsome guy with a handsome face, make him sing lovey dovey lyrics, and set it to weird techno-enhanced beats and you got yourself a hit.

With this song, however, there isn’t much need for analysis. It’s in the very title of the song. Never giving someone up, never letting them down, and always being around describes a very unhealthy mindset for someone to have with a partner. It basically champions making someone else the entire center of your world. That’s sweet, but wholly unrealistic.

It’s still a catchy song and the fact it became an internet meme reveals its staying power. That said, it has the same problem as “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. Break down the lyrics and it’s not a love song. It’s more a stalker/obsession anthem and there’s nothing romantic about that.


Hootie And The Blowfish: Hold My Hand

Love or Obsession?
Love

Here’s a band people love to hate for lousy reasons. Hootie and the Blowfish were a simple, but effective band at a time when music was emerging from the grim and gritty grunge era. Their music was upbeat. Their lyrics were simple. They didn’t try to look too fancy or gritty. They dressed like regular guys and made music.

Naturally, it became cool to hate them. It also ignored the fact that they were one of the most successful bands of the mid-90s. Their first big hit, “Hold My Hand,” got things going. It was not a dark and gritty grunge song. It was a simple, upbeat love song. Break the lyrics down and that sentiment just become stronger.

It’s another one of those songs that presents an oddly healthy attitude towards love. It doesn’t send the impression that you have to make someone else the center of your world. It says in the chorus, “I want to love you the best that (the best that) I can.” Trying to achieve an ideal is unrealistic and foolish. Trying the best you can is the most anyone can ask for, even in love.


Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell: Ain’t No Mountain High Enough

Love or Obsession?
Love (Mostly)

Here’s a classic from the late 60s and early 70s, a time when soul music and R&B began growing in popularity. It was also the pre-disco era so there weren’t any bell-bottoms or aphros. It was a better time is what I’m saying.

This song, which has been remixed and remade multiple times, has an upbeat tone and many unique rhythmic mantras. It’s pretty complex piece of music. As such, the lyrics are hard to judge. On one hand, they talk about there being no force on this world to keep someone from getting to you. That does sound a bit obsessive.

However, the context of this song, as well as the sentiment of the other lyrics, keep it from getting into that dark territory that “Every Breath You Take” fell into. As a whole, the song speaks more about keeping promises and being there for someone you love. That’s a good kind of love, even if the verbiage can be misconstrued.


The Beatles: I Want To Hold Your Hand

Love or Obsession?
Love

This is as simple and innocent a song from one of the biggest bands in the history of pop culture. Love songs and the Beatles are like peanut butter and jelly. They just go together so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Can anyone honestly imagine the Beatles doing a Taylor Swift style breakup song?

With one of their earliest hits, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” the sentiment is simple. They don’t talk about wanting to watch you sleep, focusing every waking thought on you, or never being able to escape your love. They just talk about holding hands and sharing a simple kind of intimacy.

Being a hugger myself, it’s a sentiment I can appreciate. Holding hands is as innocent a gesture as it comes when showing love. It’s a far cry from never wanting to give someone up or watching them with every breath they take. For that, the Beatles deserve props for championing healthy love.

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