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The Backstreet Boys Were Better Than ’NSync (and Every Other Artist in 1999)

Presenting an undeniable case for the importance of ‘Millennium’ and the Backstreetiness of AJ; also, how BSB would win a head-to-head matchup against their main boy-band rivals

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to 1999 Music Week, a celebration of one of the most interesting, vivid, varied music years ever. Join us as we count down the best singles and albums of the year, remember the days of scrubs and the girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch, and argue about which albums stood above the rest.


If the point of this column is to determine whether or not Millennium, the gigantic third album from the Backstreet Boys, was important (or is important), that can be done very easily, and with only two words: It was.

Who could possibly deny that it was?

Not me.

Not you.

Not anyone.

You can say many other things, sure.

You can say you think Millennium was bad. That’s fine. (Wrong, but fine.) You can say that that particular period of record-label glut, of which Millennium was a clear example, felt like being force-fed copper in your mouth. That’s fine. (It’s also weird. And probably a lie. Nobody really says things like that. Unless you’re someone who’s felt compelled to watch Reality Bites more than three times, in which case you exclusively say things like that.) You can say that, even all these years later, the Rolling Stone cover where they all had their pants around their ankles that came out during the victory lap celebrating Millennium’s success still feels a tiny bit weird. (True. It was like they were saying, “We just conquered everything. So check out our dicks. But not our actual dicks. More like the idea of our dicks.”)

But you cannot say that Millennium was not important.

A Numerical Case

Here are some Millennium stats:

  • It sold 1.13 million copies in its first week. That’s a lot of fucking copies. So many, in fact, that it became, in that moment, the fastest-selling album ever of the SoundScan era.
  • It sold nearly 500,000 copies in its first day in America alone. Also a record.
  • It was no. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart for 10 weeks. It was 10 nonconsecutive weeks. I’m not sure if the weeks being nonconsecutive makes it more impressive or less impressive, but the difference between those two things is marginal at best so it probably doesn’t even matter.
  • It was on the Billboard Top 200 chart for 93 weeks. (This doesn’t have anything to do with the Backstreet Boys, but it’s just a cool thing: Do you know the album that’s had the longest run on the Billboard Top 200 chart? It’s Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s been on there for, cumulatively, 943 weeks and counting. That’s over 18 years. That’s unbelievable.) (I’ll bet there was a conversation that happened where someone told the Backstreet Boys that Millennium had been on the Billboard Top 200 chart for 93 weeks and one of the Boys—probably AJ; he’s always seemed the most cocky—was like, “How many more weeks until we have the longest streak ever? That’s what we’re going for!” Then someone else was like, “Eh, you got a way.” And he was like, “What’s that mean? Give me a number.” And the someone else was like, “ ... 845 more weeks.” And then he was like, “Oh. … Well what’s the number to get to second place?”)
  • It sold more copies than every other album in 1999. In descending order, the 10 artists behind the Backstreet Boys in album sales that year were: Britney Spears, Shania Twain, ’NSync, Ricky Martin, Garth Brooks, the Offspring, Dixie Chicks, Limp Bizkit, TLC, and Lauryn Hill.
  • It is, through today, the fifth-best-selling album in America during the SoundScan era. SoundScan has it at 12,250,000 copies sold. The only four albums ahead of it: Metallica, Metallica (2001, 16 million copies), Come on Over, Shania Twain (1997, 15.5M), Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette (1995, 14.9M), and 1, the Beatles (2000, 12.4M).

The number of copies an album sells doesn’t tell an entire story, but after a certain number is reached, it kind of does. Millennium is, if nothing else, an unquestionable tentpole of pop culture. That’s why it’s important.

A Quick Aside About AJ, the Best Backstreet Boy, and Also My Favorite

AJ McLean, who played the rebel in the group, was the best Backstreet Boy. He could sing really well (Brian was always the best, but AJ was no. 2 on the list); he was the best dancer of everyone; style-wise, he was the most audacious (remember when he wore a crop top at the 1999 VMAs?); and he had, to put a term on it, the most Backstreetiness, which is something that is somehow both extremely vague and extremely specific at the same time. (Probably the best way to explain Backstreetiness is: He’s the guy in the group that you just can’t replace. All of them are important, yes, of course, absolutely. But AJ is beyond just being important. AJ’s the one where, if he said, “Nah. No. I’m not doing the reunion show,” the reunion show just wouldn’t get done.) [Editor’s note: Not Nick Carter??? Or even Brian?? Pshaw.]

AJ is also, as it turns out, the one I always felt the most connected to, and the one I’ve always cared about the most. But it’s not because I’ve ever been considered the best or most essential part of any group I’ve ever been a part of, professional or otherwise. That has certainly never happened. It’s because, quite simply, he has a big forehead. And I know that probably sounds dumb, or weird, or silly. But it’s the truth. Because I have a big forehead, too. And so I just always appreciated that he was so successful in his career while also having a big forehead. It’s the same reason I’ve always rooted for Christina Ricci, a forehead paragon of the highest order, alongside Tyra Banks, Rihanna, and Ryan O’Reily from Oz.

An Even Quicker Aside, This One Being a Vicious Bit of Poetry

Millennium very much operated as a timestamp for 1999, and for the record industry at large. Which is why it’s so intriguing that the day after it was announced that Millennium had sold 1.13 million copies in its first week, Napster, the file-sharing program that forever changed the way music would be purchased, was uploaded to the internet for the first time. (Here’s a whole story about the way it happened.) (And here’s a whole story about the music industry in general at that time, and the position the Backstreet Boys held within it.)

A Final Aside, This One Being About the ’NSync vs. Backstreet Boys Debate, Because You Can’t Talk About One Without the Other, Even Though There Possibly Isn’t Even a Debate Anymore

The Backstreet Boys were better than ’NSync, and more important than ’NSync.

’NSync has the single most undeniable member of them all (Justin Timberlake), but, when you do the top-to-bottom average, the Backstreet Boys win out. They’re just more solid. It’s very much a 2004 Detroit Pistons situation. There’s no bad spot on their roster. Even their version of The Ordinary One (Howie) is a powerhouse. He’s cool. He’s handsome. He’s charming. He had a period when he looked like Antonio Banderas in Desperado. Those are all check marks. Really, the only weird thing about him is his name is Howie, which sounds less like a boy-band member and more like a cartoon duck or something.

Compare him to ’NSync’s version of The Ordinary One (Chris Kirkpatrick) and it’s a blowout. Same with The Oddly Old-Looking One (Kevin, who is a stud, versus Joey Fatone, who is fun and likable but certainly not a Kevin), and The Kind One (Brian vs. Lance). AJ loses to Timberlake (for the record, I much prefer AJ, though I suspect that’s obvious by now), and Nick vs. J.C. Chasez is a push. That means, person-wise, the score is 3-1-1, in favor of Backstreet. Add into that how Backstreet’s best album (Millennium) is better than ’NSync’s best album (No Strings Attached) and also how Backstreet’s best song (“I Want It That Way”) is not only better than ’NSync’s best song (“Bye Bye Bye”), but also the defining song of that particular moment in pop, and I say again: The Backstreet Boys were better than ’NSync, and more important than ’NSync.