I had three options when the young woman working at the hotel front desk asked me what had brought me to Las Vegas – lie, mumble a vague explanation that I was in town for work, or truthfully tell her that I was here to cover the opening night of the Backstreet Boys’ residency at Planet Hollywood and was fully prepared for a possibly religious musical experience.
I went with the latter, without the last part.
She smiled broadly.
“I knew their lyrics even before I knew English,” she said. “I really didn’t know what they were saying, but I loved them.”
My own appreciation for the Backstreet Boys started 18 years ago – when I was 11.
Compared to some other fans, I was a little late to the party. By the time I watched their performance at the 1998 VMAs, they’d already broken out in the United States.
After that night, they added one more mega fan to their ranks.
I wallpapered my bedroom with their faces, revolved my life around watching and recording (on VHS!) their TV performances, scoured eBay for memorabilia from all corners of the globe, and volunteered my services at my parents’ restaurant so I could earn tips to fund my obsession. (Teen magazines are deceptively pricey.)
What became a next-level obsession was also a welcomed distraction from the crippling shyness that dominated my pre-teen and teen years. At school, I dreaded nothing more than being asked a question in class, and struggled with anxiety every morning, sometimes to the point of tears. Separated from my best (and only) friend by opposite class schedules, I managed to find a small group of girls who shared my passion for BSB.
If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had anyone to speak to in middle school.
As I grew up, so did my musical tastes. But I’ve always had – and always will have – a soft spot for the Backstreet Boys. Whenever I cross paths with one of their songs while at the grocery store or driving, it’s like seeing an ex with whom you ended on good terms. It’s familiar and quite lovely.
Weeks before their Vegas debut, I created a playlist of my favorite songs to pregame. It had probably been a year since my last deep dive into Backstreet Boys’ musical past. What never ceases to surprise me is the little jolt of emotions I feel in those first chords of my favorite songs.
The opening moments of “Shape of Heart” take me back to 2001, when my now late father took me four hours north of my Texas hometown to San Antonio to watch BSB on the “Black and Blue” tour a few weeks after my birthday. The image of him holding my concert swag in his arms while awkwardly bobbing his head in attempt to show enthusiasm for my sake is forever burned in my head.
“The One” reminds me of when I begged the manager at the local Burger King to give me the Backstreet Boys banner that was flying outside of the restaurant when the band were spokespeople. (He gave it to me.)
“More than That” reminds me of when I cried for two days after A.J. went to rehab. Teenage drama at its finest.
On Wednesday night, as the band took the stage at the Axis theater at Planet Hollywood, I wondered who else around me had similar musical memories. How many others in the crowd would hear a song that night that transported them to another time in their lives, good and bad?
The Backstreet Boys performed a 20-song set for nearly two hours, comprised of early hits like “We’ve Got it Goin’ On” to their popular fare, like “I Want it That Way” and “Quit Playin’ Games.” They even busted out their old-school chair choreography for “As Long as You Love Me.”
Missing was most of their newer music. While songs from 2013’s “In a World Like This” were represented in video packages, none were performed. But the show is really meant to reach a wider audience – as one would expect from any artist trying to appeal to Vegas show patrons.
In his speech to the crowd, Brian Littrell reminded the audience that the Backstreet Boys are going 24 years strong, and asked if the crowd would support the idea of “another 24.”
“We might just have to be like, ‘Backstreet’s old, okay!’” he joked, putting a lyrical twist to the tune of “Everybody.”
Did it make me feel old? Absolutely. But I also felt thankful.
I’m thankful that the band didn’t go the way of N’Sync. Thankful for years of music that got me through some rough patches. And thankful that I still experience youthful joy when I hear the lyric “Backstreet’s back” – even though for so many fans, like myself, they’ve never really gone anywhere.
Instagram reporting by CNN’s Melissah Yang. This story was originally published in March.