In the spring of 1999, I was in the exact target demographic for the Backstreet Boys: 15 years old, female, and very susceptible to intense celebrity crushes. At the time, the group—made up of AJ McLean, Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, and Nick Carter—was everywhere. Their second U.S. release, Millennium, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, set a number of records, including becoming the best-selling album of 1999. These accolades merely confirmed what I already knew on a visceral, spiritual, and hormonal level: that the Backstreet Boys were the greatest boy band ever (again, I was 15). I was, in every sense of the word, a committed fan. I played their music on repeat, I screamed at their concerts, and I had torn-out magazine photos taped to my bedroom wall.
After my homework was done, I’d spend hours in a spare bedroom of my family’s home in Tacoma, Washington, consuming as much Backstreet Boys–related content as possible. Using our dial-up connection, I scoured the internet for pixelated photo collections compiled and posted by fellow fans on unsophisticated websites. If memory serves, there was a lot of Comic Sans font on backgrounds of bright pink, neon green, and electric blue. Many of the same press images were copied and pasted over declarations of love, punctuated with rows of exclamation points. Some fans created more serious websites that featured reviews and analyses of songs, videos, and concert set lists, as well as news about the boys and everyone in their orbit.
Both on- and offline, I paid so much attention to the Backstreet Boys that I picked up on the key concepts that were being sold to me: Nick, Howie, Kevin, AJ, and Brian were dreamy, they were heartthrobs, and they would never break my heart. The choreographed routines, precise harmonies, pelvic thrusts, and posed photos (why so much squatting?) were all designed in service of this message. This recognition—that as a young fan, I was meant to merely be a cog in their celebrity machine—was surprisingly empowering. I felt as though I had discovered a secret, which in turn gave me the confidence to start engaging with the ideas and messages that the group presented.
One of my friends, Julianna, felt similarly. The two of us had met at a birthday party and bonded over our enthusiasm for the Backstreet Boys. We saw AJ as the tattooed bad boy who humped the floor in concert; Nick as the adorably handsome baby of the group who misused words in interviews; Brian as the jokester with a jaw sharper than AJ’s spiked hair; Kevin as the sullen big brother and oldest member; and Howie as the wide-eyed earnest one, who delivered lines such as “My name is Howie D. Howie doin’?” with a serious expression and a dapper wink.
Together, Julianna and I ventured into a small subset of the online fan community that, in addition to broadcasting adoration, wrote original jokes and commentary about the packaged persona each member embodied.
We launched our BSB humor site on January 1, 2000. I was 16 by then, and she was 17. We gave our project the name “Tight Like Cheese,” a reference to some of the bonus content available on the Backstreet Boys’ self-titled, first U.S. album.
By creating the site, Julianna and I immediately became part of something. To me, this period of time felt like the Wild West era of the internet. I, a teen girl, could saunter into a chat room (the online equivalent of a saloon) and announce my presence by slapping my hand on the bar (or by putting some HTML code into a file). I could declare that I belonged, and then, I … just did.
Within weeks of the launch, Julianna and I found our site endorsed and promoted by fellow fans all over the world. We weren’t the first BSB humor site, or the biggest (names such as Whodaman and Da Phat Farm will ring bells to others), but the trajectory we experienced was still remarkable. This was years before Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter made it easy to share and signal-boost favorite sites. Yet in the eight or so months that we were operational, Tight Like Cheese saw tens of thousands of visitors, and the guestbook held, to our shock, hundreds of comments. We were shaping the Backstreet Boys online space with the help of a whisper network of squealing fangirls.
The humor on Tight Like Cheese was, we thought, edgy—so edgy that Julianna and I wrote under nicknames (“Dees” and “Juje,” which rhymes with luge) and never revealed our true identities. I suspect that many people who knew us in real life during this time still don’t know about the site (or maybe they do now—surprise, high-school friends!). I have a limited number of screenshots thanks to internet archives and the Wayback Machine, and some of the jokes we made embarrass me now that I look back with adult sensibilities and a modern perspective. Not everything funny to a 16-year-old boy-band superfan stands the test of time.
That said, there are also many sections of the site of which I’m proud. They show more self-assuredness and imagination than I remember actually feeling as a teenager. We had no official ties to the BSB or anyone involved with them, yet we felt that, as self-aware and critically minded fans, we deserved to peek behind the curtain and see how everything came together. Since that was logistically impossible for two teens in the Pacific Northwest, Julianna and I turned to writing fiction. We speculated about the motivations, expectations, and feelings of the group members, none of whom we knew beyond what we could glean from their polished interview answers. After news about their former manager Lou Pearlman’s mistreatment of the group emerged (details continue to be revealed today), we wrote a mock advice column that satirized the grueling process the group had endured:
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I now work as a writer publishing on the internet—though, to my knowledge, nothing I’ve produced has come close to garnering the same kind of enthusiastic response as Tight Like Cheese, or inspired even a fraction of the feedback.
The final entries in the site’s guestbook, while still mostly positive, are from visitors chastising me and Julianna for the lack of updates. After all, the whims and lives of teenagers are quick to change. Less than a year after launching the site, I had high-school graduation and college applications and sorority rush to think about. The momentum of the band’s fame, and the pace of our lives, changed just enough that we were no longer quite aligned. This particular phase of the Backstreet Boys’ fame, the Millennium era, waned, and their next album, Black & Blue, came out in November 2000, marking a shift in tone and status for the group.
In the past 19 years, the Backstreet Boys have released five more albums, and a number of details about their rise to fame and their subsequent lives have come out. The truth bears little resemblance to the glossy images that the group’s press team circulated via album covers and music videos, in which the members wore spotless, all-white outfits—a not-so-subtle nod to purity and innocence. While Tight Like Cheese’s brand of humor stemmed from our knowledge that the Backstreet Boys weren’t as perfect as they appeared, Julianna and I never came close to predicting some of the actual stories that later surfaced.
Richardson left the group in 2006, before returning in 2012. McLean has talked openly about battling addiction. In 2017, Carter was publicly accused of committing rape in 2003. (Carter denied the accusation, and the case was declined because the statute of limitations had passed). Reading these sorts of headlines as an adult always gives me pause, as though I’m bracing myself to experience how I might have felt seeing them as an obsessed teenager. If I still held these men on a pedestal, I might have felt personally let down or even shattered by such revelations. Mostly, though, I’m reminded that I didn’t know them at all, despite the time and energy I spent pretending otherwise.
The Backstreet Boys did, however, play a crucial role in one of my most important real-life relationships. Julianna, who is now an accountant, has been one of my closest friends for more than two decades now. In 2011, she flew 1,200 miles to visit me in California, where my husband and I were living while he attended grad school. During her stay, the two of us went to see the New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys perform at the Honda Center in Anaheim. Julianna was seven months pregnant at the time, so when a ripple in the crowd told us that a Backstreet Boy was coming down a nearby aisle during one of the songs, she held back but encouraged me to join the throngs of other women trying to get closer.
I did just that, pushing forward and melting into the crowd while stretching my arms as far as they would go, channeling the 15-year-old fan I once was. The group member, whom I had only a few moments to see, since bodyguards were moving him back toward the stage, turned out to be Nick Carter. This was several years before the allegation against him came out, which is why my gut reaction wasn’t as complicated then as it would be now. At the time, I felt the way I did at my first Backstreet Boys concert, in 1998, when I threw a stuffed animal onto the stage and watched with delight as Brian Littrell picked it up and examined it. Never mind that Littrell, a 20-something man, had no use for the small panda bear I had lobbed at him. Both that moment, and the one I experienced at the 2011 concert, offered the intoxicating illusion of proximity.
The following day, I posted to Facebook:
Could I have done more productive things as a teenager? Sure. But should I have? I don’t think so. The time I spent on a seemingly frivolous project dedicated to bubblegum-pop performers was pivotal to discovering my voice and to understanding internet culture. I can’t say it better than Nick, Howie, AJ, Kevin, and Brian do on their single “Shape of My Heart,” when they sing, “Looking back on the things I’ve done / I was trying to be someone.”