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The Story Behind the Song "I Want It That Way" by Backstreet Boys

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

The Story Behind the Song "I Want It That Way" by Backstreet Boys

The Story Behind the Song "I Want It That Way" by Backstreet Boys

I heard this adorable song on the radio and thought, Gee, I haven't heard this in years. When the song finished, the DJ came on and said he had put the song on in honor of its 20th birthday (it was released April 12, 1999). Twenty years? How could it be that this song is 20?

This song is pure ear candy, the sort that has you right from the first time you hear it. Who cares if the lyrics don't make sense?

You are my fire

The one desire

Believe when I say

I want it that way...

— Backstreet Boys

Who Are the Backstreet Boys?

Though they hardly need an introduction, here is a brief history in case you missed them.

The Backstreet Boys, or BSB as they are affectionately known, were formed after (since-convicted fraudster) Louis Jay Pearlman ran an ad in the Orlando paper looking for young performers interested in forming a singing group. AJ McLean was the first to audition for Pearlman, and officially became the group's first member. Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson were then selected by Pearlman from hundreds of young men who turned up to audition during an open call. The final member, Richardson's cousin Brian Littrell, flew in from Kentucky, auditioned, and became the final member selected.

The group started out singing anywhere they could, from shopping malls to charity events. In February 1994, while performing at a high school in Cleveland, they were spotted by two fellows from Zomba/JIVE records, and were signed to a deal. In June 1995, the guys flew to Sweden to record some tracks for two Swedish producers/songwriters, Dennis Pop and Max Martin. One of the tracks they cut was "We've Got It Goin' On," which became their first single.

Success swiftly followed, particularly in Europe. The group's self-titled first album was released in Europe on May 6, 1996, and went platinum in Germany. By this point, the guys were an international phenomenon. Their second LP, "Backstreets Back" was released internationally (except the US) in August 1997. Their first US album, also self-titled, wasn't released until August 1997, and contained material from their two International albums.

Third time lucky? The third album released by the band, Millennium, was a chart-topper just about everywhere. It was this album that spun off the single "I Want It That Way." The album entered the Billboard Top 200 Album chart in the number one spot, and sold more than one million copies in the week following its release.

Who Wrote "I Want It That Way?"

Max Martin, the Swedish singer, songwriter and producer, was the one who first came up with the idea for the song. Martin lived in the same building in Stockholm as songwriter Andreas Carlsson, and the two would sometimes collaborate on songs. They struggled mightily to come up with a second verse, and then realized that simply turning it around to ask the question "Am I your fire?" was the way to go. The BSB loved the tune when they heard it, but the record execs didn't like the lyrics, said they didn't make sense, and asked Carlsson and Martin to rework the song. In the end, the new lyrics made more sense, but when BSB re-recorded the song, they really didn't like it at all, and insisted that they go back to the original lyrics. It turned out to be the right decision.

In 2000, "I Want It That Way" and the LP Millennium were nominated for Grammy awards for song of the year and record of the year respectively, losing out to Santana on both counts.

"I Want It That Way"

Brooklyn Nine-Nine Sends It Up Brilliantly

Since its release, "I Want It That Way," has been covered, pilloried and parodied. One of the very best and funniest of these parodies was in Season Five, episode 17 of the police sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

In the clip below, the show's Detective Jake Peralta asks a witness if she recognizes any of the men in the lineup. When she explains that she was hiding when the crime took place, but that she overheard the killer singing "I Want It That Way," Peralta has the confused suspects break into song, resulting in a hilarious singalong.

Definitely worth watching again.

Five Musical Facts About Backstreet Boys

  1. The boys took their name from an outdoor flea market in Orlando.
  2. Their anniversary date is April 20th, because that is the date that Brian Littrell joined the group, solidifying the lineup.
  3. Lou Pearlman held the open audition for the band in a blimp hangar in Kissimmee, Florida.
  4. The song "I Want It That Way" reached the number one spot in more than 25 countries.
  5. The song won the MTV Music Video Awards "Viewer's Choice" award in 1999.

© 2019 Kaili Bisson


Dianna Mendez on April 27, 2019:

I never really listened to these musicians but I know plenty of younger people who were avid fans. Thanks for the history lesson, very interesting.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 25, 2019:

Hi Pamela,

You're welcome! They have sure had some catchy tunes. This one is my favorite among their hits.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 25, 2019:

Hi Flourish,

Wasn't Pearlman a piece of work? That story would be an article all by itself, so I didn't add details about him. He took financial advantage of these young men, and they were forced to file lawsuits against him. He also had other shady dealings and ran a huge ponzi scheme...ugh.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 25, 2019:

I didn't know the history of this group, but I always like their music. Thanks for giving us so much good information Kalli.

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 24, 2019:

It’s interesting to hear some of their history. I wonder whether being a “manufactured” rather than organically formed band had any impact on strength of band relationships and success. Coincidentally I was also reading about Lou Pearlman the other day. I was surprised but not saddened to hear he died in federal custody in 2016. Greedy gross guy.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 24, 2019:

Hi John,

You are so welcome! I couldn't get this song out of my head after hearing it on the radio...the way most of my articles get their start! :-)

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on April 24, 2019:

Thank you for sharing this Kaili. It’s great to know the history of this hit song and the band. I saw a video of a recent song by the group “No Place” and it had me boppin.