What the Backstreet Boys Cruise Taught Me About Sex, Love, and Nostalgia
I approach this reality with a mix of shame, excitement, and anthropological interest.
It was a hot Friday morning when two strangers and I pulled into the Port of Miami and waded into the crowd, our hearts racing. Hundreds of people dressed in island gear milled outside a hulking Carnival cruise ship. Some held elaborate craft projects painted with glitter. Others wore bright pink t-shirts that read: "Oh my god, we're back again." Almost all of them were women.
I quickly scanned the area in search of male figures that I recognized, but found only a smattering of nondescript boyfriends and husbands—of course they wouldn’t be here yet. My companions and I sidestepped the line of women stretching out from the ship and swept through the VIP check-in. We had paid extra for that.
I'm a 24-year-old woman living in Brooklyn. I graduated from Columbia University, where I studied anthropology and the politics of the Middle East. I enjoy visiting art galleries and listening to NPR. I have also spent $3,000 on Backstreet Boys-related experiences this year. Now I was preparing to board a three-day, four-figure cruise to the Bahamas with A.J., Brian, Howie, Nick, and 1,400 of their closest fans.
I know how that sounds. Let me first say that I have not invested this degree of time, money, or personal reputation on a boy band since I ran my own BSB email newsletter and fan site in the sixth grade. (My Geocities page, “Backstreet Pride Alive,” can still be accessed in some dark, mortifying recess of the internet). But this year, Backstreet was back thanks to a highly-publicized nostalgia tour with New Kids on the Block—and suddenly, I had the disposable income to explore my options. I bought myself a $500 fan club VIP package for the tour as a birthday gift, complete with a photo opportunity with the boys. I handed Nick Carter a letter congratulating him for turning his life around. He squeezed my left arm and whispered that it was ok for me to still think of him as my favorite. From there, I was riding a Backstreet-related high that could not be satisfied with repeat plays of "This is Us."
I approach this reality with a mix of shame, excitement, and anthropological interest. By most accounts, I’m a grown woman. But my continued obsession with a group of aging teen idols perplexes everyone around me. My friends view my fandom as a weird quirk. My family thinks I should spend time on more virtuous pursuits, like religion. I wrestle with my motives, too. But while other guys come and go, the Backstreet Boys have remained the most consistent men in my life. And the female fan community has grown into an unexpected support network, sisters in an underground Backstreet cult who reinforce my interest. I could not imagine abandoning them now.
When I learned of the opportunity to spend three days at sea with the boys and their fans earlier this year, I spent the next five months preparing—taking on freelance work to save for my ticket, assembling outfits, and conferencing with strangers online about what to expect.
There are more of us than you think. I am armed with statistics that prove my obsession isn’t so strange—did you know that the BSB regularly sell out 20,000-seat arenas (in Asia)? On Backstreet Boys message boards, we come together to dissect recent Tweets from the guys and share every image and video snippet we can find of them. Some of us write fan fiction ranging from sweet romance to guy-on-guy slash fantasy. I usually take to the boards to overanalyze the guys’ careers. “Kevin returning isn’t going to be a cure-all,” I wrote in a recent post, discussing the rumored upcoming return of the fifth Backstreet Boy (he exited the group in 2006). “There are a lot of things they’ll have to figure out together beyond that, personally and professionally. I do hope he returns, though. I believe in their voices as a fivesome.”
When I started researching the cruise, I logged on to one of these message boards and connected with two sisters looking for a third roommate to join their cabin. We met for the first time in a Miami hotel the night before the departure date. While they were unfamiliar with some of the band’s more recent songs and the stories behind the guys’ significant others, they were deeply excited to be there. When we met, we hugged and jumped up and down. We bonded fast in the way that only society’s outcasts do: We had each spent three times the cost of a regular cruise for a chance to relive the way we once felt about a man when we were young and it wasn’t complicated.
I became a fan at age 11 almost by default. After all, the Backstreet Boys had been finely tuned to appeal to a girl on the cusp of puberty—the only personal preference I was expected to navigate at that age was “Nick or Justin.” (A thousand times Nick. For an extended period, the hair on Justin’s head recalled a pubic area. Let’s not ever forget that.) But growing up in a culturally conservative household, the Backstreet Boys took on an advanced meaning. Soon, they constituted both a creative and sexual outlet. That daily e-mail newsletter constituted my first foray into journalism. Carter did not appear in my first sex dream (that honor goes to Mark-Paul Gosselaar), but he was close.
When I was pulled back into BSB fandom later in life, I found that adult fans of the Backstreet Boys are some of the most sexually assertive, financially independent women I had ever met. Now out from under their parents’ roofs, these women won’t hesitate to log extra hours at work to pay for trips around the country, no matter what their boyfriends think. Some of them have even managed to convince the men in their life to tag along. And they aren’t afraid to express their sexual desires at concerts, in fan fiction, and on boats. At a BSB show I attended in New Jersey this past June, the video monitors flashed an image of a young woman with a sign that read, “I HAVE NO GAG REFLEX.” When I was done being horrified, I was impressed. In a time when women are still shamed for expressing themselves sexually, it’s easy to let your freak flag fly anonymously online, but where else do you see women publicly share impulses like that in real life?
The group’s music is perceived as pretty vanilla, but there have always been sexual undertones (one song on their second album features noises from Carter that I can only appropriately describe as cunnilingus sound effects). I didn’t always pick up on them when I was a kid. Now that their fans have grown up—most of the women on the cruise were in their 20s and 30s—the band is free to recode the Backstreet Boys experience to stoke those implications, and these women are encouraged to forge new, adult memories around their adolescent nostalgia.
The cruise’s activities were finely calibrated to straddle the line between naughty adulthood and virginal innocence. When I boarded, I found myself immersed in this manic sexual energy. The itinerary included suggestive theme parties pegged to BSB songs, like “The Perfect Fan Prom Night” (“Was your prom BLAH? Well that's sure going to change!”) and the “PDA Pajama Jam.” (“Intimate scenes fresh from my dreams... Who wants to pillow fight with us?”) In a game show activity, fans were pulled onstage to enter into compromising positions with the guys. The pajama party led to a game of Truth or Dare, which required Howie to pretend to have sex with a pillow (the screams were deafening). Later, Nick lay face down at the edge of the stage while a crowd of audience members administered a “massage.” At one point, I watched as at least a half-dozen women groped Carter’s ass.
As it turned out, my bout of sexual nostalgia had hit at an opportune time. In the beginning of their careers, under the watchful gaze of strict, money-hungry management, the Backstreet Boys were instructed to lie about their relationships so as to not risk their appeal among teen girls. By now, the boys are transparently taken (most of them are married), but their stars have faded to such a point that fans like me could get closer than ever—for a price. At the height of BSB’s popularity, I didn’t have the money (or the parental consent) to follow their every move. Now, I could pay a premium to get within groping distance.
Still, as my roommates and I slipped into our pajamas for the “PDA” party, it felt strange to make such an obvious bid at reliving the past. I rocked a biker chick costume with chains for '80s Night and squeezed into my high school homecoming dress for the BSB prom. When I rolled out of bed each morning on less than two hours of sleep, I took great pains to get my hair and makeup just right. I was dressing “for them,” even if I didn’t stand to receive more than a random glance or a brief handshake. It felt like seeing an unrequited crush after many years. But this time, he was contractually obligated to acknowledge my existence.
Much of the cruise was spent in pursuit of that acknowledgement. My friends and I logged hours attempting to locate the boys on the boat so we could have a “moment” with them to try and be remembered. We befriended bodyguards and monitored security detail as they scoped areas of the ship the guys were expected to walk through. Days before the cruise, I received an email indicating that I had been “selected to possibly sing Karaoke with the BSB.” Though the email emphasized that it was “not a guarantee of participation,” my palms began sweating instantly. I practiced singing my pre-chosen song (No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak”) a few times in front of the mirror. I wasn’t ultimately selected, but for five days, I reveled in the possibility of sharing a stage with them.
The ship’s itinerary was filled with opportunities to simply be around the Backstreet Boys as they engaged in typical cruise activities: Watching the Backstreet Boys play beach volleyball; watching the Backstreet Boys do the limbo; watching the Backstreet Boys play Twister. When Carter broke away from security detail for a moment and jumped into the water for a swim, dozens of women paddled after him, surrounding him like a school of sharks. Some positioned themselves for desperate self shots, holding their cameras up above the waves while he did his best to smile. Others attached their arms to his as he struggled to make his way to land. Post-cruise, they would upload YouTube videos with titles like “Nick Carter BSB Backstreet Boys Cruise... shirtless lotion volleyball Beach Party.”
I’m an open person, but I felt my jaw drop at least once a day on the cruise. I have never been around the group and their fans for such an extended period, and I dealt with the BSB overload by vacillating between participant and observer. One moment, I was impulsively raising my hand and screaming to volunteer for a wet t-shirt contest on the beach where the guys shot water guns at the participating girls. The next, I was feeling a little freaked out by the sound of my own voice. I knew that I had paid for the trip with supplemental income, but I was constantly evaluating every event to determine if the whole experience was “worth it.” The long waits were irritating, some of the fans were rude, and the food was terrible. Some of the emotions I was navigating were confusing (Was I demeaning myself, or was this just innocent, liberating fun?) I knew I’d be coming back next year, but I resolved to get a cheaper, non-VIP ticket this time.
Then, for a tiny fraction of a song in the last performance of the cruise, Nick held my hand, and everything changed. Yes, I had put myself in the same category as women who found it appropriate to attach themselves to their favorite celebrity and weigh him down in waist-high water. But their bizarre expression of our mutual obsession afforded me a certain opportunity. Instead of pushing past other women to get a hug, I resolved to play it cool. I wanted to say to the guys: “Relax, I’m one of the sane ones. Think of me as a friend who knows everything about your personal life and career movements. I could be your band consultant.” For me, appearing front, center, and calm was more important than an autograph. That’s why I had spent more money for a suite that guaranteed closer seats at all the shows.
Everyone deserves to have a healthy venue for exploring their fantasies, figuring out what they want, and chasing after it. For me, that’s the Backstreet Boys. I know I don’t have a real chance at getting within earshot of these men, much less under their sheets. But I had gotten as close as I could get—isn’t that worth something? When she’s not cruising, one fan told me that she pens BSB fan fiction to “live out some fun fantasy romance dream with a ton of drama and sex and whatever. By writing and thinking about what their life might be like, you can definitely feel like you’re closer to them.”
When you upload those thoughts to a message board, you get closer to other women, too. Maybe you feel a little less weird about how you feel. Carter may not have remembered my hand out of all the others he felt that night, but my cabinmates did. After he touched me, I recounted the experience back to them, stretching the fleeting moment as far as it could go. I’ve booked VIP tickets to two of his solo shows in February to make it last a little longer.