Why Backstreet Boys' ACM Awards Performance With Florida Georgia Line Was Such a Home Run

Michael Tran/FilmMagic
Backstreet Boys arrive at the 52nd Academy of Country Music Awards held at T-Mobile Arena on April 2, 2017 in Las Vegas. 

When ACM Awards co-hosts Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley introduced the Backstreet Boys on Sunday night (Apr. 2) in unison with a clumsy "Backstreet's back, all right!," those watching could've had no idea just how right they were.

The boy-to-man band was billed as coming to the stage simply to support superstar country duo Florida Georgia Line, whose latest single "God, Your Mama and Me" features the quintet. And so they did, in a performance that sounded great, and felt like a nice moment of unity across different musical generations. But then, the clarion call instantly familiar to anyone between the ages of 5 and 25 in 1998: "EVERYBODY... yeahhhh-ahhhh..."

From there, it was absolute pandemonium at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The group took over the entire building with the classic single and its iconic accompanying choreography -- pulling off both with impressive vitality -- electrifying not only their own fans, but FGL fans who never anticipated getting to hear the duo demand to know "Am I SEXUAL?" in such a setting. Even Tim McGraw, not traditionally the most easily inflamed of country stars, was turned into a gawking 12-year-old TRL viewer, pointing at the stage in open-mouthed astonishment.

Why did it work so well? Well, it helped that BSB were basically on their new home turf, in the midst of their celebratory Larger Than Life residency at the AXIS at Planet Hollywood in Vegas. They're a lean, mean, oldies-killing machine at this point, and their ACM Awards performance was just about the best commercial for their crowd-pleasing throwback act imaginable. 

The timing was also fairly perfect from a historical perspective: The U.S. release of Backstreet's self-titled debut album turns 20 in August, and the group is now two whole generations removed from the pop forefront -- meaning the conversation around them has turned from "lol remember the Backstreet Boys" to "Man, those Backstreet Boys really had some great pop songs, didn't they?" Any statute of limitations on BSB re-appreciation has long since passed, and no matter how sick you got of the group by the turn of the millennium, you can appreciate them now as one of the bedrock pop acts of that era, with songs that have held up pretty well two decades later.

But mainly, the performance connected because it felt so unexpected, and yet totally logical. The obvious criticism of BSB's performance is to point out that it had no rightful place at the Academy of Country Music Awards, with the group sharing no clear musical or cultural overlap with the country world. But that's the thing about pop music: It overlaps with everything. The first Backstreet album sold 14 million copies in the U.S.; undoubtedly, a good number of those purchasers were in the Vegas audience last night, grown-ass country musicians and execs that nonetheless remember a time when they were too young to care about genre and imitated the "Everybody" dance moves in their mirrors along with the rest of preteen America. Hell, take FGL themselves -- it was hardly surprising to see BSB pop up on one of their singles, since as Millennials from Orlando, they probably recited the lyrics to "I Want it That Way" as their national anthem growing up.

There's something to be said for the totally-outside-the-realm performance at a genre-specific awards show: It reminds us that music is never really as tribal as it sometimes seems, and that the only real walls between musical styles are the ones we insist on placing ourselves. The ACM Awards could've given "Everybody" just a chorus to get people hyped and left it at that, but they let Backstreet Boys and Florida Georgia Line play through the entire thing, because they knew that the performance would be the one people were still buzzing about the morning after. Backstreet was back, all right, and for four glorious minutes of shared national nostalgia, it was like they'd never stopped being the most ubiquitous act in popular music.

Academy of Country Music Awards2018