How 'Everybody (Backstreet's Back)' Director Joseph Kahn Pushed Racial Boundaries & Brought a Backstreet Boy to Tears

The Backstreet Boys photographed in 1997.
Bob Berg/Getty Images

The Backstreet Boys photographed in 1997.

Twenty years after the debut of one of the most iconic '90s music videos, Backstreet Boys' spooky visual for “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” director Joseph Kahn recalls the video's era as one of a relatively closed-minded music industry. 

“This was 1997 -- only five years after a race riot happened in Los Angeles and music was incredibly segregated,” the GRAMMY-winning director recalls, talking to Billboard at his L.A. office. “When I would do a rap video and cast six female dancers, they would go, ‘We should put one white girl in there.’ Or I would do gangster rap videos, and because those neighborhoods bordered Hispanics, they would go, ‘We should put at least two Hispanic people in here to acknowledge that.’ There were interesting racial dynamics I was dealing with."

But the Backstreet Boys, who were about to change the shape of late-'90s pop music, didn't necessarily fit an easy mold. "Suddenly I had five white guys, who were essentially dancing like R&B stars," Kahn says. “I went into the dance studio and was like, ‘Why am I thinking I should cast 30 white dancers?’”

After much contemplation, Kahn decided he shouldn’t let the social climate dictate the look of his video, taking inspiration from Michael Jackson’s work.

“His videos were so integrated. I went, ‘We need to multi-racially cast this: Kevin’s going to dance with a black girl and there’s going to be an Asian girl and Hispanic girl. I need to mix this up and make sure this is the world that I want to see on screen,’" he explains. "The beautiful thing was that I don’t think I ever discussed it with the Backstreet Boys. It was like they didn’t even think about it. Kevin danced away with a black girl and nobody blinked.”

“We’ve always tried to mix it up,” reflects Backstreet's AJ McLean. “On tour we try to cover all our bases, and if you look at the dancers in our Las Vegas residency show, we have Latino, black, white, Russian, European… we’re always trying to spread the love.”

But back in 1997, Kahn struggled to find diverse dancers who had the right moves, eventually recruiting ex-Fly Girls from In Living Color. "I remember going into the dance world, and even at that point, there weren’t that many white dancers around,” he recalls. “It’s wasn’t like today where everybody does hip-hop. It was also a rarity to see interracial dancing back then, but it was a specific choice I made to integrate that.”

The group also called in Antonio Fargas, a.k.a. “Huggie Bear” from the '70s buddy cop TV drama Starsky & Hutch, to play their bus driver. The end sequence, of Fargas scaring the band, has become one of the most memorable and GIF’d clips from the group’s video history -- even spawning recent merchandise like a car air freshener piece adorned with the group’s screaming faces.

“I found out they were interested in me playing this bus driver, and what surprised me was they were big fans of Starsky and Hutch and my career,” recalls Fargas, who now lives in Las Vegas and hopes to reunite with the group at their "Larger Than Life" residency show at Planet Hollywood. “When they found out they could get Huggie Bear in their video, they were thrilled. And I was glad to do it!”

While the six-minute video was a phenomenal success, Kahn admits he had no idea who the Backstreet Boys even were when Jive Records pitched him a project with a “white Jodeci.” Upon being mailed a cassette tape and publicity release about the quintet, the South Korean-born director was stunned by what he read.

“It had these sales figures of what they were doing in Europe and it was crazy," he recalls. "And they actually had a significant amount of money for a video -- which was very odd, because I had never heard of this band. I looked at these guys and went, ‘This is not a white Jodeci. These are five little Michael Jacksons!’ Then I listened to the song and realized it was essentially pop music, which really wasn’t happening at that time.”

With mainstream '90s music still centered on grunge and rap at that point, Kahn had mainly worked on hip-hop videos, but had long wanted to explore the pop genre, having grown up on '80s pop music. Stars aligned further, as the Backstreet Boys explained they wanted a haunted house theme for the video -- similar to a treatment Kahn had written for an Ice Cube video a few months earlier. The rapper “didn’t bite it,” but BSB did. “It obviously would have been a very different video if I’d done the Ice Cube version,” laughs Kahn.

Collaborating with each BSB member on the “Thriller”-influenced concept, the 44-year-old Torque director set out to match their personalities with each character in the video, which showed them spending the night in a creepy mansion after a tour bus breakdown.

“AJ’s very dark and dramatic, so Phantom of the Opera made sense for him. Brian’s the sporty guy. Kevin was the two-faced [Dr. Jekyll/ Mr. Hyde]. Howie, I thought had a vampire look. And Nick, I just remember thinking he would look good as a mummy.”

Carter certainly made a memorable mummy, popping out of a coffin singing the song's most memorable pre-chorus lyric -- “Am I sexual?” -- but the scene took its toll as the night wore on.

“I remember Nick almost crying because he had stayed up all night, and was up for 36 hours," Kahn says. "It was so stressful for him. I think I almost gave him a nervous breakdown with that mummy shot, because he was the last guy to be filmed and he was just being tortured… the poor guy! He was the youngest too, so it was a lot."

He continues, “The whole thing was this giant, stressful, immensely-dangerous shoot for me. Trying to do something on that scale, doing all the editing and everything myself, racing against time because they were on a flight the next morning, and trying to keep control of the money.”

And that was some serious money that Kahn had to keep control of. Backstreet's Howie Dorough says the group shelled out more than a $1 million for the elaborate shoot.

“It was definitely our most expensive video at the time -- we had never spent that kind of money,” he says. “It was over $1 million on the sets and everything, and a two-day shoot where Joseph didn’t even sleep. But it was amazing to see it all come together. You have a vision, but even with proper money you never know whether it’s going to come to life. And it did. It took on a life of its own. And it’s really cool to have people now claiming it to be iconic."

Kahn had little idea the video would not only blow up, but cement his place as a respected pop director, whose subsequent work with Taylor Swift, Eminem and Katy Perry has won him a handful of Grammys and MTV Video Music Awards.

“I was just trying to do something fun and make the pop video I’d always wanted to make," he says. "I love pop, and it just didn’t exist at that point -- so I guess this helped start the whole pop scene in America. It allowed me to help create a new pop scene and, through these videos, create my view of pop culture.”

Kahn, who was invited back to direct the group's later “Larger Than Life” and “Incomplete” clips, remains a proud BSB fan, playing poker with McLean, cheering them on from the audience during their epic Academy of Country Music Awards performance with Florida Georgia Line in April, and feeling a strong sense of pride whenever he hears people scream “Backstreet’s back!”

Having since worked with music’s biggest acts, Kahn says what sets BSB apart is talent and commitment. “Those guys can go a cappella at the drop of a hat and deliver an amazing performance -- and they actually dance, and are committed and disciplined," he explains. "Sometimes when you’re a solo act, you have no one to say ‘no'... The great thing about boy bands, and why Justin Timberlake comes out fine, is that you have people around you to say ‘No.’ You have to learn how to share, it’s like growing up in a family. That’s the Backstreet Boys. They’re brothers. They’re truly a band.”

Fargas, too, was asked back for the group’s “Larger Than Life” video, in a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance as the face of a robot in the opening sequence. Looking back, he had no idea that a small role as a bus driver would lead to him still being recognized -- or cemented in the Backstreet Boys' history -- 20 years later.

“I get the same question 42 years later about Starsky and Hutch,” he says. “You have no idea when you’re doing something that it’s going to affect people, and you’re going to be talking about it 20 years, or 40 years later. It’s an amazing gift that we get to do what we do, and I know with the Backstreet Boys, when you have that hunger, it isn’t even about dollars. It’s about having to express something -- that artistic need to entertain, or express yourself through your art.”


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