Backstreet Boys

Backstreet Boys' 'I Want It That Way' Turns 20: The Story Behind the Hit's Mystery Lyrics

Andreas Carlsson was a young, aspiring pop star when he was called in at the last minute to replace British pin-up Peter Andre as the opening act for the Backstreet Boys in Sweden in 1996.

With a solo album partly recorded at Swedish pop powerhouse, Cheiron Studios, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter took to the stage with a few songs and his guitar, lacking dancers, the “abs of Peter Andre” or the ability to hear his own vocals through the deafening screams of fans awaiting the boy band headliners. Watching fangirl after fangirl faint in the audience once the Backstreet Boys hit the stage, and then seeing the group wow both him and the crowd, Carlsson quickly reevaluated his musical aspirations.

“All I understood after that was that I was a waste of time as an artist – because they were so good!” he reflects to Billboard. “I got recruited to be part of the Cheiron family, who were at that show, then gave up my deal with BMG and my career as an artist.”

While the Backstreet Boys may have influenced Carlsson’s swerve off stage to focus on writing music for others, they would also help cement his greatest songwriting coup, thanks to their success with a track he helped write one morning in Stockholm, Sweden: “I Want It That Way,” which turns 20 on Apr. 12. And it was all thanks to a shared cab ride home from work late one night with the man who would become one of his greatest collaborators -- legendary writer/producer Max Martin.

Martin, along with late Cheiron Studios founder and musical mastermind Denniz Pop, had worked with the Backstreet Boys on their first two records, Backstreet Boys and Backstreet’s Back -- which were combined and released in the U.S. as the group’s self-titled 1997 debut. It was while Martin was working on tracks for the band’s hotly anticipated 1999 follow-up, Millennium, that Carlsson found himself helping out a neighbor in need, and subsequently being propelled to life-changing success.

“One night when we were leaving the studios, Max said he was going to the southern part of town so we decided to share a cab,” Carlsson recalls. “I was like, ‘Where are you going?’ and he said ‘Sodermalm.’ And I said, ‘That’s funny -- I live in that part of town, too.’ I gave him the street and he was like, ‘That’s funny -- I live on that street, too.’”

Swapping addresses, the two discovered that not only did they live in the same building, they’d unknowingly been living “door to door” while working together over previous months.“After that, he started knocking on my door to ask for lyrics or input on songs,” Carlsson says. “And I remember one morning, he came over with ‘I Want It That Way.’ That was probably my lucky day, because that song became so big.”

While Martin had completed the core of the future chart-topper, he wanted Carlsson’s help completing the track. “He had the, ‘You are my fire, the one desire’ [hook], and he said, ‘Can you work on this?’” Carlsson recalls. “He mainly wanted my help with lyrics, so I wrote some lyrics, then we wrote a bridge for it and bounced ideas back and forth on melodies. He had a lot of the skeleton for the chorus and the melody of the verse, but he would always come over to get my take on concepts and lyrics and I would take over and work on it then go back to him. It was a collaboration.”

“The band and the record company heard it and they immediately said, ‘This is a classic,’” Carlsson continues. “But they weren’t sure about the lyrics because they thought they were too abstract -- and rightfully so!”

Carlsson says the group made a video for the song, but with Jive Records head, Clive Calder, and others still doubtful about the lyrics, the label got “cold feet” and flew megaproducer Mutt Lange from Switzerland to Sweden to rewrite the lyrics. Lange sat down with Carlsson and Martin to pen a new version. Replacing lines like, “I never wanna hear you say,” with “I love it when I hear you say,” the version has since been played and known to the Backstreet Army as “No Goodbyes.”

“The record label felt that the song was a little bit confusing and didn’t make much sense so they asked Max to go back and rewrite some of the lyrics with Mutt Lange,” McLean recalled at Monday’s Q&A to launch the group’s immersive upcoming Backstreet Boys: The Experience exhibit at Los Angeles’ Grammy Museum. “It actually did make more sense, but it just didn’t have that that original feeling"

“We outvoted it, we didn’t like it and we kept the original,” Kevin Richardson added.

With the band firmly set on the original lyrics, Martin worked with Kristian Lundin for weeks to produce the track, which topped the charts in Canada, New Zealand and Germany. While the song was a No. 1 airplay hit in the U.S., it wasn’t available to buy as a commercial single during the height of its popularity, and only peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, despite being one of the era’s most unavoidable smashes.

Gary Baker, a songwriter who was also working on Millennium and penned the ballads “Back to Your Heart” and “No One Else Comes Close”, recalls being wowed as Richardson played him the catchy pop song for the first time.

“Kevin came to write with me, and we were riding around in my car and he played me the song and said, ‘This is going to be our first single off the new record. What do you think?’” Baker says. “I said, ‘I don’t understand the lyrics, but I love this song!’ It was unbelievable. To this day, it’s one of the top pop songs ever recorded in history.”

Although the hit quickly became a permanent part of pop culture, unwavering curiosity behind the song’s meaning means the Backstreet Boys still get questioned about what exactly they wanted “that way” -- and which “way” they actually meant. "It means whatever each individual's interpretation is, is what it means," AJ McLean said during a 2018 interview with Entertainment Tonight. “It's one of those songs that doesn't have to mean anything. It just works!”

So what does Carlsson, who helped pen the puzzling lyrics with Martin, have to say about the mystery meaning?

“Yeah, it makes absolutely no sense,” Carlsson laughs. “It doesn’t really mean much. There were a lot of songs at the time like that. Take [Meat Loaf’s] ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).’ Do what? It was a title which was of its time, and the sound of the words were just intriguing. Then we tried to turn that into a story, but everything for the Backstreet Boys was made to be universal – even for people who didn’t speak English. So, it was like, ‘This is an anthem that anyone can sing along with.’”

“It became like a mysterious song,” he adds. “People were looking for deeper meaning when there was no deeper meaning … it was just that the verses sounded great. And were written by Swedes.”

Feeling the power of the song, Carlsson and Martin never paused to question whether the lyrics might ignite confusion or prove detrimental to the track’s success.

“It was just so magical that you couldn’t question it,” Carlsson says. “It was just meant to happen, so we weren’t second guessing anything. It was more like, ‘Oh my God, this sounds amazing.’ And when it was finally mixed, and we brought people into the studio to listen to it, everyone was like, ‘This is going to be one of the biggest songs of all time.’ So, we never said to ourselves, ‘Is this going to work or is this corny?’ It was magic from the start.’”

Many fans still remember where they were when they first heard the track, which earned two Grammy nominations and has since inspired countless covers, wedding skits and parodies. Some were lucky enough to first hear the song by winning spots as extras in the music video, directed by Wayne Isham and filmed at LAX, where 20 years later the band are pictured on a giant pillar welcoming visitors to Los Angeles outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal – the same terminal where they filmed part of the iconic video.

California fan Lorena Bernal sat at home, crying and “heartbroken” that she couldn’t get through to KIIS FM to enter the contest, while her pal Lori Meono was thrilled to get a 2 a.m. call from a friend who won two spots at the shoot.

“I had a suspicion [radio host] JoJo Wright was playing some sick April Fool's Day prank on us, but once there, we were bussed into the hangar,” she says. “I can't even describe the thrill of hearing their new song for the first time in their presence. The boys were so sweet throughout, chatting, hugging, and taking pictures with fans.”

With fan hysteria at a high, as many young devotees met their idols for the first time, the pandemonium distracted the youngsters from analyzing the words which they had immediately starting learning and singing along with. “There was a lot of screaming, so I didn’t notice the lyrics didn’t make much sense,” Meono says. “I figured once the song was released, we would all learn what they wanted that way. That never happened!”

Twenty years later, the group will launch Backstreet Boys: The Experience on Wednesday (Apr. 10), two days before the song’s anniversary. The exhibit will allow fans to see old tour and music video costumes, check out Brian Littrell’s high school diploma, print personal photos for a Backstreet Boys mosaic wall and even appear in a video with the band via hologram. The quintet will then kick off their DNA World Tour on May 11 in Portugal.

They've also completed an album featuring re-recorded hits and fan favorites, and given the phenomenal success of “I Want It That Way,” it’s no surprise the track was one of the first they chose to revisit.

“We did all the top hits -- ‘I Want It That Way,’ ‘As Long As You Love Me,’ and ‘Show Me the Meaning (of Being Lonely) -- then a couple of fan favorites like, ‘Siberia,’ which turned out extremely well and ‘Get Another Boyfriend,’ which sounds outstanding,” says Baker, who recorded and produced the project over 16 months. “I have high hopes for the record because I think fans are going to go crazy when they hear it.”

Rebecca Sapp/WireImage
Brian Littrell, Kevin Richardson, Nick Carter, A.J. McLean and Howie Dorough of the Backstreet Boys attend An Evening With Backstreet Boys at the Grammy Museum on April 8, 2019 in Los Angeles.

As for Carlsson, the song obviously had a major impact on his career, with the musician having since written for Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, *NSYNC and Katy Perry, and currently working on a musical film. “I remember going to a meeting in New York, because all of a sudden everyone and their uncle wanted to talk to me,” he says of the song’s aftermath. “The whole office was standing up, applauding and singing along to ‘I Want It That Way,’ while paving the way for me to walk up to the executive who wanted me to write for a competing artist.”

And while some may never stop wondering what the Backstreet Boys wanted that way, two decades later, Carlsson believes the mystique and questioning about the song’s meaning has been overridden by the powerful impact the track has had on pop music.

“I think in some ways the song has become cooler,” he notes. “It’s become nostalgia and the sound of a generation. When it came out it was just another boy band song, but today it’s one of the great songs from the '90s that a lot of people grew up with.”