Does that mean they’re done making hits? Absolutely not — and they’ve made that very clear with their first single in five years, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” which surged to No. 1 on the real-time iTunes chart hours after its release on Thursday morning (May 17).
The funky, densely produced jam shows the evolution the Backstreet Boys (Nick Carter, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean and Kevin Richardson) have made from ‘90s staple to pop mainstays more than two decades into their career. Yet, it stays true to their harmony-driven beginnings, all of which they kept in mind while on the hunt for the perfect comeback track.
“We’re always trying to stay on the cutting edge, but also at the same time do something that’s real,” Dorough tells Billboard. “We’re never going to do something that’s not us.”
L.A.-based Scottish producer Stuart Crichton (Kesha, Kygo) presented BSB with the song just after they finished the first leg of their Vegas run, when the guys had a couple contenders for a lead single, but nothing that felt like a frontrunner. They were close with one option, but Maroon 5 got in the way.
“One, believe it or not, is the recent single from Maroon 5, ‘Wait,’” Dorough shares. “At the same time that was presented to us, we were told that [Adam Levine] had heard it and there was a possible chance that he might want it for [their] single. That’s just kind of how the nature of the game goes — but we don’t get too caught up about it. We just move on knowing that there’s always gonna be great songs coming around the corner.”
Before “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” Crichton had pitched another song the guys were so excited about that they even recorded their own version of it. But for whatever reason, their five-part harmonies didn’t present the same thrill that the demo did, something Dorough says isn’t uncommon for any artist in search of the right song.
But they didn’t lose faith in Crichton, and all of the letdowns they’d faced disappeared upon hearing “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
“There’s that feeling that you just go, ‘This is undeniable. A smash.’ This one had that feeling,” Dorough recalls. “I remember hearing the tracking and going, ‘Wow, this song has such a cool, unique sense of throwback.’ To me it sounded like something different, very fresh, not following something that’s already on the radio.”
The electronic vibe of the track was another pull for Backstreet, as they’ve formed relationships with some of the dance world’s biggest names in recent years. The guys have hung out with Zedd at his own residency shows, played with The Chainsmokers at one of their biggest shows to date, and listened to some new cuts at Steve Aoki’s place in Vegas.
The BSB/Aoki friendship was perhaps the most organic, as Dorough, Richardson and Carter ran into him on a flight from Vegas to LA and kept in touch. That’s the kind of comradery they’ve felt with dance artists and beyond, which Dorough suggests definitely played into the sound they achieved with “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.”
“It’s so cool to hear these DJs and younger artists that are coming around be like, ‘Wow, we love your music,’” he says. “Even with Florida Georgia Line [with whom BSB collaborated on last year’s country hit “God, Your Mama, and Me”] — you start relationships with these people, and it’s cool because they’re current and relevant, and paying homage to us and keeping us hip with those associations. I can definitely say that the dance movement has influenced us when it comes to uptempo stuff.”
Even without those relationships, though, the Backstreet Boys weren’t too concerned about how “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” would be received. In Dorough’s eyes, a great song is a great song no matter who is singing it — and that’s what they had with their new single.
“As long as you get it done right, you can fit in anywhere,” he asserts. “It’s a matter of people closing their eyes and opening their ears. If people are able to do that, then music is ageless.”
He adds, “Something we’re really known for is our signature harmonies, our great melodies — stuff that just makes you feel something and moves you. Hopefully with the right team around us and producers, we’re able to do that and stay relevant.”
Considering their record-breaking Vegas run has been extended more than once, and the guys just completed their sixth sold-out BSB Cruise, the Backstreet Boys have clearly remained relevant even without new music. But now that Backstreet’s back on the music scene once more, Dorough and his bandmates are even more excited about what the future holds.
“The love that we have received these past couple years, it definitely makes you feel good that people haven’t forgotten about you,” he says. “Hopefully along with that and putting out good music, we’ll be able to be back on the charts again.”