Following our Billboard staff-picked list of the 99 greatest songs of 1999, we’re writing this week about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here, we remember how boy bands were so popular in 1999, even some alums of groups from previous generations were having solo breakout moments.
You may not remember exactly where you were and what you were getting up to 20 years ago, but what you weren’t doing is consuming music through Spotify, SoundCloud or YouTube. Nay, to stay firmly in the know in 1999, pop fans instead flocked to MTV’s Total Request Live, a series that had premiered the year before, on which the two biggest boy bands in the universe — Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC — frequently log-jammed the upper reaches of the fan-selected music video countdown.
Both quintets had radio to thank for their initial chart successes in the United States, but with the advent of TRL, the competing acts were poised to see their chart fortunes quadruple by 1999. And that’s exactly what happened with Backstreet Boys, who dropped their gold standard anthem “I Want It That Way” that April, followed a month later by their eventually Diamond-certified smash sophomore U.S. album Millennium.
However, aside from JC Chasez’s feature on Blaque’s ’99 single “Bring It All to Me” and a soundtrack duet with Gloria Estefan on the title track to Wes Craven’s Music of My Heart, *NSYNC found themselves sidelined for much of the year with the thorny legal tumult of giving the heave-ho to their duplicitous manager, Lou Pearlman, and extricating themselves from their label, RCA.
Alas, showbiz waits for no one, as time has schooled us, and the beast must be fed. But how to fill the temporary *NSYNC void? For one, muscled-up quartet 98 Degrees strutted into the right place at the right time and tossed their own candy-coated sophomore album singles like “Because Of You” and “The Hardest Thing” into the Top 40 ring, while the similarly Pearlman-assembled LFO rode an Abercrombie & Fitch namedrop and a Jennifer Love Hewitt cameo to brief mainstream success of their own.
But the TRL impact extended beyond simply enabling second-tier male vocal groups the opportunity to slip into the MTV canon; it also had the ripple effect of jump-starting the stateside solo careers of several former members of defunct boy bands. Below, we round up four such gents who were given a second chance at stardom and crooned their way onto pop’s airwaves in 1999.
Jordan Knight, “Give It To You”
When his first solo single arrived in February 1999, Jordan Knight had already traipsed to the zenith of the Billboard Hot 100 three times and sold upwards of 80 million records worldwide, as one-fifth of New Kids On the Block. But let’s face it — NKOTB may have captured the hearts of screeching tweens the world over at the onset of the decade, but they were about as fashionable as zebra-print Jams at the end of the ‘90s.
Kudos, then, to Knight and his handlers for wrangling a solo deal with Interscope and enlisting the talents of hot young songwriter Robin Thicke (who was 21 at the time) and legendary production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The initial fruit of the labor of all involved was “Give It to You,” a thumping, sexed-up dance jam that managed to climb to No. 10 on the Hot 100, nine years after NKOTB had last seen the upper reaches of the chart.
Younger TRL viewers may not have recognized Knight when his colorful, highly-choreographed video swirled across their TV screens, but they were entranced. Was it the carnival-waltz hook that demanded attention? Or naughty, he’s-all-grown-up-now lyrics like “anyone can make you sweat / but I can keep you wet”? (Bravo, Thicke.) Whatever the case, elder statesman of boy bandom Jordan Knight, at 28, was back — for one fleeting solo hit, anyway. (His follow-up, a cover of Prince’s Sign o’ the Times classic “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” missed the Hot 100 entirely.)
Joey McIntyre, “Stay The Same”
There’s no Grammy category for Best Self-Help Ballad — which is too bad for Joey McIntyre, because surely he would have clinched a win with this sleeper hit. Not to be outdone by his New Kids bandmate, Joey released his own debut solo single just three weeks after Jordan Knight’s “Give It To You.” And like the latter tune, “Stay The Same” also peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Top 40 veteran Walter Afanasieff co-produced the soulful pop cut, and it shows. When McIntyre’s inspirational offering ascends from its innocuous keyboard-and-finger-snap intro to its grandiose gospel climax, “Stay The Same” faintly echoes Afanasieff’s work on storied standards “Hero” (Mariah Carey) and “My Heart Will Go On” (Celine Dion). That’s all to say the man knows how to give us goosebumps through melody. Now, let’s all raise a glowing cell phone in the dark for that last full minute.
Side note: While Jordan and Joey were making waves once again in the pop realm in 1999, fellow New Kid Donnie Wahlberg resurfaced that year — on the silver screen, of all places. His short-lived but pivotal character in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense sets the events of the Oscar-nominated horror flick in motion. (Yeah, yeah — no spoilers here.)
Ricky Martin, “Livin’ La Vida Loca”
Folks, we’re not even going to delve into the history of Menudo here, because to do so we’d need a calculator, six pie charts and about five more feet of column space. For all intents and purposes of this roundup, let’s just say Enrique Martin Morales was a member of the Puerto Rican boy band from 1984 to 1989, and leave it at that.
Fast forward nearly a decade, and the pump had already been primed for Martin’s mainstream U.S. success — thanks to 1998 World Cup anthem “The Cup Of Life” (“La Copa de la Vida”), a No. 1 in multiple European countries that also reached No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just one year later, the singer, then 27, captured lightning in a bottle with his debut English language single “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” Like a bull-et to your braaain, Ricky sealed the deal for the Latin pop explosion on American airwaves in 1999.
Truth be told, along with Santana and Rob Thomas’ “Smooth,” you couldn’t escape this single in the waning months of the ’90s. And If you’re over the age of, oh, 25, your hips will start gyrating uncontrollably upon that opening blast of brass in “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”
Fun fact: Ricky’s mega-hit was produced by Desmond Child — who was quite adept at livin’, as he’d also manned the boards for Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer.” In addition to topping the Hot 100, that September, the accompanying visual for “Loca” nabbed best dance video at the MTV Video Music Awards. Also up for that particular Moonman in 1999: Jordan Knight’s “Give It To You.”
Robbie Williams, “Angels”
Robbie Williams departed Take That with middle finger raised high in 1995, and it ultimately spelled curtains for the British boy band. Williams subsequently rushed out a forgettable, on-the-nose cover of George Michael’s “Freedom” the following year, but it was his former bandmate, Gary Barlow, who came blazing out of the gate with two No. 1s on the U.K. charts, plus “So Help Me Girl,” a Joe Diffie cover that landed just outside of the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Williams would prove to have the upper hand, however, when piano ballad “Angels,” given a U.K. release in late 1997, kicked off his astonishing run of 20 consecutive Top 10 singles in his home country. Meanwhile, further success would elude Barlow until Take That’s reunion nearly a decade later.
So potent was “Angels” that Williams was given a stateside push by Capitol Records in 1999. The song was released to promote The Ego Has Landed, a North American combo of the singer’s debut and sophomore U.K. albums, Life Thru A Lens and I’ve Been Expecting You, respectively. Nearly two years after the ballad was marketed across the pond, it climbed to No. 10 on Billboard‘s Adult Contemporary chart, and No. 53 on the Hot 100.
Coming full circle, “Angels” was actually the second single off 1999’s The Ego Has Landed. It was preceded in the States by “Millennium,” a James Bond theme-inspired number first released overseas just months ahead of Backstreet Boys’ album of the same name.
And as we all know by now, without Backstreet Boys, there just simply would not have been a 1999.