By Jim Farber
May 21, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Current cliche paints today’s youth as jaded victims, robbed of their innocence by entertaining cynics. The enabling Jerry Springer, the exploitative Marilyn Manson, and an ever-widening cast of snarling gangsta rappers have allegedly done their share to make kids bitter before their time.

Never mind the fact that hordes of teens have courted outrage as long as people have had pimples; the above scenario hardly tells the whole story — especially now. Two opposing forces tangle on today’s charts. In this corner, you’ve got hardcore hip-hoppers, like DMX, and metal-heads, like Korn. In the other, you’ve got the boy and girl teen acts, dewy-eyed cuties singing some of the most saccharine and conservative music since the dawn of rock. The last two and a half years have seen just as anxious a reaction to music’s bolder statesmen as when Pat Boone rose up to neuter Little Richard.

Backstreet Boys standardized the soft male side early last year when their self-titled debut started selling more than 100,000 copies per week (it’s currently at 7.9 million and counting). If Hanson broke through first, Backstreet offered a more imitable sound, directly presaging ‘N Sync, 98°, Boyzone, and the latest soundalikes on the block, C Note.

The style Backstreet patented on their debut — and which they eagerly continue on the new Millennium — cleverly merges two genres: slinky American R&B and chirpy Euro-pop. Just as black R&B reached a new chart peak, the Boys came along to whiten it. To help them do so, an army of handlers commissioned songs for the Boys’ debut from pop whiz Robert ”Mutt” Lange (Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, etc.), ’80s R&B act Full Force, and Max Martin, a key writer for Ace of Base.

Martin and Lange return for Millennium, but Full Force have moved on to pen for C Note. In their stead, two B-Boys, Brian Littrell (the short guy who looks like a sprite) and Kevin Richardson (the tall guy with eyebrows like caterpillars) pen several new tracks, the first writing from the group’s own ranks. Fans needn’t worry about the change affecting the sound. The new album practically xeroxes the debut. Its four upbeat cuts sound like the old ”Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” complete with burping hook and retro-’80s rock/R&B arrangement, while ”Don’t Want You Back” directly samples that song. All the ballads suggest sequels to ”As Long as You Love Me.”

At least those formulas prove worth repeating: The faster tracks recall the best of ’80s Michael Jackson. A slow one, ”I Want It That Way,” ranks as the bubblegum ballad of the year. It’s so likable, it doesn’t matter that the group’s voices are the sonic equivalent of warm milk.

The Boys take one significant risk with the lyrics. Teen acts normally can’t acknowledge their romantic power. They have to remain the longing ones in order to seal the twin fantasies of purity and accessibility. Yet in ”Don’t Want You Back,” the Boys do the rejecting! Don’t worry, girls. The group more than make up for it with goo like ”The Perfect Fan,” a salute to their mothers that could make even Pat Robertson wretch. There’s also ”Larger Than Life,” a howler casting fans as the superhuman force in the exchange between listener and star. Luckily, with a group like the Backstreet Boys, the more cheese appeal, the better.

You’ll find slightly less flavor on C Note’s debut, Different Kind of Love. The quartet just came sweeping off the assembly line of Louis J. Pearlman, the guy who taught the B-Boys and ‘N Sync what to say and do. For a twist he cast Hispanic kids this time, and while the guys warble a few lines in Spanish, they end up seeming about as Latin as the huevos rancheros at Denny’s. They do have one irresistible single, ”Wait Till I Get Home,” cowritten by Full Force. You’ll also find a few more aggressive ditties than on most such efforts. But otherwise this could come from any dream-boy act of the minute.

If such artists mainly offer innocuous fun, there remains one depressing angle to this whole teen stampede. Whereas 20 years ago young people searching for vulnerable emotions listened to writers as sophisticated as Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, all too many of their modern equivalents tune in to fluff like this. Far from robbing kids of their youth, current pop actually threatens to keep them naive longer, turning the complicated dramas of adolescence into crass fantasy.
Millennium: B-
Different Kind of Love: C+

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