With AJ in rehab and a tour on hold, Backstreet are at a crossroads

It wasn’t your typical Backstreet Boys visit to Total Request Live. Usually a meet-and-greet at the MTV countdown show with Gen-Y’s original Fab Five concludes with ear-piercing screams and general hysteria from the show’s mostly female gallery. But at the end of the group’s TRL interview on July 9, the dazed crowd’s sullen silence was broken only by a smattering of applause.

Four members of the multi-platinum-selling quintet — Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, and Nick Carter (wearing an incongruous ”Grabbabootie and Pinch” T-shirt) — appeared before the cameras to announce that groupmate AJ McLean, 23, had checked into an undisclosed 30-day rehabilitation program July 9 for what Richardson called McLean’s ”depression, anxiety, and his excessive consumption of alcohol.” As a result, the band postponed 20 North American tour dates — for now. On ”Today” July 10, Dorough revealed that McLean’s vices also included other ”substances.”

The development didn’t come completely out of the blue. The heavily tattooed McLean, one of the group’s three lead vocalists and its resident rebel, had a counselor on tour with him since early June, at the urging of the other Backstreet Boys and their managers. ”When they saw him continuing on partying when they would go home at night, and missing meetings and missing call times, they knew something was up,” says MTV newsman John Norris, who broke the story. A statement from the group added that a ”key factor causing his depression” was the April death of his grandmother, who helped his mother raise him in West Palm Beach, Fla.

But McLean’s troubling behavior dates back even further. Last year, he told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY that he ”was sick” during the 1997 recording sessions for the hit ”As Long as You Love Me.” ”I’m not even on that song,” he said. ”Nowhere, no backgrounds, nope…. Brian had to teach me the damn backgrounds at the video shoot. ‘Cause I didn’t even know what the stupid words were.” This February, he reportedly told a London newspaper that his depression began in 1999 and would lead him to ”sit on the bed, open a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and stare at the walls…. I thought about leaving the band so many times.”

To ’70s teen idol Leif Garrett, McLean’s story strikes a familiar chord. ”Alcohol and depression? The perfect combo. It’s like, misery loves company,” says Garrett, 39, who faced his own battles with drugs and alcohol over the years and praises BSB’s forthright approach to the news. ”They probably could have done it privately, but word would have leaked out.”

More cynical observers might note that McLean’s announcement comes just as the group is hitting a slump with the ever-fickle teen audience. While competitors ‘N Sync have been flying high with the record-setting No Strings Attached and a successful stadium tour, BSB’s most recent album, Black & Blue, currently sits at No. 98 on the Billboard chart. In comparison, their previous record, Millennium, was still in the top three at this point in its release. (Sales couldn’t have been helped by McLean’s opining on CBS’ The Early Show in May that Black & Blue is an inferior record to Millennium.) Moreover, the guys’ now-suspended tour bypassed the stadiums they’d played last summer for smaller arenas — and still failed to sell out most of their dates. ”Generally, the boy-band trend is waning,” says Pollstar magazine editor Gary Bongiovanni. ”[BSB’s] popularity is a little bit less than it was last year. But still, they’re a long way from playing the Moose Hall in Hoboken.”

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