A few minutes into “Larger Than Life,” the song the Backstreet Boys use to open their show of the same name at the Axis theater, a little Kanye West sneaks into the mix. Actually, it’s the bass line from “Fade,” which West sampled from “Mystery of Love” by Mr. Fingers, a classic Chicago house dance track. It’s an unexpected snippet of non-mainstream music in a pure pop production executed by one of the best-selling and most famous boy bands of all time.
All Las Vegas Strip headliners do this, update or remix their hits with some different or more current musical flavors. The Backstreet Boys do it just a little. There’s some Nile Rodgers-style guitar funk on “Get Down (You’re the One For Me),” and a short blast of Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison” spliced into BSB’s 1995 debut single “We’ve Got It Goin’ On,” but the Boys largely stick to the original arrangements of hits like “I Want It That Way,” “Shape of My Heart” and “Quit Playing Games.”
That creative decision is a strategic one. As —and as the performers repeatedly mention when they address the audience between songs—the point of this show is to take fans on a trip back through time to when we were all younger, these songs were plastered all over the radio and MTV’s “TRL” video request show, and this kind of music ruled the charts. If you spend any time on the Strip these days and notice how many Vegas visitors are thirty-somethings who just got married or just had kids, you’ll understand why this show, which just opened in March, is selling so well. It’s the teenage music of our tourists, or at least a big chunk of them.
The Backstreet Boys were never like other boy bands. There’s no Justin Timberlake, a clear frontman whose talents and charisma project above his mates. These guys don’t even fit into the obvious clichés. Is AJ McLean the “bad boy” of the group, or is it Carter? Who’s the sensitive crooner, Howie Dorough or Brian Littrell? They complement more than contrast, a dynamic that results in a consistent performance without significant highs or lows in their big Vegas show. There’s plenty of goofy dancing, again, part of their appeal. They duplicate the chair choreography from the video for “As Long As You Love Me,” and happily bound through their appreciative audience during “All I Have to Give.” Other than an energetic finale featuring “I Want It That Way” and “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back),” the best performance comes when the Boys don sparkly Motown jackets and focus on their voices for smooth ballad “I’ll Never Break Your Heart.” They are grown men, after all, and this classic approach suits them best.
Make no mistake—the Backstreet Boys are in Las Vegas for one reason only, to give their fans whatever they want. Tweaks and revisions are sure to come, just like every other Strip production, but the audience will forever be in control of this one. And BSB wants it that way.
“Backstreet Boys: Larger Than Life” continues at the Axis at Planet Hollywood at 9 p.m. November 15, 17 and 18.