Released: 3rd May 1999
Writers: Andreas Carlsson / Max Martin
Peak position: #1
Chart run: 1-4-7-9-7-8-12-19-28-33-30-34-41-56
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 72-34-23-23-18-17-13-11-9-6-6-6-6-6-6-8-6-6-9-12-12-13-14-17-21-23-30-37-37-40-39
I Want It That Way is one of ‘those’ moments in ‘90s pop music. A song so integrally woven into the fabric of popular culture that it’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t there.
In many ways, it was the culmination of the previous three years that Backstreet Boys had been chasing around the world growing their profile. While it had resulted in a growing catalogue of sizeable hits, it had been scattershot approach at best, with different singles (and albums) released in different territories at different times. For the third album Millennium, everything came together with a near-simultaneous worldwide release. Now what they needed was a lead single.
In pop music, timing is everything, and with I Want It That Way, the Backstreet Boys were in safe hands. The group had already worked extensively with Max Martin and Cheiron Studios on most of their biggest hits. And coming just a few months after …Baby One More Time, you got the sense that they were firing on all cylinders at this point. Therefore, it made perfect sense to launch Millennium with a song that captured the very best of both the Backstreet Boys and their producers; a song that would endure long beyond its original release date…Larger Than Life.
Well, almost. Larger Than Life was scheduled as the first single from Millennium. It would follow the pattern of their previous albums by kicking off the campaign with an uptempo track. But all that changed when the group heard the completed version of I Want It That Way at the eleventh hour. It signalled a sudden change of direction for the campaign – and hindsight would tell us it was a very sensible one indeed. Inarguably up until this point Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) was the group’s most famous song and remains a signature hit until this day. But a ballad made much more sense in commercial terms since that’s where the group’s success primarily lay, as evidenced by As Long As You Love Me becoming the Backstreet Boys’ biggest selling single in the UK.
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake
Tell me why
I never want to hear you say
I want it that way
Thus, I Want It That Way became the lead single for Millennium, signalling confidence in both the group and in Cheiron to break with tradition. That being said, it honestly wasn’t a huge shift in the end. Maybe at the very start, you could be lulled into believing that the track was going down a more understated route. The opening “Yeah-eah-eah” and gently iconic acoustic guitar riff don’t give away the game straight away, but the pretence lasts all of 30 seconds before I Want It That Way drops in a trademark midtempo Cheiron beat and we’re promptly in familiar territory. Where the song cuts a different path is in how it leans away from being immediately dominated by gloopy synths. Their presence instead stems from a subtly organic evolution of the guitar riffs to the point where you barely notice they’ve been completely displaced by the end of the song.
The other thing achieved by the sublime production on I Want It That Way is that it never fails to keep the Backstreet Boys front and centre of the song. Is it the best showcase for their harmonies? No. But what it does so well is portray the group as a cohesive unit and far more than “two lead singers plus the others”. Each member gets a lead vocal, and throughout the song, there are discreet fluctuations in the mixing so that no-one is ever really dominating; the seamless shift from AJ to Brian during the second chorus is a prime example. While not the best technical demonstration of the group’s ability, the actual performance delivered on I Want It That Way is, nonetheless, absolutely brilliant and most certainly one of the best in Cheiron’s catalogue. The song is read with so much sincerity by the Backstreet Boys, even though the lyrics don’t really make any sense. The final minute or so really is a masterclass in how to deliver a boyband ballad; do we even need to make a note of the fact that I Want It That Way contains one of the best key-changes of the ‘90s? Even now, it remains an incredibly gratifying moment that will make your heart do a somersault. And while we might be drawn to the ad-libs (“Don’t wanna hear you SAAAAAAAAAAY-HEY-HEY-YEAH-EH-EH”), just listen to the way the chorus remains so on pointe with the beats of the production, giving it an extra little kick. There’s nothing out of place whatsoever, nothing thrown in just for good measure. Everything that happens in I Want It That Way happens for a reason.
That same sense of reason doesn’t entirely extend to the lyrics. Max Martin, perhaps better than anyone else, is remarkably capable of writing a lyric that makes perfect sense and absolutely no sense whatsoever at the same time. It wasn’t always that way; the original version of I Want It That Way was a very sensible composition from a lyrical perspective. But the final mix was a little more ambiguous; on the one hand, it’s a reasonably formulaic break-up song: “Now I can see that we’ve fallen apart, from the way that it used to be, yeah”. But the crux of the chorus: “I never want to hear you say, I want it that way” is more a declaration of someone promising to keep their partner happy. It’s a curious mixture of timelines and sentiments – but never is it distracting to the point where you’d question what you’re supposed to be singing about or what sort of emotion you should be feeling. Leaving that aside, some smart little role reversals within the verses deserve a nod: “You are my fire, my one desire”/“Am I your fire, your one desire”. Structurally I Want It That Way hangs together so well; it’s one of those songs that felt immediately familiar, and it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist.
The music video for I Want It That Way came courtesy of Wayne Isham, a man whose creative vision was a massive part of the success enjoyed by Jive Records in the late ‘90s. As becomes rapidly evident, transition shots were very much in vogue at the time, and much of the video is spent with the Backstreet Boys performing while the background and foreground blur and fade at different times. It gives the impression that a lot more is happening than actually is; the group is mainly static for many of the shots (well, it is a ballad after all) but it never really feels that way because of the effects being used. Of particular note is the dance sequence during the second chorus; despite a few of the shots making it into the final video, the concept was largely abandoned because someone rightly questioned why a ballad needed a dance routine. Nonetheless, the shots of the group dressed in white are amongst the most recognisable of the video and the retained steps from the dance sequence work quite well in their edited form. The climactic shots of the Backstreet Boys surrounded by screaming fans and then boarding a plane (a Backstreet Boys branded plane, no less) further reinforced the sense that this was a group ascending to the next level of world-dominating fame. The music video wasn’t heavy in concept. Still, it was visually striking and remains immediately recognisable in both its original form and from the numerous parodies that have followed in the years since.
I Want It That Way was a huge hit, topping the chart in many countries, including the UK where it remains the Backstreet Boys only song to have done so. In America, the single peaked at #6 but was never commercially released – the fact that it still spent just shy of three months in the top ten underlines how much of an airplay behemoth the track was. The lack of commercial release was simply engineered to drive sales of the Millennium album, which had been heavily hyped for weeks beforehand (to the point where early copies of Britney Spears’ debut album contained a preview for Millennium at the end of the tracklist). It was a ploy that worked; the Backstreet Boys broke first-day sales records (over 500,000 copies) and first-week sales records (1,134,000 copies) at the time with Millennium.
There is absolutely no doubt that I Want It That Way was a fundamental part of that success and in elevating the Backstreet Boys to a level of success where, for a brief moment, they remained unparalleled.