Released: 12th February 2001
Writers: Max Martin / Rami
Peak position: #8
Chart run: 8-16-28-41-60
Billboard Hot 100 chart run: 60-56-52-58-83-97
By the turn-of-the-century, the Backstreet Boys had established themselves as the archetypal purveyors of doe-eyed balladry, having repeatedly affirmed their commitment to love and cherish their fanbase. But all that changed with The Call, which suddenly found the group playing the bad guys.
With their previous album Millennium, the Backstreet Boys had finally nailed the perfect formula, landing themselves sales of approximately 24 million units and a place on the all-time best sellers list. Thus, when it came to the follow-up Black & Blue – released just over a year later in 2000 – it was little surprise to see the campaign adopt a similar strategy: open with a soaring Cheiron ballad (Shape Of My Heart) and follow it with an uptempo. Like Larger Than Life and Everybody (Backstreet’s Back) before it, The Call was co-written by Max Martin and very much sat alongside those tracks as a thumping, squelchy slice of now-familiar sounding Swedepop. But while the Black & Blue album certainly had aspects of repetition from its predecessor, something had changed significantly in the chart landscape. *NSYNC – now signed to Jive Records – had successfully relaunched and the frenetic energy that they brought to tracks like Bye Bye Bye seemed to have inspired Max Martin to push the Backstreet Boys even harder than he had before.
It’s not exactly as if the group’s earlier uptempos had been sedate, but there is something about The Call that immediately feels more urgent. This was around the time that Max Martin was fond of spoken interludes, but the one here is pivotal to set the scene. Performed by AJ and set against a flamenco guitar riff, the introduction sets the context for everything that is to follow:
“Hi. It’s me. What’s up, baby? I’m sorry. Listen, I’m gonna be late tonight. So, don’t stay up and wait for me. OK?”
“Where are you?”
“Wait, wait. Say that again?”
“You’re really dropping out. I think my battery must be low. Listen, if you can hear me, we’re goin’ to a place nearby. Alright? Gotta go”
This is an excellent example of pop music that evolved with its fanbase; most of the audience this was aimed at now had mobile phones and knew the old “sorry, the line’s really bad, you’re breaking up” trick. The subtext is crystal clear; AJ is up to something he shouldn’t be. When the angry, pounding beats kick in, you know shit’s about to go down. And it all blows up spectacularly in the Backstreet Boys’ face: “Now two years gone, nothing’s been won, I can’t take it back, what’s done is done; one of her friends found out, that she wasn’t my only one”. Yet, even though the group are definitively in the wrong here, the track is written in such a way that you still feel for them, as they ruminate: “And it eats me from inside, that she’s not by my side, just because I made that call and lied”. Bubblegum pop thrived was defined by its moralistic and idealist approach to love. The Call doesn’t veer from that ethos, it just tells it from a different perspective. The takeaway message here is still: be faithful, don’t cheat.
Yet, the thrill of the encounter isn’t lost thanks to the uber-dramatic production, which captures the danger and excitement. It’s consistently shifting in tone and volume, like the punctuated beats of the: “But I called my girl up and said…” pre-chorus, which are more heavily layered and amplified from the verse. The metronomic beat of the instrumental sections and the snatches of telephone dialogue create an electric intensity. The Backstreet Boys are never competing with the many elements busily darting around them. Indeed, the track utilises their vocal harmonies for a superb acapella breakdown that is strikingly operatic in its arrangement and delivery. While there were undoubtedly shades of Max Martin’s work with other acts wrapped up within The Call, it still finds time and space to accommodate distinctive and unique traits to the Backstreet Boys (and not just Howie’s flatulence, which was allegedly incorporated into the beat) that could not have been performed in quite the same way by their peers.
Yet, as much as The Call was propelled by what had come before it, this single also gave us a glimpse at the near future as it was remixed by none other than The Neptunes. Shortly before the duo helped steer the musical direction of *NSYNC and Britney Spears, they got their hands on this. Now, we usually take a dim view of blistering pop tracks being passed off as R&B tracks in an attempt to appear credible, but this is The Neptunes, and the result is not that bad. Sure, it does not possess the same energy, but they put a satisfyingly funky spin on The Call. It’s clear that Jive Records were not blind to the direction in which the music industry might be starting to lean (although they covered all bases and commissioned a brilliant Thunderpuss remix as well). There’s certainly enough here to make one ponder what The Neptunes could do with a major pop act if they were starting from scratch, rather than merely remixing someone else’s work. Which, as we now know, is precisely what they were about to do.
But before that, this was the point where Jive Records’ flagship acts – Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC and Britney Spears – were firing on all cylinders. Truly, we had been so spoiled that although the music video for The Call is an absolute masterpiece in terms of its ambitious scale and scope, at the time, it was just what we’d come to expect from this sort of track. It’s the perfect partner to the song in that thematically it follows the narrative and extends the theme much further to flesh out the character(s) within the lyrics. Indeed, the visuals are worthy of a write-up of their own. Get ready because there is a lot to unpack here.
So, let’s break it down. We see the phone call at the start of the song, as AJ fobs off his girlfriend having been led astray by a woman in a fittingly turn-of-the-century nightclub (check out those green lasers). She lures him to the back seat of a taxi, before exiting and fleeing. AJ gives chase and the scene transitions to Brian, who loses the woman but finds himself underneath a giant Backstreet Boys billboard. He looks up to see his and AJ’s faces crossed off while a shower of bullets rains down on him. Yes, we’ve got an attempted assassination by sniper rifle casually tossed into a mainstream pop video. Brian takes cover in a nearby supermarket, which is eerily deserted. A shadow darts past the camera and he chases it the back of the store. Nick bursts out of the rear entrance and finds a car waiting for him. He drives to a hotel and runs to one of the rooms, frantically banging on the door. Howie answers it and gestures that they make a getaway. The pair quickly exit through the lobby.
But as they walk past the concierge desk, the camera pans around to reveal (*gasp*) that the real Howie is buying a hot drink and completely unaware of his doppelgänger. Cut to a car speeding down the road and as the speedometer picks up, an oblivious Nick glimpses into the wing mirror and clocks that it’s not Howie at the wheel, it’s the mysterious woman. Before he can do anything, fake-Howie dives out of the car and hits the tarmac, ripping off
his her disguise. Nick struggles to regain control of the vehicle, and when it crashes, Kevin sits up at the wheel. Looming above him is the ominous billboard, now with every member of the band crossed off. He spots the woman running away and pursues her; after jumping from building to building, Kevin stumbles into a room covered in graffiti; words like ‘sleaze’, ‘fraud’ and ‘scum’ are scrawled over every surface. He exits to the street and is joined by AJ, Nick, Howie and Brian as they come face-to-face with…the girlfriend and a sea of extras (basically everyone who has featured in the video). She was in on the whole thing and knows exactly what they’ve been up to.
The Call is an absolute feat of pop music videography. It all takes place in four minutes, and not a single second is spared. There’s barely a moment to breathe – which is fitting considering the intensity of the song – and perhaps the only thing that gets lost in translation is that although the Backstreet Boys are presented as a group, from a narrative perspective, they are supposed to be one person. This is a video that benefits from watching in its entirety (and occasionally rewound) rather than in small sections while channel-hopping. It feels like an underrated visual package; the neo-noir styling along with the stream of stylish special effects and the brooding darkness of the entire piece is sublime. The fact that something of this quality was being chucked out to accompany a second single released in the traditional post-Christmas sales slump tells you all you need to know about what a golden era this was.
The sense that we were at peak quality and quantity is reflected in The Call’s chart performance, which was reasonably modest. In the UK, the track peaked at #8, which is by no means a disaster, but looking at the entire package, it does feel as though the intention was for this to be a much bigger deal. Similarly, in America, The Call reached #52 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming the Backstreet Boys’ worst performing single since We’ve Got It Goin’ On back in 1995. It was a bit premature to be concerned considering the parent album Black & Blue had sold 1.6 million copies to debut atop the album chart just a few months earlier. Nonetheless, it was perhaps another of those early moments where – fleetingly – the thought might have crept into our minds that the pop bubble was starting to contract ever so slightly.
The Call may not necessarily be remembered as a top-tier signature hit for the Backstreet Boys. Still, it is, undoubtedly, a near-perfect realisation of a group at their very peak. It’s bold, it’s fearless, and above all else, it’s bloody brilliant.