The Backstreet Boys in Hoosierland
When tickets for the Back Street Boys' Into the Millennium concert in Indianapolis went on sale, my
12-year-old daughter Brooke had been logged
in to the ticket sales website for 40 minutes
ready to pounce. At the appointed hour
she started dialing the ticket office and
mechanically punching redial every 10 seconds.
The number was always busy and the website
never completely loaded.
The concert was sold out in about 20 minutes, as far as we
could tell. Brooke dealt with it philosophically.
She had seen the BSB in San Jose and was willing to accept that
she wouldn't catch another show. She said she still
wanted to go see her grandma with Alzheimer's in
Indianapolis. That's what got me to puddle up and call my
scalper buddies. Two days later I had two seats for $250
apiece. Overcoming her natural reluctance to embrace the
uncool, Brooke actually hugged me.
Three months later we arrived in Indianapolis, a day before
the show. Brooke's fuscia hair, the result of a
bargaining session over nose-piercing, eliciting its first
positive comment from the lady driving the Hertz bus. My
mom, about midway through the Alzheimer's tunnel, seemed
unfazed by the hair color. Her husband was less
accepting, but he kept his criticism to a few symbolic Hoosier
jibes. Mom seemed glad to see us, if unsure who we were,
and spent most of the weekend offering us cookies, cereal, more
cookies, coats and boots to wear, more cookies, popcorn, and
Mom's yappy little dachsund begged relentlessly for
attention and peed on the floor when he didn't get it.
She fussed over him and fed him ice cream and cookies.
"He's just like a person," she'd say. True, he had
learned to whine in a sequence of pitches that flawlessly
mimicked the inflection of a particularly strident human
expression of self-pity. When things got overwhelming
Brooke and I would go in my room and shut the door, and the dog
would scratch and whine out in the hall. This was the
first dog that Brooke didn't like. Having begged for a
dog for as long as she could remember, she had trouble owning
up to these new feelings, but eventually proposed in the
privacy of my room that the dog be fed to a meat-grinder.
Friday afternoon we escaped Mom and Alzheimer's and the
cookies and the dog and took off for the Conseco Field House
for the BSB concert. I didn't have a clue where we were
going, so the first stop was a local gas station to purchase a
map. "Nice hair," the teenage boy behind the counter
enthused to Brooke. I told him we were going to see the
BSB, which cooled his attitude considerably. Teen boys
hate the BSB, just like teen boys hated the Beatles.
Maybe they're embarrassed by the bands' public display of
teen-boy sexuality. Then again, maybe they're just
We got to the arena early and parked near the
entrance. We paid $20 for a glossy program. We
waited with about two thousand kids and parents for the gates
to open an hour before the show. I'd say half of the
people in the crowd were girls between about 9 and 13.
They clustered in fours and fives, usually dressed alike, and
usually with one or two moms. The clothes ranged from
clusters in strappy little summer tank tops with skin-tight
pants (Brooke: "disgusting") to small groups in backless
halter tops with faux-cheetah boots, pants, and cowboy hats
(Brooke: "sad") to a few pods in sequins and tiaras
Some of the younger moms were clearly the active fans in the
family. One redhead barely out of her teens held up a
redheaded toddler girl, who in turn held up a glitter-encrusted
sign that read, "A.J., I'm little but give me a chance."
We knew we weren't in California any more. About 30%
of the crowd would qualify as "overweight," including the
kids. (Brooke: "It's a fast food thing.") And
then there were bangs, and POUFs, instead of ponytails.
Baggy t-shirts were still in and translucent plastic hadn't
arrived yet. Excitement rippled through the crowd as
little girls saw Brooke's pink hair. They would reach out
to touch it and say, "oh, COOL." The associated parents
usually gave me the Big Frown for re-infecting their region
with this style virus they thought they'd gotten rid of, but
one mom with a pierced eyebrow stepped right up and asked her
what brand of color she used.
About one in ten kids was a little boy - 8 or 9, with a
friend or two and a mom or a dad. The little guys were
extremely excited, and many of them wore BSB t-shirts.
They were completely inured to the little girls. We only
saw only one teen boy all evening, smiling gamely and holding
his girlfriend's hand. "That guy has a lot of guts,"
The stage was a centrally located hexagon with a raise-able
platform in the middle. A steel truss-work superstructure
hung from the ceiling with five arms extending to the far
reaches of the arena. At the far west end, a huge black
box emitted tentative puffs of fog. Partially obscured
flying harnesses gave away the plan, which Brooke confirmed
knowledgeably to nearby audience members. The band would
enter from there. Our seats turned out to be great -
right under one of the trussed steel arms where, Brooke
explained, one of the Boys would later twirl over us in a nifty
flying routine during the show. "I hope it's Kevin," she
confided (turned out, it was).
She was too excited to snack so I went out to the deli in
the corridor and ordered a glass of wine. "No alcohol at
this event," the wizened old guy behind the counter said dryly,
eyes sweeping the growing mob of tweens. Two other mom
types waiting in line with me sighed. "The guy has no
idea what we're going to go through tonight," one of them
chortled. We ordered cokes and potato salad.
I cruised the vending. Glow-sticks for $5, t-shirts
for $30, programs for $10 or $20, all manner of junk food,
cotton candy in blue and pink for $5, bottled water for a mere
$2.50. Some things in Indiana have changed - nobody would
have known what to do with bottled water 10 years ago, except
maybe to squirt it at somebody. There were also the
ubiquitous basketball chatchke, it being Indiana and all.
Conseco Field House is first and foremost home of the Indiana
Pacers, and Indiana is the birhtplace of basketball.
Showtime was listed as 7:30. About 7:15 the screaming
started. Somebody would see something - a roadie or
lighting tech crossing the stage - and the screaming would
ripple and swell and die away. At 7:40 the crowd executed
"the wave" several times until that ripple, too, died
away. At 7:50 the opening act appeared - two middle-aged
black rappers called the Jungle Brothers. They did
break-dancing and led a call-and-response: "Jungle" -
"BROTHERS" - "Back Street" - "BOYS!!!"
A few minutes later the second act appeared - a girl group
singing and dancing to taped back-up music, wearing what I
suspected were non-functional headset mikes. The lead was
a tough little gal, short, with a grim, surly gaze. A
real bad-ass. The other four were taller and all were
accomplished dancers. The tallest was so lanky with such
fantastic deltoids that I took her for a drag queen. She
After the second act the house lights came back on and
canned music played for 45 minutes. Kids fidgeted and
squealed. Snacks were bought and eaten, and the bathroom
lines flooded out into the corridor. Most of the recorded
songs were covers of 60s and 70s hits, shaped to fit the
90s. Cutting to the chase, a tacky nouveau-disco cover of
"I Want to Take You Higher" morphed the lyric simply into "I
want to get higher." 9:00 came and went and the crowd
showed no sign of getting ugly. Nobody would get mad at
the BSB, even if they had to wait forEVER. Jeezus, I
thought, even the Grateful Dead didn't make us wait that
long. Did they?
Around 9:15 the lights started to dim and sustained
screaming began. The musicians, all in white, emerged
from under the stage and took their places at their
instruments. Then the serious sub-woofers came to life
and jolted my collarbone with the theme from Star Wars.
Onto the central stage marched a military parade of 10
perfectly proportioned young men and women in flight suits
carrying lighted spears. They were every race and every
blend, another new thing in Indiana.
As the spear-carriers had completed their first circuit, the
BOYS THEMSELVES appeared in the spotlight, flying in over the
heads of the crowd in fantasy-military body armor on airborne
skateboards. The screaming shrilled and the music
swelled. The BOYS landed on the stage and marched around
the four quarters in perfect formation, stopping at each
compass point and coming to military attention, stiff against
the waves of hoarsening screams. We saw close-ups of
their faces on giant video screens. They did not
They were so . . . BOY. I realized with some chagrin
that it had been a long time since I knew or noticed boys like
that. So vulnerable and invulnerable. How sweet and
sexy it was, these boys so lovely and strong and innocent,
lifted up by the military music, viewed through automatic
tears. I knew it was an archetype, probably phony, but it
was no less real for that. I remembered other boys, other
times. For a moment it all seemed so unfair. "How
far you boys are from Viet Nam", I thought. And then
I found that I was very, very glad.