Song: ‘I Want It That Way’
Artist: Backstreet Boys
US chart peak: 6 (!)
Release date: April 12, 1999
Writers: Andreas Carlsson, Max Martin
Producers: Kristian Lundin, Max Martin
Quintessential Max moment: All of the middle eight and the fact it makes very little sense
Video synopsis: Lots of emoting at an airport
“Ultimately the song really doesn’t make much sense,” the band’s tallest member Kevin Richardson mused about the world’s best boyband ballad ‘I Want It That Way’ to LA Weekly in 2011. “[Max’s] English has gotten much better, but at the time…There are a lot of songs out there like that don’t make sense but make you feel good when you sing along to them, and that’s one of them.”
Isn’t that just wonderful. “There are a lot of songs out there like that don’t make sense but make you feel good when you sing along to them, and that’s one of them.” I mean, obviously it would be nice to know that what your singing, perhaps while clenching your billowing satin shirt, makes at least an ounce of sense, but at the same time it’s best to just give in to your gut feeling and let it all go. The reason I’m popping this at the top here before getting into the song itself is because the story behind ‘I Want It That Way’ not making sense is both unimportant in the long run but also quite amusing. Please do read on to find out more…
…Okay so the song was recorded in November 1998 in Stockholm. All the lads were there, and at some point Max and Andreas Carlsson presented them with the demo for ‘I Want It That Way’. At that point it just had a chorus and nothing else. Obviously everyone thought it was amazing so recording was all finished by the time they left on November 16. Brilliantly, when it came time to pick the first single their label Zomba – now dealing with a proper global success – decided not to go with this out and out stone-cold classic but instead with the still-pretty-good, and much more upbeat, ‘Larger That Life’. It was the band that had to convince the label, who a) wanted to follow the formula of the first album (upbeat lead single, ballad afterwards) and b) were worried that a more mature, mid-tempo song with a slightly odd grasp of sense might alienate fans. In the end, the ‘boys’ won.
BUT it seems like somewhere along the line someone suggested that an alternate version of the song be rustled up – one that actually made lyrical sense. So the lyrics were re-worked – apparently with the help of Shania Twain’s ex-husband Mutt Lange – and that version then leaked on Napster (lol).
Here it is sung by a man called Luaan Furt, apparently with the lights off:
Now as you can hear that actually makes a lot more sense.
According to Carlsson, however, the band just preferred the version that makes some people that care about these things go ‘HUH?!’.
“‘I Want It That Way’ was a play with words,” he said in an interview with Hit Quarters. “When Max came up with the original idea for the song, it already had the line “you are my fire, the one desire”. We tried a million different variations on the second verse, and finally we had to go back to what was sounding so great, “you are my fire, the one desire”. And then we changed it to “am I your fire, your one desire”, which made absolutely no sense in combination with the chorus – but everybody loved it!”
“For a while there was another version of the song that Mutt Lange helped to write, but that version never made it because this was the one the band loved.”
So there you have it, boyband power! As with Meat Loaf’s ‘I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)’ the song seems to hinge on what ‘that’ actually means in the song’s context. (Side note: Wasn’t Meat Loaf’s thing about bum sex? That bum sex wasn’t ever going to happen? Maybe I made that up).
Anyway, what a bloody song ‘I Want It That Way’ is. Opening with a pretty acoustic riff (apparently the last thing written for the song and inspired by ‘Nothing Else Matters’ by Metallica), its beauty lies in its simplicity, or at least the appearance of simplicity. From the lovely lilting melody that runs through the verses, to that beautifully delayed shift into the chorus, it’s the perfect template for an era-defining pop ballad. It also features a typical Cheiron-era Max Martin staple; the middle eight breather where everything simmers down before the chorus crashes back on a big key change, therefore allowing the requisite hysteria in a live environment (it’s surely no coincidence that blonde-haired angel Nick Carter gets to introduce that key change).
Perhaps further evidence of Max’s skill as a producer is the conviction behind the band’s vocal performance. It’s been mentioned a lot that Max was a fan of repeated vocal takes to capture the exact right amount of emotion and it’s pretty evident here (AJ’s last coda of “’cause I want it that way” practically drips with longing). You really believe that they want or don’t want someone to say or not say that they want it that way (whatever that is in this context). Or that they themselves do or don’t want it that way at all actually. Whichever way that actually is.
Either way, it’s amazing, isn’t it.