Backstreet Boys – ‘Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)’

Song: ‘Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)’
Artist: Backstreet Boys
US chart peak: 2
Release date: May 19, 1997
Writers: Max Martin, Herbie Crichlow
Producers: Max Martin, Kristian Lundin
Quintessential Max moment: That big sonic thud that happens at 3:10, ushering in the chorus
Video synopsis: Five guys in a warehouse dripping with water and showing off their stomachs

The greatest myth about the music industry is the idea that record labels know best. Back in 1996, some bozo at Virgin decided that ‘Wannabe’ wasn’t going to be the Spice Girls first single because it was too risky. Then some other bozo decided to send it off to America to be turned into an awful R&B single. THEN some OTHER bozo decided the video wasn’t good enough and that it needed to be re-shot for America. Thankfully, at every step of the way, the Spice Girls held their ground and got what they wanted. In that case it turned out quite well really.

Actually in this case it turned out pretty well too. As previously explained, the Backstreet Boys’ release history in America is a little complicated, exasperated by the fact that they launched in Europe first and it took America longer to catch on. Anyway, when it came time to release the international version of their self-titled debut the label decided they didn’t want to lead with ‘Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)’ – a hit across Europe already – but instead go with the equally parentheses-friendly, ‘If You Want It (To Be Good Girl)’. The only problem was that the band thought the song was the worst thing they’d ever done (to be fair, it’s pretty terrible). 

So in the end the ‘boys’ got their way and ‘Quit Playing…’ was not only the lead single but ended up being their highest-charting US hit, only kept from the Number One spot by Puff Daddy’s ‘Mo Money Mo Problems’ (TUNE) and then Mariah Carey’s ‘Honey’ (TUNE). Even better was the fact that in the US the song was promoted via radio rather than through MTV etc, so the embarrassing video – featuring earrings, rain-sodden shirts and longing looks at burgeoning six packs – was mostly unseen ‘across the pond’.

‘Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)’ is quite an interesting one in terms of how it was created. Apparently the song wasn’t originally written with the band in mind so they were quite thankful when Max handed it to them. Mind you, not thankful enough for all of them to skip lunch to record it, with Brian and Kevin handling most of the vocals because the pair wanted to get it done while the others were scoffing their faces. The early versions of the song actually had Brian singing both the first and second verses, with Max having to fly to London in September 1996 to record Nick singing the second verse. It’s that latter version that was released as a single and appeared on later pressings of the album. (There’s also a version in Italian sung by Kevin and Howie because, well, why not eh).

Like all of the Backstreet Boys’ ballads, ‘Quit Playing…’ has a lovely melodic lilt to it. It’s downright pretty in places, especially in that little musical interlude after AJ’s typically great middle eight bit. The chorus itself is interesting too because the actual top line bit is incredibly simple – just “my heart” repeated a couple of times basically – but then the song’s title is repeated constantly in the distance like a mantra. It also ushered in that sort of white funk beat that would underpin all of their ballads, especially on ‘I Want It That Way’, which ‘Quit Playing…’ feels like a test run for in a lot of ways.

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