A guest blog written by James Rawson. You can agree/disagree with him here.
Song: ‘The Call’
Artist: Backstreet Boys
US chart peak: 52
Release date: February 6, 2001
Writers: Max Martin, Rami Yacoub
Producers: Max Martin, Rami Yacoub
Quintessential Max moment: The descending B flat minor melodic scale at 2:17. Bomp bomp bomp. BOMP BOMP BOMP BOMP.
Video synopsis: The ‘Boys’ run around a nightmarish cityscape seamlessly morphing into one another. Howie D rips his own face off.
[The video is for the Neptunes remix, which is a) awful and b) here]
In 2003, Denise McLean released her debut literary work Backstreet Mom: A Mother’s Tale of Backstreet Boy A.J. McLean’s Rise to Fame, Struggle with Addiction, and Ultimate Triumph. “But what was it about?” I hear you ask.
Well, the video shoot for ‘The Call’, amongst other things, where her son first experimented with cocaine. In the months that followed, A.J.’s addiction spiralled dramatically out of control, as did the Backstreet Boys’ singles sales and Max Martin’s hit-making power, for the time being at least. In many ways, ‘The Call’ marked the end of the Backstreet Boys’ heyday, but what an astonishing way to go out.
First of all, let’s get one thing absolutely clear: ‘The Call’ is a top-shelf, gold-standard, AA certified, regulation banger for the ages. It’s a relentless juggernaut of dark pop, racing ahead faster than you can handle and dragging you down into its heady abyss. The premise is deliciously anti-boyband: ‘it’s late, I’m in the club, I haven’t charged my Nokia 3210 and, I know I’m your boyfriend and all, but I’m staying out for a quick shag so I’ll see you in the morning, cool?’. It’s a millennial morality tale where our protagonists would probably do the exact same thing again given half the chance: a rare pop ode to temptation, impulse, and massively fucking up.
By this stage in his song-writing career, Martin’s English is sufficiently competent that everything actually makes sense (no ‘…Baby One More Time’ style mistranslations) and ‘The Call’ is about as formally experimental as he’s ever been with his lyrics. The verses take the form of a Shakespearean monologue directly addressing the audience (“Let me tell you about the call that changed my destiny”) while the choruses are the titular call itself (“Listen baby I’m sorry…”). The one-sided conversation suggests that the drama may have played out on an answer-phone, but a duologue between A.J. and his girlfriend at the song’s beginning lead us to believe that a conversation actually took place. After all, it’s ‘The Call’, not the somewhat less impactful, ‘The Voicemail Message’. Either way, the interplay between the drama of the chorus and the regret-riddled commentary of the verses prove to be one of the track’s most distinctive and effective elements.
A.J. and Nick, both now established as the ‘edgier’ members of the group, tear through the lead vocals, sparing the squeaky-clean Brian, Kevin and Howie D the indignity of featuring prominently on an infidelity banger (as an aside, Kevin would go on to feature in Christian movie Love Takes Wing while Brian would have five Top 20 solo singles on the US Christian chart, so it’s perhaps surprising they signed off on ‘The Call’ at all). Both Carter and McLean go full throttle, littering the song with ad libs culminating in A.J’s “Gotta gooooooo” over the penultimate chorus, providing as iconic a Martin/BSB moment as you could possibly hope for.
Fighting to keep up with the vocals, Martin and Remi’s production summons spanish guitars, thumping synth keys, and a Gregorian chant inspired middle eight which shouldn’t work, but absolutely does. It’s the perfect marriage of content and form: a madly chaotic and hedonistic approach to production, just throwing everything at the song because it gives you a kick and seeing what happens.
Unfortunately for ‘The Call’, which charted at a pretty piss-poor 52 in the US, Martin’s era-defining style of pop was coming to a close; not until 2004 would he reinvent his sound with Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’ and once again reclaim his title as global super-producer. In 2001 the definition of lucrative cool was Destiny’s Child, Alicia Keys and Usher, while the all-white boybands of the 90s had quickly become passé. In an attempt to stay relevant, a pair of hot producers called The Neptunes were brought in to remix ‘The Call’. The Neptunes’ version isn’t up to much, it saps all the mad frenetic energy out of Martin’s brilliant production, but BSB’s management knew that their time was up and that tastes were changing; the American public was deserting the greatest boyband their country had ever produced. We’re going to a place nearby. Gotta go.
If you’d like to write a guest blog on a Max Martin song that didn’t make the US Top 10 then there’s information on how to do that right here.