20 Years Ago: Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” was supposed to be a No. 1 hit – but bad timing and label greed prevented it.

(June 20, 1999).  Have you heard “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys recently and thought to yourself: “damn that song is still a bop after all these years!”?

Well, apparently you’re not alone (assuming you said yes). 

Earlier on June 19, a Twitter post of a shirtless NYC subway rider bumping the Backstreet Boys’ signature tune from his speakers – and (obliviously) being joined in a singalong by nearly everyone in the train car – went viral.  

It was one of those magical moments that served as a reminder that not only is music still the unifying force even for complete strangers on a subway train, but that “I Want It That Way” still jams after all these years and – judging by the diversity of folks belting it at the top of their lungs in the viral Twitter video – it wasn’t just your stereotypical pop teeny-bopper who was rocking it back in the day.

See the viral video in this article from Billboard.

This year marks the classic tune’s 20th anniversary – as well as that of its blockbuster parent album, Millennium, which sold more than 1.13M copies in just its first week of release back in May 1999.  

That album sales figure (a Nielsen SoundScan one-week record at the time) was largely due to the anticipation built by “I Want It That Way,” the album’s lead-off hit which had been on pop radio for more than a month but was not itself available in stores as a commercial single.  (For the millennials reading this, 1999 was part of the pre-streaming/pre-iTunes era when brick-and-mortar record stores still existed and physical media – either CDs or cassette tapes, and sometimes vinyl – was still the primary means of purchasing music.)

To the surprise of almost no one with a pulse at the time, the Millennium album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart and became the biggest-selling album of 1999 with nearly ten million physical copies sold.  But probably to the surprise of everyone – especially in retrospect given the Boys’ immense popularity – their signature single, “I Want It That Way,” experienced a different fate on the Hot 100, despite its status as (arguably) the most popular song of its era.

When the song rose from No. 9 to No. 6 on the June 26, 1999-dated Hot 100, it was the only tune in the top ten that was not commercially available as a single release.  And there was a simple reason for that: the folks at Jive Records, the Boys’ label at the time, wanted to capitalize on the song’s popularity by forcing people to buy the whole album, not just the lower revenue generating $3.49 CD or cassette single…so they never released it as such. 

“I Want It That Way” peaked at No. 6 on this June 26, 1999, Billboard Hot 100 chart.

“I Want It That Way” was hardly the first (or the last) popular song to be withheld from single release by a record label. But it was one of the first to be allowed to compete on the same charts with songs that had been commercially released.

“That Way” was thus at a disadvantage when it competed on the charts with mega-selling hits by Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Will Smith, Pearl Jam and others.  The B’street Boys may have had the most radio airplay – enough to get their tune near the top of the partially airplay/partially sales driven Hot 100 – but with no sales available to add to its total, it couldn’t get to the chart’s No. 1 finish line. 

The result?  “I Want It That Way” never rose past No. 6 and ultimately remained in that position for eight frustrating (non-consecutive) weeks – and in the Top 40 for 30 total weeks – before running its course and falling off the chart that November.

In retrospect, timing had been both a blessing and a curse for the Backstreet Boys’ most beloved single.  On the one hand, the fact that it was released to radio in April 1999, just five months after Billboard had adopted a policy that allowed non-commercially available songs to chart on the Hot 100, is what allowed it to even make the list.

Before that policy change in November 1998, a song had to also be available as a physical single in stores to be eligible for any of Billboard’s major singles charts (i.e., the Hot 100, country, R&B singles charts, etc.).  “I Want It That Way” would not have qualified under those conditions given Jive’s album-only marketing strategy.  In fact, it was the abundance of songs impacted by such label policies (see No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and Sugar Ray’s “Fly” as prime examples) that prompted Billboard to change its chart eligibility criteria in the first place. 

The fact that the song was released after the Hot 100 Singles chart essentially became a Hot 100 Singles & Tracks list – coupled with the tune’s huge radio airplay component – is what got “That Way” on the chart.  That it competed against a host of songs that had both airplay and sales factored into their chart points is what stifled “Way” at No. 6.

“I Want It That Way” also predated the (legal) digital download and streaming eras by several years. With the advent of digital music consumption, physical singles were no longer necessary and today aren’t even a factor on the charts. There’s little doubt that had legal downloads and streaming been available 20 years ago, “That Way” would have been a monster No. 1 hit.

The Backstreet Boys obviously weren’t the only artists affected by greedy label schemes back in the day – and they probably weren’t complaining as they clearly benefited from the tactic by having major album sales during what was ultimately the recording industry’s boon in the late 1990s/early 2000s.  

To wit, the B’street Boys have since been ranked as the biggest-selling boy band of all time and even mounted a mini-comeback earlier this year when their latest album, DNA, topped the Billboard 200 and made them the act with the third-largest gap (19 years) between No. 1 albums, behind Paul McCartney (36 years) and Santana (28).

Yes it would have been nice if these Boys could have also claimed that elusive No. 1 single at some point during their heyday – and even nicer if that song had been their best-known and most beloved hit, “I Want It That Way.”

Ahhh, but it was never to be.  

Still, that doesn’t mean we love it any less, or that we won’t be joining total strangers in a singalong next time some guy decides to bump it from his speakers while standing in a large, captive crowd.  

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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