Boys vs. Men

On not being female at a Backstreet Boys concert.

Cabaret Sampler Kennedy's at Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Avenue Through April 23; 216-241-6000
Oh, to be one of the boys at a Backstreet Boys show. The taunting starts early. Even before we entered the sold-out House of Blues, which BSB packed on their first tour in four years, the security guards let approaching males know that this evening had the potential to be a bit emasculating, like losing an arm-wrestling match to your kid sister. "Backstreet's back, all right!" one of them yelled in a loud pseudo-lisp. He even did a little pirouette and a leg kick as he said it, like Michelle Kwan with a beer gut. Most of the guys in line seemed ready to check their testicles with the valet right then and there.

And it didn't get any easier inside the club. A male bartender screamed loudly in faux hysteria to match the shrieking crowd. "Oh, stop it!" one of his female co-workers scolded.

A lot of the men in attendance had a vaguely embarrassed look about them and avoided eye contact, like a puppy that just peed on the rug. They clung to their girlfriends like static electricity, letting everyone know that they were merely in attendance as dutiful boyfriends -- not to enjoy the show or anything fruity like that.

But really, what's the shame in being a man at a Backstreet gig? It's not like men have a lot of shame to begin with -- when was the last time you saw your lady ignite her own flatulence or belch the theme to Rocky? -- so why get all red-faced when seeing a boy band? C'mon, it's not as if the Backstreet Boys are any less manly than the mascara-sporting dudes in Green Day.

And besides, the music wasn't all that bad. "We've gotten a little older, but we've still got some gas left in the tank," said thirtysomething Backstreet crooner Kevin Richardson. Sure, he may strain logic, reason, 20/20 vision, et al. by continuing to refer to himself as a boy" -- which the dude hasn't been since The A-Team was still on the air -- but Richardson was mostly speaking the truth on this night.

Taking the stage clad in white blazers with matching fedoras, Backstreet delivered its sweaty, saccharine pop with chopping, Tae-Bo-like dance moves. When the band launched into the hit "I Want It That Way," it conjured the most deafening sing-along we've ever heard. These Boys were loud enough to get Manowar's loincloths all in a bunch.

Granted, they never let a chorus die, hitting each one over and over like a mob enforcer working over a slow-paying debtor. And backed by a five-piece band, they drifted into rock territory, a questionable move, since the hardest thing about this bunch is their hair-gel-stiffened bangs.

Nevertheless, the Boys came across much more forcefully than most of their pop peers, and we saw more than a couple dudes mouthing the words to "Larger Than Life."

So there must be some other reason men get so uptight at a show like this. Maybe it's the sight of so many women cutting loose, playfully objectifying men the way men leer at them. Let's face it, no one wants to see his mother tuck a couple of bills into the G-string of some oily Chippendale's dancer -- or even acknowledge such an impulse to begin with. So watching the moms and, yes, even a few grandmas hoot and holler at a bunch of hunky men must have felt like an uncomfortable comeuppance for any guy who's ever spent time at the Diamond Men's Club.

"Take off your shirt," a gal bellowed in a loud, throaty voice at one point, as Richardson took to the mic. "Take off your shirt!" she demanded again, even more loudly.

The band smartly played on the audience's lust as it introduced one hit after another. "This song is about a girl who likes to party, likes to get crazy," announced Nick Carter, who, after dating Paris Hilton, most likely knows what he's talking about. "Do you know any girls like that?"

Oh yes, yes, they did. And when they all screamed in assent, it was a loud, mildly lewd release that actually left some girls panting. Yet as the show ended, and the excited gals clutched their male companions, it began to dawn on the dudes that they might benefit from the heightened state of arousal that hung in the air like so much cheap perfume. Those nervous smiles turned to sly grins. Backstreet's back, and we're all right with that.

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