The last year of the last century was a great one to be a Backstreet Boy.
In 1999, the boy band sold nearly 9.5 million copies of their album “Millennium,” making it the best-selling American album for the year. The lead single on that album was “I Want It That Way,” which famously features lyrics that make no sense whatsoever.
The lines in the verses and the chorus of “I Want It That Way” repeatedly contradict themselves. It’s entirely unclear if the song is supposed to be a love song, a breakup song or possibly even about an alien emotion humans don’t even have the capacity to comprehend.
Articles ― such as LA Weekly’s “What The Hell Is Backstreet Boys’ ‘I Want It That Way’ About?” ― have tried to get to the bottom of the mystery. The New Yorker’s John Seabrook dove into the legend of the strange lyrics in a 2015 story supporting his book The Song Machine.
Up until this point, it’s only been understood that the Swedish songwriter behind the hit, Max Martin, couldn’t speak amazing English at the time and therefore didn’t realize the song was so enigmatic. (Also the problem with his Britney Spears song “...Baby One More Time,” as he thought “hit” meant “call.”)
But wanting way more context, The Huffington Post pressed Backstreet Boy members Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson and A.J. McLean about the song during a promotional interview for their new commercial with Chex-Mix.
“Well it’s funny, we actually were OK with the lyrics when we heard it first,” Carter told HuffPost. “And then the president of JIVE records at that time ― I mean he’s a genius ― but he and some of the A&R people wanted to change the lyrics.”
“To make the song make more sense,” Richardson chimed in.
The Backstreet Boys were releasing the album with JIVE and so the label having a problem with the nonsense lyrics could have derailed the single.
“We hired some really well known producers at the time to redo the song,” Carter continued. “So, there was another version of the song out there and then we listened to it back. Then, we as a group voted on it and said, “No.”
The legend ends here. No more speculation into how the band could not realize what they were doing.
The Backstreet Boys knew at the time that “I Want It That Way” made no sense and then purposefully didn’t change the lyrics:
Carter explained that the band “had enough power at that time” to decide which version they wanted. They chose “the original version” and, as Carter explained, “it turned out to work out in the end.”
McLean chimed in to add, “I don’t think that it would have ended up the way that it did had we gone with the proper version. I guess you could say, you know, the one that made sense.”
When pressed about why the nonsense version appealed to the group, Richardson tried to explain.
“Sometimes you overthink things,” he said. “I think the newer version or the second version that we did that was more of a literal context didn’t ... it was the rhyming scheme that didn’t feel right. Yeah, it just didn’t feel as good, so sometimes you just got to go with what feels right.”
As mentioned before, the song ended up helping to define the end of the century, so it seems the group voted for the right version.
“I talk with fans that the song makes perfect sense to them, because everyone interprets lyrics differently and every song moves people differently,” said Richardson.
Here’s an upload of the alternate version The Backstreet Boys recorded:
UPDATE: The original video in this post no longer works, but you can still listen to the song here.
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