“I Want It That Way”—the 1999 megahit by the Backstreet Boys—is a bop, no doubt. It’s difficult to not feel good after listening to it. But its lyrics? They make absolutely no sense.
At least we’re not alone in this assessment: Backstreet Boy AJ McClean agrees and told Us Weekly on the latest episode of “Anatomy of a Song” that the group fought their record label to keep the version we know and love today, confusing lyrics included. (Maybe it’s because many of us were too young to comprehend or really care at the time of the song’s release 24 years ago (!), but, as an adult listening to it with a fresh set of ears—and really listening to the words—it really doesn’t make a doggone bit of sense.)
“The record label actually fought us on the original version because they felt that because of the lyrics, it didn’t make sense,” McLean said. “They had us go in and re-record the chorus.”
McLean said the label’s alternative chorus went like this: “No goodbyes / No more lies / I love it when I hear you say / I want it that way.” (Juxtaposed with the original chorus —sing along with us: “Tell me why / Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache / Tell me why / Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake / Tell me why / I never wanna hear you say / I want it that way.”)
Of the re-recorded chorus, “It just didn’t feel right,” McLean said. “We went with our gut, and we fought the label on it tooth and nail.”
Their gut instinct paid off—the group went forward with the original, and the song ultimately became the Backstreet Boys’ signature song. It peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated for three Grammys in 2000, including “Song of the Year” and “Record of the Year.”
“By the grace of God, we made the right decision,” McLean said.
“I Want It That Way” was written by Swedish songwriters and producers Max Martin and Andreas Carlsson, who are basically responsible for the music of this writer’s preteen and early teen years (the duo was responsible for Céline Dion’s “That’s the Way It Is” from 1999, and, the next year, *NSYNC’s “It’s Gonna Be Me”; Martin launched Britney Spears’ career with her 1998 hit “…Baby One More Time,” and Carlsson is the reason for *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” from 2000).
“When Max came up with the original idea for the song [“I Want It That Way”], it already had the line ‘You are my fire, the one desire,’” Carlsson said in an interview. “We tried a million different variations on the second verse, and finally we had to go back to what was sounding so great: ‘You are my fire, the one desire.’ And then we changed it to ‘Am I your fire, your one desire,’ which made absolutely no sense in combination with the chorus—but everybody loved it!”
In addition to the song itself being a hit (remember when we used to listen to the radio all the time?), the music video was also a smash. (Remember music videos?) The video was shot at the Tom Bradley Terminal of Los Angeles International Airport—and has a fascinating history of its own. Filmed in April 1999, the video was the second—and last—time a video was set at the terminal before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Since then, restrictions have been put in place that prevent anyone from filming videos at airports. “It was a really, really cool experience,” McLean said.
So, no, the single’s lyrics maybe are a little nonsensical, but who really cares? Just sit back, enjoy the music, and pretend you’re a kid again for three minutes and 39 seconds. “It was a moment,” McLean said. “That song will forever go down in history as the song that makes no sense.”
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Rachel Burchfield is a writer, editor, and podcaster whose primary interests are fashion and beauty, society and culture, and, most especially, the British Royal Family and other royal families around the world. She serves as Marie Claire’s Senior Celebrity and Royals Editor and has also contributed to publications like Allure, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, People, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and W, among others. Before taking on her current role with Marie Claire, Rachel served as its Weekend Editor and later Royals Editor. She is the cohost of Podcast Royal, a show that was named a top five royal podcast by The New York Times. A voracious reader and lover of books, Rachel also hosts I’d Rather Be Reading, which spotlights the best current nonfiction books hitting the market and interviews the authors of them. Rachel frequently appears as a media commentator, and she or her work has appeared on outlets like NBC’s Today Show, ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN, and more.
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