Decades ago, it could only have been a pubescent teenage girl’s lollipop-fueled daydream, a glorious figment of a wild imagination only made real through doodles and scribbles in gel pen in a Lisa Frank spiral notebook. Well, be still your boy-band-loving heart, because 20 years later, your 14-year-old pop-culture dreams are coming true.
Nick Carter, the congenial blond you liked most in the Backstreet Boys, and Jordan Knight, the most devilishly handsome of the New Kids on the Block, have formed a duo. Gasp! Squeal! Clasp your hands to your bosom and swoon! Yes, from the synchronized dancing of the two most popular, longest-lasting boy bands of all time emerges the meeting of two teen heartthrob titans, a new musical power couple with—not to exaggerate—the best name of all the duos ever in music of all time: Nick & Knight.
This idea. That name. Yes.
Though the Backstreet Boys and the New Kids on the Block have been touring as the boy band conglomerate NKOTBSB for the better part of the past five years, even releasing a joint single together, the idea of the two most popular personalities from the song-and-dance jumble breaking out on their own previously seemed only possible on the floor of your bedroom: plastic Nick doll in left hand and Jordan figurine in right, pretend-performing their respective bands greatest hits in pop toy unison. In your head.
In real life, the boys—men, really (Carter is 34, Knight is 44, and you are old)—look good. They are still perfectly coiffed and nattily dressed, though a few wrinkles emerge now when they crack their trademark sparkling-white smiles, and a snazzy vest (Carter) and slick blazer (Knight) have long replaced matching chunky turtlenecks.
“Yes, I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s a match made in heaven,’ or whatever,” Carter says, gamely refraining from rolling his eyes as he acknowledges the initial hook getting people interested in Nick & Knight: its seeming silliness. “But, especially for me, this music is probably the best stuff I’ve done outside of the group.”
In other words, Carter and Knight know you’re talking about their new project because you, like OMG, loved the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block. Actually, more than just knowing that, they’re embracing it. And they’re using it as the catalyst for evolving, too, to bring attention to new music that they’re extremely passionate about.
And a clever name certainly helps, too.
When it came to naming their fledgling duo Nick & Knight (a hilarious riff on the late-night Nickelodeon classic comedy block Nick at Nite—if you really needed that explained, I judge you) there was only the slightest bit of hesitation. Not that there should have been any at all. “When we first came up with the idea, we were wondering if it was too cliché,” Carter says. “We debated, but it stuck. There was nothing else it could be.” Truth.
In hindsight, though, there were more esoteric reasons for branding themselves Nick & Knight, latching onto the identities they created in their respective music groups. “We didn’t want to disguise ourselves with a different name,” he says. “We’re proud of who we are and where we came from.”
And where is it that they came from? Should you live under the world’s most depressing rock—a rock without boy bands?!—Carter and Knight are modern pop legends, and we dare you to refute that.
“When you’re in a boy band and you hit a certain age, you’re not blocked in a time warp.”
Carter was just 12 when he joined the Orlando-based pop group the Backstreet Boys, performing with the group—barring a two-year hiatus in 2001—ever since, topping charts with hits like “I Want It That Way” and “Larger Than Life,” selling an ungodly amount of albums, and releasing new music as recently as last year. Knight was the lead singer of the Backstreet Boys’ predecessor, New Kids on the Block, which sold over 70 million albums worldwide on the backs of singles like “The Right Stuff” and “Step By Step.”
A direct line can be drawn from New Kids’ success in the late ’80s and early ’90s to the Backstreet Boys’ global takeover in the late ’90s and early ’00s, a path that’s clear as Carter adorably recounts the first time he met his current music partner.
It was in the infant years of the Backstreet Boys and the band was out on a lake in Orlando on the yacht of legendary manager Lou Pearlman, the suzerain of ’90s boy bands, when Knight paid the burgeoning pop sensations a visit with his then-girlfriend, now-wife Evelyn Melendez. “I was like, ‘Hey! It’s Jordan Knight! His girlfriend is fine!’” Carter laughs. “Yeah, macking on my girlfriend on a boat,” Knight adds.
As for their partnership two decades later, it sprouted fairly organically from their respective bands’ collaboration on the blockbuster NKOTBSB tour, which launched in 2011 and was accompanied by a joint compilation album. Musically, they were routinely paired together, sharing a verse on the megaband’s original song, “Don’t Turn Out the Lights,” and were often choreographed as a duo.
Both had broken out as solo acts from their groups in the past, and nearly each member of the sprawling NKOTBSB roster entertained side projects in between touring. So when they both got the itch to create new music at the tail end of the tour, they decided to collaborate as a duo this time rather than go at it alone again—something they both claim came separately as some divine inspiration.
“When we finally brought it up together, we were both like, ‘I was thinking the same thing!’” Knight says. Were their groupmates shocked, or maybe even a little jealous that they would were collaborating alone, leaving out the rest of NKOTBSB? “When you’re in a group, there’s obviously politics,” he says. “But everyone in the New Kids does different things outside of the group, and we’re all respectful from that.”
In fact, the only shade of reaction besides enthusiasm Carter and Knight got to the project was some misplaced confusion. “I told Joe [McIntyre] about touring with Nick and he thought I was talking about Nick Lachey, because we had just gotten off tour with 98 Degrees,” Knight says. “When found out he what was really going on, he was like, ‘I didn’t know you were talking about Nick Carter. That’s brilliant!’”
With all the falsetto harmony of a Maroon 5 or One Republic track, but maybe lacking just a little bit of the earworm catchiness, Nick & Knight’s album has been garnering politely good reviews. The record “plays as one might expect, right to the base,” says Sarah Rodman at The Boston Globe, calling it a “perfectly pleasant 10-track collection.” Other reviewers, chiefly The Guardian’s Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy, are less kind, leading with, “Boy bands just won’t die.” But, really, that’s just missing the point.
No one wants them to.
This isn’t the same situation as the one in that tired pop-culture trope, where the once-great band white-knuckles onto their glory days, touring the world with their kitschy old hits until they croak. There’s nothing “washed up” about the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block, or Carter and Knight, for that matter. The current culture, at least on the web, embraces nostalgia. Our old favorites are mocked, they’re exalted. On Buzzfeed, Vulture, Twitter, and in our hearts, these people are celebrated.
“When you’re in a boy band and you hit a certain age, you’re not blocked in a time warp,” Knight says. “We still all like fresh ideas. You don’t hit a certain age and stop wanting to create.”
Not that we’re not guilty of freezing an artist or band in the time period during which they were popular. Internet lists mocking boy bands’ ’90s fashion certainly are a culprit of this. In fact, just before chatting with me, Knight and Carter were in an interview where they were shown photos of all-denim outfits and cringe-worthy leather wardrobes from their bands’ heydays to justify, good-heartedly mock, or both.
“You take it lightly,” Knight says. “Everybody has a funny high school picture they have in their yearbook or whatever and has to look back and cringe. So this is no different.”
That’s not to say that it’s not frustrating to be constantly asked to look back. Carter especially seems visibly annoyed when I ask about our tendency to harp on the past, when the Backstreet Boys and New Kids were at their prime. “I don’t focus on it,” he shrugs. “I feel like when I’m 80, then I’ll look back and reminisce.”
But don’t confuse that for any kind of shunning of their boy band past—though it’s taken time for Carter and Knight’s respective relationships with the term “boy band” to evolve.
“They can’t call us boy band anymore, because we’re men,” says Carter when I ask how he feels about the term all these years later, before I interrupt to remind him that that, though they are technically men, people are not keen on abandoning the boy band label anytime soon, no matter how old the Backstreet Boys get. “I don’t know how it feels,” he concedes. “We don’t even care anymore, really. At the end of the day, call us whatever you want to call us.”
Knight agrees. It doesn’t bother him at all now, though he admits that it used to.
“When I did my first solo album in 1999, I used to get upset when people said ‘boy band,’” he says. “Plus, New Kids was a group before the boy band thing was coined. They would be like, ‘You were in a boy band,’ and I’d be like (in a stern voice), ‘That term wasn’t even around when we were coming up.’ And I would get all defensive.”
Now Carter and Knight are in their third iteration of a boy band, of sorts. First the Backstreet Boys and New Kids, then the united megagroup, and now Nick & Knight. And when they tour in support of their new album, they’re going to do so completely cognizant that their audience is there there, really, because they’ve been fans of all three.
That means that though Nick & Knight is what they’re touring in support of, they’re not assholes. They know they have a past. They know you want to hear “I Want It That Way.”
“The thing is, we don’t want to go out there and just use our bands’ songs,” Knight says. “If the crowd wants it, which they usually do, we’ll hit them with it. But they also want to hear the new music, and that’s what we want to do as well.”
It’s this next part of his explanation that proves why this whole idea, this union of Nick Carter and Jordan Knight, however silly, however musically sound, will be a successful one. “We would never be like, ‘Oh, we’d never do Backstreet or New Kids. We’re Nick & Knight! We’re trying to break away from that!’” he says. “That’s not our attitude at all. When we do it, we do it to celebrate who we are and where we come from.”
Translation: Long live the boy band.