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I love getting feedback from readers, but, last week, after I reviewed the Backstreet Boys' mannered performance in the HSBC Arena, I received a scurrilous wave of hate e-mail, voice mail and snail mail. My favorite letter began: "Today, when I got home from school, I immediately ran for The Buffalo News and searched for the (Backstreet Boys) review. Unfortunately it was written by you."

The outcry from fans was so pervasive that I even warranted my own message board on the Web site for the Backstreet Boys Mature Fan Club. (Yes, believe it or not, there is such a thing.) Someone posted the review so that I then began receiving e-mails from fans around the country, most of whom weren't at the Buffalo show.

This is a typical Backstreet Boys' fan tactic, where they team up to try to strong-arm critics into seeing the guys in the same rose-colored way that they view them. The group even includes copies of fans' letters to "bad" critics in its press kits, as if to say, "If you dare criticize us, this is what you'll get."

While there's nothing wrong with supportive, impassioned fans, it's hard not to think that their energies are misdirected. Instead of attacking critics, they should be demanding more from their beloveds. Indeed none of the screeds addressed to me even discussed the things I have the biggest problem with, that the group's image and music have become stale. The members prance around all dressed in black like solemn lil' teen pop priests, singing ballads that get drippier with every release.

It's not that I have a personal grudge against the group. In fact, I was a champion of early singles such as "Quit Playing Games With My Heart" and "As Long As You Love." But I feel that the band is increasingly misdirected, and the blind devotion of some of its fans only seems like it's making things worse. If the audience doesn't demand to be challenged, then there's no reason for a group to push the envelope. And when it comes to the Backstreet Boys, it's definitely time for some tough love.

Case in point: The just-released single "Drowning" from the Boys' forthcoming hits package, titled either hopefully or defensively "Chapter One." Despite such groaner lyrics as, "Love me mouth to mouth," the song has a soaringly pleasant chorus. But at a time when the band is in desperate need of a rebirth, the tune predictably offers more of the same.

And if you don't believe me, ask the group. Nick Carter and Kevin Richardson described the cut to MTV as "a mix of 'Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely' and 'I Want It That Way,' with a bit of country group Lonestar's 'Amazed' thrown in." It's enough to make you long for the days when artists, however hackneyed, at least gave lip service to being unique.


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