The tension in the room was thick enough to cut with a knife. We were way behind schedule, running on “Backstreet Time” as usual, and if we didn’t decide on the final tracklisting for the new album soon, I worried we were never going to release it.
“Let’s not try to dwell on songs, unless-” our manager Jen was saying, trying to keep us all focused on the task at hand, “-‘cause we could be on one song for an hour, and we have limited time.”
“Define what ‘not dwell’ means.” Nick wasn’t helping things, being such a smartass while the rest of us were trying to take this seriously. I saw him smirk at Howie, who was sitting next to him. Howie snickered. I sighed to myself. It used to be me and Nick disrupting meetings, making fun of Howie. But things had changed over the years, and now he and Howie were two peas in a pod, poking fun at everyone else. It was no longer Frick and Frack, but… Nowie? Well, at least they didn’t have their own official nicknames yet.
“No, there’s no time limit. Just don’t dwell,” Jen repeated. I didn’t blame her for sounding slightly snippy. “Alright, play ‘Be Your Soldier.’”
Soldier. It was a song Nick had written, so of course he was proud of it – protective of it, even, to the point of being defensive. I should have known he wouldn’t react well when I said, “The chorus just doesn’t do it for me. The song is great-”
It was true. I liked the song – it was catchy as could be – but I didn’t love it, and that was because of the chorus.
“-It’s great, but the chorus, just the ‘I will be your soldier,’” I sang in an annoying, high-pitched lisp, using my hands to demonstrate how repetitive the notes were. “It just doesn’t do it for me.”
I guess I shouldn’t have made fun of the way we sang it because our vocals really weren’t bad, but the whole thing was just way too sing-songy for me. I’ve never been a big fan of sing-songy choruses. “Something That I Already Know”… “Masquerade”… both good songs ruined by bad choruses. I had fought to keep them off our set list the past two tours, and I had won both times. I should have known Nick wouldn’t want me to get my way again.
At first, all he said – calmly, I admit – was, “I disagree. I think the chorus actually is good.” But the more we went back and forth about the merits and shortcomings of the song, the more agitated Nick seemed to get, until finally, he said quite adamantly, “I’m not comfortable with changing the chorus of this song.”
Nick has always had an explosive temper, and we could all sense the anger slowly building inside him, threatening to erupt. Howie and Kevin, who were sitting on either side of him, both put a hand on his shoulder to try to calm him down, which only served to annoy him even more. “No, no, no, no!” he protested, his voice rising in pitch. “You don’t have to, like… do that to me. I’m fine. I’m just sayin’-”
But what he was trying to say got caught off by Kevin telling him, “Calm down. You’re getting flushed.” He tugged at Nick’s t-shirt so we could see the red blotches creeping up the side of his neck.
“No.” Nick pushed Kevin’s hand off his shoulder. “No, I-”
“Nick’s gettin’ red!” Kevin announced to the table, to everyone’s amusement. “He’s gettin’ red as a beet; it’s goin’ up to here.” He pointed to his own temple, laughing the whole time.
Nick tried to ignore him and say what he’d been trying to say, his voice rising above Kevin’s. “No, I’m tellin’ you… I’m tellin’ you that this is a big song, and people get fuckin’- If it’s not on our record…”
“You got it,” I heard Jen say. “It’s on the record.”
I rolled my eyes, wondering why everyone else felt the need to coddle Nick, like he was still some little kid who couldn’t handle not getting his way without throwing a hissy fit.
“…we’re going to be regretting it,” Nick finished.
Well, I wasn’t going to tiptoe around the truth, afraid of insulting him. I was going to speak my mind. “My point is, I still don’t like it,” I said, tapping the table. I could hear my voice crack, like it tended to whenever I tensed up, and inwardly, I cursed at myself. “Whether you change it or not, I still don’t like it,” I repeated, and thankfully, my voice sounded stronger that time.
“I’ve heard your point,” said Nick shortly.
“I know,” I shot back, “and we see your point.”
That got a chuckle out of everyone, at Nick’s expense. He looked down and didn’t say anything else. I could tell he was trying to stay in control, but his face kept getting redder and redder.
“Alright, next song is ‘Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of,’” said Jen, trying to get us to move on, but Howie was still laughing uncomfortable at the obvious tension between Nick and me.
“There’s a lot of points,” he joked.
“Should we talk about this song a little more?” Kevin asked, looking around the table with a shit-eating grin on his face. I could tell he, like Howie, was trying to lighten the mood. Everyone laughed, except Nick, who was still staring down at the table, chewing on his fingernails.
When Jen said, “No, let’s move on,” Nick threw his hands up in defeat and shrugged. He was smiling, but it was a tight, forced smile. I could tell by the obvious tension in his face that he wasn’t ready to move on. We did, but when we inevitably came back around to “Soldier” again, things quickly came to a head.
“God, Brian, will you stop about the fucking song?!”
“Nick, you refuse to listen to me and maybe consider-”
“You know why you don’t like the chorus?” he asked, jabbing his finger across the table at me. “I’ma tell you why, because you’re not the one leading into it or leading it! This group isn’t just you!” Like I was the one being selfish, when we all knew he was fighting for his song to be included on the album. “If the rest of us want it, you’re gonna have to just compromise and deal!”
“Shut the fuck up and let me talk!” I snapped at him, sick of everyone interrupting each other. I know fans will be shocked to hear I dropped the F-bomb, but trust me, I’m no saint. When I get angry enough, I curse along with the worst of us. And right then, I was pissed.
“No, you shut the fuck up!” Nick shouted back at me.
“You guys! C’mon…” In the background, Jen was trying to calm us both down, while Kevin was cracking up, but Nick just kept screaming at me.
“You shut the fuck up! You shut the fuck up! I swear to God-” If he’d been sitting a few feet closer, his finger would have been in my face. “Don’t fuckin’ talk to me like that!”
“I’ll talk to you however I wanna talk to you,” I replied.
“You don’t get respect outta me that way!”
“You wanna hear everybody around the table…” I said, pointing at everyone else who had stated their opinions.
“Don’t be a fuckin’ dick, like everyone knows you are!” Nick was shouting over me.
“…and when you hear it, you don’t wanna hear it!” It was true: Nick couldn’t handle criticism without getting his feelings hurt, and that was why no one else wanted to tell him there was anything wrong with one of his songs.
“You understand what I’m sayin’?” Nick was still going, oblivious to what I’d said.
“You hear everyone’s opinion…” I started again.
“Don’t be a fuckin’ dick,” he repeated. “DON’T BE A DICK!”
“…but you don’t wanna hear it.”
“Trust me, you don’t want it from me, baby,” he warned.
I threw up my hands and shook my head. “What?” I said with a smile, completely unfazed by his vague threat. I knew Nick would hate that. He’s the type of person that expects whoever he’s arguing with to get all up in his face and scream right back at him, probably because that was the example his parents set for him when he was growing up. The Carters don’t know how to respectfully disagree. Nick gets pissed off by people who can stay calm in an argument while he’s flying off the handle because he knows they make him look like a fool. I was fine with letting him make a fool out of himself if it meant coming out on top, so I sat back in my chair to watch it happen.
“Trust me,” Nick said again. “I’m not afraid of you anymore!”
“Dude!” So much for sitting back and shutting up. I sure hadn’t expected something like that to come out of his mouth. “What, you were afraid of me?” My mind raced back through the early years of our friendship, when we had been inseparable. Nick had always looked up to me like a big brother, while he was the little brother I’d never had. When had he ever been afraid of me? I mean, we’d played pretty rough sometimes, but never to the point of physically hurting each other. By the time Nick finished going through puberty, he was a whole head taller than me and outweighed me by at least thirty pounds. I may be scrappy, but Nick could probably take me any time if he really wanted to. I stared at him, wondering where in the world this was coming from.
“Nick… Nick…” Kevin had been trying to get Nick to back off the whole time. “How ‘bout… how ‘bout we all act like men?”
“No! I’m- He knows what I’m talkin’ about, dude!” Nick insisted. I shook my head, which only seemed to make him madder.
“Okay!” Poor Jen was still trying to get us back on track, but Nick wasn’t having any of it. He was on his feet now and seemed determined to do or say whatever it would take to get a rise out of me. So, of course, he went straight to the one topic he knew I was self-conscious about.
“What about fucking vocals on songs? Are we gonna talk about that? Are we gonna talk about the fact that you don’t necessarily sound as good as you used to?”
So there it was: the elephant in the room. Finally, someone had acknowledged it.
Of course, my muscle tension dysphonia had been discussed before, but the guys knew I didn’t like talking about it. It was something I’d been dealing with on my own for the past few years, ever since I’d started having problems with my voice. The diagnosis had come as a devastating blow.
All my life, or at least for as long as I could remember, I’d been told that I had a God-given gift. I had been blessed with a beautiful voice, and singing was the one thing I had always been good at. I did okay in school, but I was a year behind everyone else my age because I’d missed so much of kindergarten, I had to be held back. I excelled at sports, but my parents wouldn’t let me play football like Kevin because of my heart condition, and I didn’t make it onto my high school basketball team because I was too short. Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school team either, I reminded myself, but it still stung. I had learned to use comedy to compensate for the things I was self-conscious about, and what I lacked in stature, I made up for in personality. But still, I hadn’t made a career out of being charismatic. My voice wasn’t just a blessing; it had become my meal ticket.
Life had taught me not to take my health for granted, and although I tried to stay in shape, I had accepted that, as I aged, I might not be able to do all our choreography anymore – which, quite frankly, was fine with me. But I had assumed I would always be able to sing. So when my voice started to go, it felt like a betrayal, almost like God was taking back this gift He’d given me. I wasn’t angry at Him, but I did feel frustrated – a fact which Nick knew and was taking full advantage of in that moment.
I took a swig of water and tried to stay calm, although I could feel myself shaking. “That’s what you wanna talk about?”
“Are we gonna talk about that? Are we gonna talk about that?” Nick kept asking.
I shrugged. “Let’s talk about it.”
“And talk about when we get in the studio and producers come to us to tell us that they got problems because of your fucking voice?”
I bristled. “Yeah, because I can’t do your job anymore,” I fired back. He’d been there, too, I wanted to remind him. He’d had solos taken away when his voice was changing, or when he showed up to the studio after staying up all night on some drug-fueled binge, too fried to sing. And who had always been there to pick up his slack, to sing his parts? Me!
For a second, Nick actually stopped talking. He looked completely stunned that I would bring up such ancient history. “No, no, no, no! This is the truth.”
“Okay, let’s not get personal,” Jen said.
Kevin looked up at Nick. “How about speaking from a place of love and not a place of anger?”
“No, I’m not angry!” Nick insisted. “I’m fucking being real because everyone wants to sugarcoat it!”
“You are angry,” said Kevin, but Nick just kept going.
“Everyone wants to sugarcoat it! Let’s fucking bring it out in the open!”
“We’re not sugarcoating it,” Kevin said calmly, as Nick raged on. “There’s a way to come from a place of love and not a place of anger.”
“Listen, when producers come up to – STOP!” he screamed at Jen, who had stood up across the table and was gesturing for him to lower his voice. “When producers come up to us and are saying, ‘What’s wrong with Brian’s voice? What’s happening with his voice?’ and then you wanna sing on the records, dawg, and you sound great on records ‘cause you can do a fucking little bit of editing… but when we gotta go on stage and sing that shit, and we gotta go do a world tour?! I mean, this is kinda, this is the thing I’m trying to say!”
His words stabbed me straight through my heart. It hurt to know the producers had gone to him behind my back, instead of just asking me directly what was going on with my voice. Maybe I should have been more forthcoming about it, but I guess a part of me was still in denial. I thought I could still pull this off, but maybe I couldn’t. Maybe Nick was right. I just didn’t want to admit defeat.
“But you take… you take the good and the bad, dawg.” I could hear the tension in my voice, hear my vocal cords constricting as the words squeaked out.
“No, because-” Nick sighed and turned around, throwing his hands up in the air.
“You take the good and the bad,” I repeated, almost pleading with him. “We’re a group.” Please, I thought. Don’t cast me out. I can’t control this. I’m doing everything I can to take care of it, but there’s only so much I can do.
This wasn’t like my heart condition, something that could be corrected by surgery. I never wanted to go under the knife again, but if there was an operation that could fix my vocal cords once and for all, I would have done it by now. But there wasn’t. My best option was voice therapy, which hadn’t seemed to make much of a difference yet. It was disheartening. Why couldn’t he understand that I was just as frustrated as he was, if not more so? It was my voice. I was the one who had to deal with it day in and day out, who had to hear myself straining just to speak. The other guys had no idea how hard this was for me.
“Can you sit down for a sec, Nick?” said Kevin.
Nick was now pacing around. “No, I don’t wanna sit down now.”
“Well, here’s what I think-”
“I just want someone to really talk about what the fuck is really going on!”
“We are! But time out!” Kevin shouted back at him. “Sit down for a second-”
“No!” Nick howled.
“-and show some fuckin’ respect!”
“How about respect me and let me stand?”
“I respect you. Stand up then,” said Kevin, and I chuckled, grateful for my cousin taking some of the pressure off me. “You’re getting two different arguments here. You’ve busted your ass. I appreciate it. We all appreciate it. Somehow it got blown up into an argument between you and Brian and a competition over lead vocals. And there’s a lot of baggage here from the fucking past twenty years that is coming out now.”
I looked up at Nick. It was no secret that he and Howie and even Kevin had sometimes resented me for coming into the group and taking away their solos. Before I joined, Howie sang lead on most of their songs, and right behind him were Kevin, the sexy one, and Nick, the cute one. And then I had come along and stolen the spotlight from all three of them. Suddenly, I was singing most of the solos and getting most of the attention, along with AJ, while the other three were shoved to the back. But no one seemed to resent AJ because, after all, he was the original Backstreet Boy. He’d been there all along, and I was still the newcomer, so I got the blame. But it wasn’t my fault. We weren’t the ones making the decisions back in those days.
When we made it big overseas, it quickly became obvious that Nick was the most popular with the fans, and that was when he started getting more solos. By then, his voice had broken, so he could actually sing them with some consistency. But I knew how it felt to have my solos taken away, too. I still remembered our producers telling me that they were going to let Nick sing the second verse of “Quit Playing Games” for the version on our U.S. debut album because the fans liked him better. The pendulum swung both ways, and these days, it was definitely back on Nick’s side. I swear, he had a solo in just about every new song we’d recorded.
“And yeah,” Kevin continued, taking advantage of the fact that he finally had Nick’s attention. “We need to talk about Brian’s vocal issues. We need to talk about that. We need to find a way to make it work. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Nick had finally shut up and started listening. He stood there, leaning on a chair, licking his lips like he always did when he was nervous. “I’m saying-” he started. “All I’m saying, Kev… all I’m saying-” But he didn’t seem to be able to get the words out. He finally gave up, shaking his head. “I need a fucking break.”
He stalked out of the room, leaving the rest of us to look around the table and raise our eyebrows at each other. Jen looked shocked, but the rest of us weren’t; it wasn’t the first time we had fought like that. We love each other like brothers, and we fight like brothers, too. Nick may have been a dick about it, but he was the only one with big enough balls to come right out and say what everyone else was probably thinking, but didn’t want to say, and even though his words stung, I respected him for speaking the truth.
After awhile, Howie got up and went to check on Nick. Of course, it had to be Howie. I imagined the two of them standing out in the hall, talking smack about me. But whatever he said to Nick, it must have worked because when they came back, Nick was much calmer.
“I want you to get better. I really do,” he told me, once everyone else had had their say. “I genuinely want you to get better. Alright? I want Michael Jordan back. I really do.”
My throat suddenly felt tight, for reasons that had nothing to do with my vocal cord tension. I sat there massaging it, trying to act casual as I avoided eye contact. Nick was looking me right in the eye, but I knew if I looked back at him, I was going to lose it. I had shed plenty of tears over my vocal problems in private, but I didn’t want to start crying in the middle of a business meeting.
“I always felt like it was Jordan and Pippen in this group, and I really did,” Nick continued, and for once, no one interrupted him. The rest of the room silent. Everyone was listening. “And I thought you were Michael Jordan.”
I put my head on my hand and looked down at the table, wishing we could go back to that time in our lives, when me and Nick were Frick and Frack, inseparable and unstoppable. We were like Jordan and Pippen. What had happened to us?
“And I miss that voice again,” said Nick. “I miss it.”
Me too, I thought. But I missed more than that. I missed him. I missed Frick and Frack. I missed the good old days, when things were hard, but never this complicated. Back when we were just a couple of kids with stars in our eyes, we could settle just about anything on the basketball court. It never would have come to this.
But things had changed. We had changed. As we’d grown up, Nick and I had grown apart, and I knew we would never again be as close as we once were.
“And I believe you can have it back,” he was saying. “I believe you can. I believe you will get it back. And I believe us as a team… we, the five starters, that we can do it, but we need Michael. And I know it’s gonna happen.”
I sniffled and wiped my nose, too overcome with emotion to speak. I could tell Nick was feeling the same way. I wanted to get up and go over to him, give him a hug, but I knew if I did, we would both break down. So I stayed in my seat, with his words still echoing in my mind.
Maybe we weren’t Frick and Frack anymore, but we could still be Jordan and Pippen. Despite his angry words, Nick believed in me. I just had to believe in myself.
I had to believe that one day, it would happen.