11 Points

The Lyrics to Backstreet Boys' I Want It That Way Intentionally Don't Make Sense?
written by Sam Greenspan

The most enduring, successful and popular song from the Backstreet Boys' late '90s typhoon is I Want It That Way. It's in the conversation for the all-time best boy band songs, most iconic '90s songs and maybe even best pop songs period.

But what is it actually about? That's ambiguous, and the subject of some rampant speculation.



So I thought I'd tackle it and see what all the madness is about. First, a quick refresher on the first few verses and chorus...
You are my fire,
The one desire.
Believe when I say,
I want it that way.
But we are two worlds apart.
Can't reach to your heart,
When you say,
That I want it that way.

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.
...
Now I can see that we're falling apart,
From the way that it used to be, yeah.
No matter the distance,
I want you to know,
That deep down inside of me.

You are my fire,
The one desire.
You are, you are, you are, you are,
Don't wanna hear you say,
Ain't nothin' but a heartache.
Ain't nothin' but a mistake (don't wanna hear you say).
I never wanna hear you say (oh, yeah)
I want it that way.
I've never thought too much about it before, so on my first pass just now of actually trying to interpret it, I'm pretty sure it's about a couple going through a breakup. The Backstreet Boy says his special lady is his fire and desire and he wants it that way -- a passionate relationship. But there is distance between them (literal or metaphorical, it's unclear), so she wants to end things -- she wants it that way. She's saying the relationship is heartache and a mistake, he doesn't understand why, and until she can clarify and articulate as such, he doesn't want to hear her say it's over.

That seems simple enough for me... only it turns out I'm meeting them more than halfway there.

Because the songwriters behind I Want It That Way have admitted it's just a song about nothing. It's just supposed to sound like cool boy band emotional lyrical fodder; it's not someone masterfully and poetically twisting English and utilizing ambiguous pronouns and an ever-shifting definition of the word "that."

It was primarily written by a Swedish guy named Max Martin who was just learning English at the time. I Want It That Way is basically the poem you had to write for 7th grade Spanish class, had that become a mega pop sensation.

The cowriter is another Swedish guy, named Andreas Carlsson. And in an interview in 2009, he said all they cared about was the line "You are my fire, my one desire." They loved that. So the rest of the song was just plugging in words that sounded good around that.
When Max came up with the original idea for the song, it already had the line 'you are my fire, the one desire'. 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!
But apparently they got gun-shy about putting unbridled gibberish into the marketplace, so they had the Backstreet Boys record alternate lyrics. Those went...
No goodbyes,
Ain't nothing but a heartache.
No more lies,
Ain't nothing but a mistake.
That is why,
I love it when I hear you say,
I want it that way.
In this Fringe Earth-2 version of the song, now the Backstreet Boy and his special lady are seeing more eye-to-eye on what they want. Their "that" in "I want it that way" is the same: They want to fix their struggling relationship and rebuild the fire/desire. Which is different than the original lyrics (at least my interpretation of them), where they have different "that" goals.

But the alternate version was never formally released. (It did leak onto Napster back when that was a thing that happened, but never went anywhere.) And to put a perfectly fitting bow on this, the reason the Backstreet team didn't want the alternate, more sensical version released was... they were afraid it would cause confusion in the marketplace.

No one wanted it that way.


This post was originally published on Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 11:00:00 AM under the category Music.

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