An Asian Backstreet Boys music video director says he purposely packed the set of “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” with people of color in an effort to display a true sense of racial diversity.
Director Joseph Kahn reached out to Billboard to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the visual opus making its debut in America, and shared that the social climate of the 1990s era had a heavy hand in how the iconic, six-minute-long horror-themed clip came together.
“This was 1997 — only five years after a race riot happened in Los Angeles and music was incredibly segregated,” Kahn, who also helped to create iconic visuals for Britney Spears (“Toxic”), Janet Jackson (“So Excited”), and Katy Perry (“Waking Up in Vegas”), expressed to Billboard from his L.A. office earlier this week.
“When I would do a rap video and cast six female dancers, they would go, ‘We should put one white girl in there.’ Or I would do gangster rap videos, and because those neighborhoods bordered Hispanics, they would go, ‘We should put at least two Hispanic people in here to acknowledge that.’ There were interesting racial dynamics I was dealing with.”
Things would apparently get a lot more interesting for Kahn, thanks in part to the wave of boy bands who carried over from the United Kingdom in the early-to-mid 1990s, including the Backstreet Boys, an all-American boy band who, Joseph says, also appeared to be all “white.”
“Suddenly I had five white guys, who were essentially dancing like R&B stars,” Kahn said of the situation he was handed.
“I went into the dance studio [to meet them] and was like, ‘Why am I thinking I should cast 30 white dancers [for ‘Everybody’]?” he went on to say.
Looking to the late Michael Jackson for inspiration, Joseph made the decision that he would both base “Everybody” on the music superstar’s “Thriller” video and showcase the Backstreet Boys getting “down” with everybody of every origin.
“We [needed] to multi-racially cast this,” Kahn remembered, “[and] Kevin’s going to dance with a black girl and there’s going to be an Asian girl and Hispanic girl. I need to mix this up and make sure this is the world that I want to see on screen.
“The beautiful thing was that I don’t think I ever discussed it with the Backstreet Boys. It was like they didn’t even think about it. Kevin danced away with a black girl and nobody blinked.”
While wholly admirable in his actions, had Kahn actually asked the “Boys” themselves, he might’ve discovered the truth about one particular member’s not-so-white lineage.
“I’m very proud of my Latin roots,” original Backstreet Boys member Howie Dorough, who’s half Puerto Rican, told Billboard back in 2011, days before the release of his first solo LP, Back to Me.
“Backstreet Boys have an international fan base, and fans love what we do. I didn’t want to be one of those artists that does something totally different so people would ask, ‘Why did he do that?’ Is he not proud?’ I’m very proud of being a [Latin] Backstreet Boy, so why stray too far from the mold [for my album]?”
In Kahn’s defense, nonetheless, Jive Records, the Backstreet Boys’ label, reportedly pitched the idea of the “Everybody” music video to the Asian video director as a project for a “white” version of R&B stars Jodeci (“Freek ‘N You“).
“[Jive] had a significant amount of money for [the] video, which was very odd, because I had never heard of this band [before],” Kahn said to Billboard of the first time he personally met the Backstreet Boys.
“I looked at these guys and went, ‘This is not a white Jodeci. These are five little Michael Jacksons!’ Then I listened to the song and realized it was essentially pop music, which really wasn’t happening at that time.”
Feel free to revisit the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” music video, directed by Joseph Kahn, below.
[Featured Image by Jason Kempin/Stringer/Getty Images]