The Backstreet Boys are back!

Let it soak in. That's right. Take a moment and consider the implications. Roll the words around on your tongue like a fine wine. The group that rescued the term "boy band" from the careless clutches of perennial ne'er-do-wells NKOTB has a new single rocketing up the charts, a new album is in the offing, and the Backstreet machine is gearing up to make 2005 the most exciting year for music since the release of their seminal debut album, Backstreet Boys. Now, I know what you're thinking; The Backstreet Boys never really left us. They were always together in our hearts. I couldn't agree with you more! But the truth of the matter is, the "'Boys have been through some tough times in their career, and each successive challenge has only made them stronger.

Rewind ten years. Casual music fans and hard-core aficionados alike begin to notice a change in the air. Rumblings of something new on the horizon begin to reverberate across the Atlantic. And somewhere in a near-capacity arena, Collective Soul was sounding the death knell for grunge's final hours.

During this fractious, uncertain time period in American music, Backstreet Boys' Svengali and sensei, Lou Pearlman, was road-testing a new idea throughout the concert halls of Europe. What do you get if you take a quintet of ready-made heartthrobs with a song-and-dance background, give them some can't-miss bubblegum pop tunes and outfitted them all in furry animal costumes? Well, riots are what you get. That and some very appreciative fetishists. Lou quickly ditched the costumes, but people loved the songs, and pretty soon he found himself squiring the biggest boy band sensation to light up the European charts since a little band they called the Fab Four. Nobody loves a hype machine quite like Americans, and before long, the stateside buzz — not unlike Beatlemania — was too massive to ignore.

On Tuesday, March 12th, 1996, The Backstreet Boys touched down in America, and music would never quite be the same. An estimated 100 million people watched Nick, Kevin, Howie, AJ, and Brian gyrate, croon, and doff their matching Hypercolor vests on The Arsenio Hall Show. Nearly every fan watching the 'Boys sensational television debut would buy an album, and to this date, only Elvis Presley has sold more recorded music.

Fast-forward to 2005. I'm standing in line at Taco Bell, jonesing for an Enchirito, when the silky-smooth opening chords to "Quit Playin' Games With My Heart" can be heard faintly over the restaurant speaker system. Almost immediately, someone cranks the volume. I smile and nod to myself in silent appreciation. I'm at the front of the line, but for the next three and a half sweet minutes, everyone within earshot stands transfixed. Then just as quickly, the moment passes. "Boy, what I wouldn't give to hear THAT song live again!" I volunteered to no one in particular.

A voice answered back from behind the counter. "You won't have to wait too long." It was AJ McLean, Backstreet's bad boy and cashier at this very Taco Bell. I could hardly believe my eyes.

"AJ!" I cried. "Shouldn't you be maxin' and relaxin' at some mansion down in Miami?"

"Not until all the checks are cashed, bro. Fame is a cold bitch, and she'll chew you up and spit you out. Now, would you like to try a Fresco-style Baja Beef Gordita today?"

My head was spinning. A Backstreet Boy was taking MY order. "W-w-what have you been up to?" I stammered, trying and failing to sound cool.

"Mostly hate crimes," he chuckled. "Nah, I'm just playin'. That was mostly Howie's thing."

I had been replaying this moment in my head for years and wasn't about to let it disappear without asking The Question. "AJ – do you remember what happened on February 6th, 1998?"

The most infamous member of the "'Boys fondled a hot sauce packet thoughtfully. "New York City. The Garden. Cold night."

My face lit up. "That's right!" We locked eyes and blurted out the words in unison: "A CAPPELLA!"

AJ continued: "It was so cold that our gear kept freezing, and eventually, the PA system just shut down. We had to do the second half of the concert without any music or amplification at all. I'll never forget that night"

I nodded. "I was there. I cried so hard that I couldn't see! But I sang EVERY word, AJ! I sang so loud that I thought my lungs were gonna burst." Lost in a moment for what seemed like forever, our silence was shattered by the sound of a bell and the unmistakably stentorian tones of authority.

"Hey pop star!" screamed the manager. "If you got time to lean, you got time to clean. Order up!" AJ grabbed the bag and slid it across the counter.

His eyes sparkled gently. "Will we see you on the road, friend?"

"Yes," I replied. "Yes you will." I turned away quickly and fought back the inevitable surge of emotion that was pulsing up through me.

"Whoa, whoa! I didn't get your name!"

With the last bit of steely resolve I could summon, I turned around and produced a smile for one of my heroes.

"Jesse. My name is Jesse."

"Hey, Jesse," said the singer – just a man. "There's an extra taco in that bag. No charge."

The new Backstreet Boys album, "Never Gone," will be released on June 14th, 2005. Meanwhile, enjoy these hotlinks.