The Backstreet Boys’ iconic hit ‘I Want It That Way’ has famously confusing lyrics, but there’s a perfectly good reason why they don’t make any sense
The lyrics to the Backstreet Boys’ 1999 single “I Want It That Way” make no sense.
Maybe it’s something you never thought about during carefree listens in the ’90s. But it’s true. While they start off somewhat understandable, by the chorus, they’re downright confusing.
Take a look. (You can listen along to the full song here.)
You are my fire
The one desire
Believe when I say
I want it that way
At this point, they’re singing about wanting to be in a relationship with someone who sets their heart aflame. Cool.
But we are two worlds apart
Can’t reach to your heart
When you say
That I want it that way
A little muddier, but perhaps the girlfriend is suggesting in this situation the guy actually wants them to be “two worlds apart.” Or maybe the girl is saying she wants to break things off.
Then we get to the chorus, and we’re completely lost.
Ain’t nothin’ but a heartache
Tell me why
Ain’t nothin’ but a mistake
Tell me why
I never want to hear you say
I want it that way
“He doesn’t wanna hear it because he is the one that wants it that way?” Chrissy Teigen tweeted in 2018, puzzled about the lyric’s meanings. “He wants to be the one to say it? Also what is ‘it'”?
The Backstreet Boys gave Teigen an answer that made everything more confusing for many.
“Don’t wanna hear you say that you want heartaches and mistakes… or to be 2 worlds apart,” the official BSB account tweeted. “We don’t want you to want ‘it’s that way – that’s the way we want it… for you to not want it that way.”
Then band member AJ McLean told Entertainment Tonight the lyrics mean “whatever each individual’s interpretation is.”
You could argue that a guy is telling a girl that he doesn’t want to hear her say he wants them anywhere but on the same page. But honestly, you should stop analyzing the lyrics to this song because they were never supposed to make sense.
The real mind-boggling question is why the Backstreet Boys didn’t own up to that and tell Teigen the real story behind why those lyrics are so darn confusing.
The lyrics were written by a Swedish songwriter whose English at the time was rusty, according to Kevin Richardson
“Ultimately the song really doesn’t really make much sense,” band member Kevin Richardson admitted to LA Weekly in 2011. “The track was co-written by Swedish songwriter Max Martin, who remains a one-man wrecking crew hitmaker.”
You definitely know Martin’s songs. He’s written countless pop hits including Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time,” The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” and another Backstreet Boys hit, “Everybody.”
According to Richardson, while Martin is a hit-writing machine, he barely spoke English when “I Want It That Way” was written.
“His English has gotten much better, but at the time…” Richardson said while trailing off.
OK. So the lyrics are just something that got lost in translation? Not exactly.
There’s more to the story.
The band recorded a more romantic version of “I Want It That Way.” It isn’t the original version of the song. According to the band’s former keyboardist Tommy Smith, it’s an alternate version that was recorded when many noticed the chorus for the Martin-written song didn’t make sense.
“It doesn’t make sense. That’s why they recorded the other version of the song with different words,” Smith answered a fan on an archived site he ran on the band until 2001. “On the other hand, I like the original version. Even if it doesn’t make sense.”
In 2016, the band spoke with HuffPost and bandmate Nick Carter said the then-president of JIVE records (among others involved) wanted to change the lyrics to have the song make more sense.
You can listen to the alternate version of “I Want It That Way” here.
Here are the lyrics for that version, side by side with the original ones for easy comparison.
They change the meaning of the song entirely.
What once seemed like a breakup song is now just a mushy, lovey-dovey ballad. After recording the alternate version of “I Want It That Way,” the Backstreet Boys told HuffPost they liked the original version from Martin better.
“We hired some really well-known producers at the time to redo the song,” Carter told HuffPost. “So, there was another version of the song out there and then we listened to it back. Then, we as a group voted on it and said, ‘No.'”
“I don’t think that it would have ended up the way that it did have we gone with the proper version,” added AJ McLean. “I guess you could say, you know, the one that made sense.”
McLean was right. It turned out, it didn’t matter that the lyrics made little sense. The song was nominated for three Grammys in 2000, including “Song of the Year.”