The Backstreet Boys.
The Backstreet Boys.
Image: Deseree Navarro/GettyImages

It is November 1994. South Africa has been a democracy for nanoseconds and on the West Rand of Joburg something wild is about to go down. At a small convent school in Roodepoort suburbia, a bunch of 11-year-old girls walk onto the stage. Eyes down, they do not move. The crowd of 150 in front of them is silent. A girl dressed in a lime-green cropped T-shirt, dropped-crotch Boys of London jeans, and a Kangol flat cap steps forward. She crouches down and presses the “play” button on a portable CD player positioned at the front of the stage, and it begins.

Close your eyes, make a wish

And blow out the candlelight

For tonight is just your night

We’re gonna celebrate

All through the night.

From tiny, tinny speakers come the dulcet baritone and tenor voices of four men. The girls begin to move in synch — a smooth, well-practised sequence. And they mouth the words of the sultry song in perfect time.

Pour the wine, light the fire

Girl your wish is my command

I submit to your demands

I will do anything

Girl you need only ask

The crowd levitate from their cross-legged positions on the floor. They start to scream. The shrill “woohoos” of a bunch of females aged nine to 12 reverberate off the face-brick walls. They stomp their feet, there are whistles, hands wave maniacally in the air.

I’ll make love to you

Like you want me to

And I’ll hold you tight

Baby all through the night

Barring five mildly alarmed teachers and a nun, everyone in the school hall sings in unison. A packed stadium during Beyoncé’s “The Formation” world tour has nothing on this moment. Now, 29 years on, it is unclear why a bunch of girls were competing in an inter-class lip-synch competition. Were any of these adolescents even remotely aware of what that song was about? Absolutely not. But the unmitigated fervour and elation of that moment was instantly what came to my 40-year-old mind when, last week, I got into an Uber and this classic R&B hit from Boyz II Men slammed me with its sexy descants.

The now-three-man group is going to be performing in South Africa in November and so they’re suddenly very much part of the local zeitgeist and radio playlists. They’re following in the choreographed steps of their 1990s contemporaries, Backstreet Boys. That fivesome is in concert here come May.

Ten years ago, if you’d told me that these aging “boy bands” — their members are collectively in their mid-40s and 50s — would be throwing sell-out shows on our shores, I’d have fallen about laughing. But here we are. The pendulum of what’s fashionable and cool (albeit for certain age groups) swings wildly, and never stops in momentum. Plus, of course, nostalgia is big business. Stroll into an H&M or Cotton On and the shelves of product emblazoned with bands and singers from decades ago — ranging from The Rolling Stones to TLC — are proof.

Aussie brand Cotton On is primarily aimed at customers who’re 18-30. They weren’t even alive when Fleetwood Mac released Rumours, but that doesn’t stop them wearing the T-shirt. Likewise, they’re the generation who’ve now fully embraced the return of other 1990s and early 2000s delights, including strappy, blocky sandals, grungy slip dresses, and miniscule handbags.

What 1990s kids don’t remember dancing in a circle around those impractical vexations, placed on the floor at a party? I can handle this late 20th- and early 21st-century revival, but I draw the line at one trend — apparently, the razor-thin eyebrows that we sported then are back. Overplucked, often pencilled-in eyebrows are a terrible look, irrespective of whether you’re 17 or 53.

Spot you at the Sun City Superbowl in November? I’ll be the one with bushy brows, down on bended knee — and then possibly struggling to get up again.

 From the April edition of Wanted, 2023.

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