The plan was to meet at a friend's house in St. Petersburg at 5 p.m. last Friday and get to Tampa as soon as possible. We wanted plenty of time to scope things out before our former middle school crushes took the stage.
Work had held us up, and it was already 5:30 p.m. but we couldn't go yet. My friend's mother, in town visiting for a few weeks, had to snap a picture of the three of us before we left.
Fifteen years, college, full-time jobs, student loans and our own apartments later, a mom was still taking our picture before a Backstreet Boys concert.
"Nothing's changed," my friend said. This would be her ninth show. She had worn a T-shirt with bright red sequins to the first one.
"They needed to see us from stage, as if they were going to say, 'You, in the red shirt, you're the one I've been looking for my whole life,' " she said with a smirk. "If that happens tonight, don't worry, it was meant to be."
We drove to the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre and joined the long line of 20- and 30-somethings there for the group's 20th anniversary "In a World Like This Tour," promoting their new album of the same name. We found a few more of our friends and briefly worried we wouldn't find seats together.
Despite the crowd, we decided it would be fine, because it's 2013.
"It can't be full full."
"This is not 1999."
"If it was 1999 it'd be full."
"If it was 1999 it'd be at the Forum."
Discussion turned to 'NSync's probable reunion at Sunday's 2013 MTV Video Music Awards.
"I'm really curious to see what Chris Kirkpatrick looks like now. Like does he still have pineapple head? Does he still wear overalls?"
Nostalgia for the '90s has been simmering ever since the decade was officially declared vintage a few years ago. My generation isn't the first to look back on and yearn for the cultural trappings of our youth. But we're the first to spend so much time talking about it on the Internet.
• • •
I was 2 when the '90s began, and 12 when they ended. I wasn't old enough to truly understand the horrors of the war in Bosnia ('92-'95) or the Oklahoma City bombing ('95), or the cultural significance of the band Bikini Kill ('90-'97), or even the teen angst of Angela Chase on My So-Called Life ('94-'95).
But I did have boy bands, TeenNick, Tamagotchis and black stirrup leggings.
It's not that the '90s were all that great, or that times were simpler then. They weren't. But I didn't know that. The boy banders in the TRL videos we worshipped couldn't say mean things to us like the cute boys at school could. We weren't agonizing yet over how to pay for college. And 9/11 and a decade of war were on the horizon, but we didn't know that.
What I do know — what all of the nearly 9,000 people in the audience last weekend still knew — is every single word of As Long as You Love Me ('97).
• • •
My first experience with the Backstreet Boys was missing out. It was Nov. 14, 1999 and my life was over.
In mere weeks, Y2K would destroy us all, but I had bigger problems. The Backstreet Boys were performing at the Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo and I. Wasn't. There.
I learned last Friday that I'm not any less affected 14 years later. I danced and sang and screamed along with everyone else around me. I grasped at a time when these five boys on stage got me through the pain and celebrations that come with being a kid.
I wouldn't want to relive the '90s, not really. The real '90s were as fraught as any other time in history. But the '90s in my head were so achingly simple. Looking back on them through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia keeps them that way.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2453.