Steven: I’m currently experiencing a weird sense of déjà vu. I’m listening to an album that recently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, Up All Night by UK pop sensation One Direction. In 2011, music critics spilled a lot of ink on the ’90s revivalism of indie-rock bands like Yuck and Wild Flag; with One Direction, this nostalgia has finally extended to the decade’s boy-band pop acts. Up All Night is such an uncanny recreation of the Backstreet/’N Sync era that I’m slightly afraid Lou Pearlman is going to suddenly appear behind me in an open bathrobe. Please tell me everything is all right, GK.
It looks like another boy-band invasion is upon us, and right on schedule: The generation of Orlando-based acts engineered by Pearlman came out roughly a decade after the heyday of New Kids On The Block in the late ’80s, and One Direction (along with fellow Brits The Wanted and the Nickelodeon-spawned Big Time Rush) has emerged about 10 years after Justin Timberlake left ’N Sync, which signaled the unofficial end of the last cute-guy-group wave. As Billboard’s Keith Caulfield astutely observed in The Washington Post last week, this didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Pop music in general has been moving in a less aggressive, more kid-friendly direction for years now, away from the hard rhythms of hip-hop and toward full-blown displays of froth and lighthearted innocence. “Acts like Katy Perry and Rihanna have paved the way for pure pop music’s return,” Caulfield told the Post. “What’s been missing were girl groups and boy bands. It’s such a good environment for this kind of act in pop music right now.”
What amazes me about Up All Night is how little the boy-band playbook has changed in the last few decades. Like its predecessors, One Direction is the creation of a Svengali known for his merciless pursuit of chart success at all costs. Simon Cowell might have conceived the group on a reality show—the most 21st-century of pop-music factories—but after deciding that the individual members worked better as a group after seeing them on X-Factor, he launched this shaggy-haired Frankenstein using an old, reliable blueprint. One Direction is a five-piece group made up of young, fresh-faced lads between the ages of 18 and 20, radiating a safe, decidedly old-fashioned kind of sexuality. The lead single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” like the rest of Up All Night, is a lite dance-pop fantasy, where young men display an uncommon sensitivity and level of consideration for the feelings of young women. “The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,” one of the guys says in the chorus. In the video, they get all overwhelmed by frolicking on a beach. No doubt they’ll be hanging out in an airplane hangar in the next video.
Anyone who thinks this is just a passing fad is probably kidding themselves. One Direction is set to make its highest-profile TV appearance yet on Saturday Night Live on April 7. And then there’s the onslaught of Korean pop (or K-pop) artists who have already taken over large swaths of the international teen market. These acts have our country surrounded, and the infiltration is already underway.
GK, I know you came of age during the last boy-band boom, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on One Direction. Are there subtle differences between these guys and the groups of yore that I’m missing? Does a part of you still enjoy records like this? And why do you think there’s still an audience for boy bands in these crueler times?
Genevieve: Well, I think it’s important first to note that the last 10 years have by no means been devoid of teenybopper fare. While they don’t fit into the five-cute-guys mold, Justin Bieber, and Jonas Brothers before him, play right to the same demographic. The Jonases started burbling up in 2005, less than four years after your stated end-date of the last teenybopper wave. There were also plenty of other clean-cut tabloid-figures-to-be spinning out of the Disney Channel universe during that time: Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, not to mention the High School Musical phenomenon. It’s the same pattern followed by the millennial Mickey Mouse Club alums before them, who used the channel that embraced them as actors to launch music careers: Boy-band scholars might remember that ’N Sync’s big Stateside break came via a Disney Channel concert special that was originally turned down by the group’s soon-to-be rivals, the Backstreet Boys. So if anything, this new wave is notable for its lack of any apparent connection to the Disney channel.
It’s also important to note that One Direction and The Wanted’s European shores have always been more welcoming of the boy-band model. Back in the late ’90s, Lou Pearlman toted his boys around Europe for a couple of years before they hit in the U.S., complete with lucrative Stateside re-releases of “debut” albums that were almost two years old. And the interest in boy bands has never really gone away in the UK, at least not to the extent they have here, as evidenced by the successful mid-’00s reunion of early-’90s Brit mega-boy-band Take That and the mid-’00s rise of McFly. Boy bands never went extinct, they’ve just been at low tide for a while, and their resurgence is as inevitable as… well, you know.
Now, to answer your question: Yes, there are some differences between these groups and the millennial boy bands, and the late-’80s/early-’90s wave before them, but they’re negligible. The most notable is their sound, which, while as overproduced and unchallenging as that of their predecessors, lives in a slightly different quadrant of the pop-music arena. Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync (and sure, 98 Degrees, let’s throw those guys a bone) were much more aligned with R&B sounds, what with their smooth vocal harmonies and sexy talking parts. One Direction sounds a lot more like Katy Perry-esque power-pop-rock with its big, shiny guitar sounds. (Shades of Jonas Brothers.) The Wanted hew closer to club/dance music. That’s just a reflection of today’s current pop-music trends, though, which is as inherent to the boy-band model as elaborate hairstyles and pointing sexily at the camera.
That sexy pointing underlines the main reason I don’t respond to this new wave: They’re babies! I was a barely pubescent 13-year-old when the Backstreet Boys stood shirtless in the rain in the “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” music video, while the Boys themselves ranged from 16 to 24. They were sexy, worldly older men safely ensconced within the distancing confines of the television screen. The oldest member of One Direction is 20 years old, eight years younger than me. I can’t think of these boys as anything but cheek-pinchingly adorable. There’s a very small window in which young people can lust innocently after boy-band members, before a real awareness of sex starts to color those members’ pseudo-sexual posturing as unnatural and silly. I’m not saying that as women grow older, they can’t still respond to these groups—in fact, I’ve argued that very thing on this site—but the experience changes, tied more to nostalgia and a sense of community than any sort of hormonal pinging.
This explains the high turnover rate in the boy-band world, but it doesn’t explain why it seems to crest every decade or so. It’s not like there are suddenly millions more 13-year-old girls in the world than there were a couple of years ago. I have an extremely half-baked theory that’s admittedly based almost entirely on my own experience. While boy bands are targeted to pre-teens and teens, they’re marketed, programmed, and written about by adults… or people who were teenagers a decade ago. I think it’s possible that a lot of the ink being spilled over One Direction and The Wanted is being done by twentysomething writers who were in the eye of the last boy-band storm—as either fans or haters—and want to compare the experience with one from their formative years. Like how I’m doing now. Or like, say, a writer who came of age in the early ’90s wanting to write about his formative experiences with R.E.M. Maybe a decade is just the right amount of time for old music trends to start seeming significant, rather than just outdated, and for us to start applying them to current musical events.
But you’re coming at this from a different angle than I am, Steven. You were a little older than I was during the BSB/’N Sync heyday, and I’m guessing that if it was a part of your world, it was more of an annoyance than anything. Does your reaction to this wave differ any from the last? Do you think I’m way off-base with this argument about cyclical music criticism/writing? Do you have a different explanation for this resurgence?
Steven: I think your half-baked theory is interesting, and there might be some truth in it. But even taking into account your points about how teenybopper music didn’t exactly go away in the last decade, I don’t think you can deny that something is in the process of happening right now, and it’s growing out of trends in American and international pop music that’s creating a perfect storm, the likes of which we haven’t seen in many years. I don’t think that’s just (or even mainly) the fantasy of music writers.
As for my personal reaction to all of this, you’re right, my perspective has changed a lot since the late ’90s. Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I look at these groups with a lot more affection than I did back then. Let’s face it: A big reason guys in their teens and early 20s hate boy bands is that they feel, on some level, threatened. Men that age (and, I’m afraid, sometimes older) tend to fly off the handle about things that appeal primarily to women, especially if those things involve guys who are cuter and richer than they are. Boy bands hit young men squarely in the places where they feel the most insecure: How do I make girls like me, and how can I assert my masculinity?
Anyway, I got over that bullshit a long time ago. Now I’m fascinated by the machinery of this stuff. Pearlman ended up being nearly as famous as the groups he created, and the years since the late ’90s have seen the backstage star-making factory become foregrounded in pop audiences’ imaginations. What’s interesting is that knowing how the sausage is made has not affected the adulation these groups receive at all. When I was reading the recent Spin story about K-pop, part of me wondered for a moment if all of the unglamorous details about how these acts are hatched—Spin makes it sound like an actual factory—might make the groups less appealing somehow. But then I realized, of course not. The machinery is part of the appeal now.
Thanks to American Idol and The Voice, as well as scores of other reality shows, even the littlest music fans are a lot savvier about how stars are created and promoted than the kids who screamed at NKOTB back in the day. Nobody really believes anymore that boy bands come together organically, or that they write their own songs, or that they lay down instrumental tracks. That isn’t what people expect from these groups anymore, and it’s difficult to remember a time when these things did matter. The fantasy now isn’t just that you might be with one of these guys, it’s that you might actually be them, if you’re lucky enough to one day end up in the pop-star boot camp.
But there’s something else going here, too: The audience for these groups isn’t just little kids. (Which explains One Direction playing SNL and Today, two shows with decidedly adult audiences.) In the last decade, it’s become lot less embarrassing for discerning, grown-up music fans to admit liking even the bubblegummiest pop music. If anything, criticizing this music out of hand is now taken as a sign of being out of it. Months before Spin’s lengthy K-pop feature, Pitchfork covered the topic in depth, raving about the genre’s “wild, enthusiastic spirit” and “the way their producers gobble up and spit out sounds.” I don’t know that One Direction will inspire the sort of self-conscious intellectualism that a new Radiohead record inspires. But certainly adult listeners are treating these groups more seriously than they used to.
I know you don’t have a crystal ball here, GK, but if you had to guess, how do you think this latest boy-band invasion will shake out? Are pop fans going to gorge on these groups for a few years until they get sick of them, which would put the next wave at around 2024? Or have we reached a point where these groups are just going to be a permanent part of the pop landscape, absorbing the latest sounds and fashions, because there’s a structure of unprecedented strength and prominence in place to keep them rolling out year after year?
Genevieve: I’ll get to your question in a minute, Steven, but first I have to address something. I’m glad you brought up the rise of K-pop, not only because it reinforces my point that this sort of music never really goes away, but also because it illustrates perhaps my biggest beef with One Direction and The Wanted: They don’t dance. As someone who still remembers the dances to “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” and “Bye Bye Bye,” I find this unacceptable. K-pop groups like Big Bang and Shinee look a lot more like the millennial boy bands in this regard, unfailingly whipping out highly choreographed, synchronized dance routines onstage and in videos. In fairness, Big Time Rush not only dances, its members apparently employ a trampoline onstage; that, combined with their association with Nickelodeon, makes them feel much more like a “classic” boy band than these newfangled Brits who just walk back and forth onstage, pointing. Always pointing.
And frankly, that could be problematic as they start rolling out on Stateside television with little onstage flash. You point to One Direction’s upcoming Saturday Night Live and Today appearances as evidence that the audience for these groups isn’t just prepubescents anymore, but that was never the case. Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync both did SNL back in their heyday, not to mention every morning show that would have them, and there’s an important reason for that: The kids may be doing the screaming, but the parents are the ones doing the buying. Winning over an adult (parental or not) audience is essential to boy bands’ success, and they’re not going to do that with cute winks and hair-flips, and the music itself may or may not be enough. But throw in a high-energy dance break and some pyro, and it might be enough to convince Dad he’d be able to tolerate forking out a couple hundred bucks for tickets and merch and chaperoning his daughters to a big arena concert, which is where these groups make most of their money. Is One Direction going to do that? You be the judge:
Well, Hoda seems impressed, for what that’s worth.
Now to your question: Honestly, I’m not convinced this new wave is going to turn out to be anything more than a brief, Jonas- or Bieber-sized bubbling-up that’s really important to those directly invested in it, and mostly ignored/mocked by others once music writers’ initial curiosity subsides. I may very well be eating my words in a couple of months—and if I do, that’s fine; both One Direction and The Wanted have songs I genuinely like and could stand hearing over and over again—but this doesn’t feel the same as the last couple boy-band go-rounds.
Steven, I’ve been trying to convince you to do a We’re No. 1 on the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium for some time now, because I truly believe that that late-’90s/early-’00s period was a brief, perfect incubator for this kind of music: The proliferation of the Internet and the nascent stages of file-sharing meant that these groups’ fandoms could find each other and propagate the species through fan sites, message boards, and the like; but music-blogging and file-sharing hadn’t yet brought extinction to boy-band-friendly institutions like TRL, not to mention the very idea of buying records. Backstreet Boys’ Millennium sold more than a million copies in its first week; ’N Sync’s No Strings Attached hit the platinum mark in a single day, due in large part to ’N Sync fans setting out to smash the sales record set by their rivals in the BSB-boosting camp. That is absolutely inconceivable by today’s standards, even if the One Direction/The Wanted rivalry rises to a similarly high pitch. One Direction debuted atop Billboard, yes, but it did so while selling fewer than 200,000 copies in the first week. Adjusted for record-buying deflation, that’s still mighty impressive, but it’s nowhere near the musical monolith that was the millennial boy bands.
One Direction and The Wanted may still be huge successes Stateside, but “huge success” looks a little different now. They’ll tour and sell albums on iTunes and do Saturday Night Live, and probably make the cover of Rolling Stone. But whether they’ll be able to crack the general consciousness and sustain the momentum long enough for this to be considered a specific, defined “era,” rather than another curious digression in our culture’s increasingly digressive musical consumption, I’m not entirely convinced. Not because of any major qualitative differences between these groups and their predecessors, but because I’m not sure that’s even possible in the current musical landscape.