Pop-sensation lifespans have been shrinking since the dawn of pop sensations, but the power of the boy band has proved enduring. These prefab crews of scrubbed, smiling teens busting a synchronized move to manufactured beats have a special place in pop – music history and in the hearts—and notebooks and lockers—of their (mostly female) fans.
Although the manufactured boy band has become the music-industry juggernaut of the late 1990s and beyond, achieving success and sales numbers usually reserved for more genuine musical talent, it's by no means a new phenomenon. Record companies have long assembled product—'scuse us, pop stars—targeting specific markets (such as the large and increasingly cash-rich teen-girl demographic) based more on expected sales than artistic vision. (Although artistic vision was not precluded—the Beatles, for instance, famously combined musical genius with a teenybopper allure that led fans to widespread crushes and critics to label bandmembers "the cute one," "the smart one," etc., in deference to their appeal to different types of girls.)
Today's crop of boy bands has earrings, tattoos, and intricately sculpted facial hair. The boys shimmy and shake in time with each other like male Rockettes or Solid Gold Dancers. They are earnestly goo-goo-eyed and eager to please their teen and preteen female fans, and you could bounce a quarter off their ripped abs. Their songs are crafted by industry professionals; their voices, even at live shows, are churned through a mixer, tricked out with untold effects, and broadcast all plastic and pretty.
They are the most assiduously marketed—and the most blatantly prefabricated—of all the boy bands who came before. In the past, it was kept at least perfunctorily secret that these groups were assembled via callboards and auditions—these days, they're created on reality tv. (Making the Band, the ABC show that gave us O-Town, was renewed for a second season; it also inspired a female counterpart, the WB's Popstars.) Some boy bands of the past replaced members one by one as they grew out of their teens; now, entire bands are the new models—introduced yearly by impresarios like Lou Pearlman, puppetmaster of the Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, and O-Town—and have far more lenient age restrictions. (The fact that at least a few of the Backstreet "boys" are pushing 30 seems like more of a curiosity than a liability.)
Feminists with an eye on pop culture have traditionally looked toward arguably positive female role models like Buffy or Madonna as the key to creating a strong self-image in young girls—perhaps overlooking the importance of teen idols and prototypical sex symbols. After all, the conflict between who you want to be and whom you want to please is a universal and classic one for women, and our socialization to be pleasing is powerful. For many girls, the teen idol plays an important role in our psychological development, affecting sexual fantasies and real-life desires. A pop star is often the first person for whom we feel recognizable lust; his often-androgynous beauty and significant removal from our lives allows us, as young teenage girls, tremendous freedom in the realm of fantasy—more so than the cute guy in bio ever will. And the current roster of boy bands sells the fantasy more calculatedly than any of their precursors.
In contrast to their hot-pantsed female counterparts Britney and Christina, the sexuality these boys are selling is adolescent, not adult. This was no more apparent than when several members of 'N Sync joined Steven Tyler of Aerosmith onstage at the Super Bowl xxxv halftime show. Performing "Walk This Way," the admittedly past-his-peak Tyler humped the microphone, wagged his tongue, and looked like he wanted to fuck all the girls in the audience and never call them again; the 'N Sync–ers, with their sidelong sheepish grins, were more like, "Gosh, honey, can you believe I'm doing this?" Their sweet, soft image doesn't impose anything other than the purest visions of good-boyfriendhood on their teen audience—a tactic that's historically been the m.o. of manufactured male love dolls from the Monkees to the New Kids, in keeping with cultural views of budding female sexuality.
And it's this sexuality that keeps the boy bands in business. As American pop culture embraces and attacks the desires of girls (often simultaneously), one constant is that it's men who decide what a girl wants. How can these middle-aged Svengalis deliver compelling reflections of burgeoning female lust? Despite the changes that continue to be wrought in the cultural arena of teen sexuality, clearly it's not just the little girls who understand.
The Middle Ages Gregorian monks popularize chanting.
The Renaissance Castrati and traveling troubadors originate the raw elements of the boy-band formula: high-pitched singing, sappy love songs, and goofy outfits.
1900s Barbershop quartets.
1931–32 The Mills Brothers, a teenage jazz group originally billed as Four Boys and a Guitar, hit it big with "Tiger Rag" and "Dinah." The brothers' career continues well into the 1950s.
1938 Seminal jazz-vocal foursome the Ink Spots begin recording romantic songs such as "If I Didn't Care" and set a standard for both doo-wop and tender ballads for years to come.
1950s The boy-band model—four or more boys with clean-cut looks, dreamy lyrics, and gentle harmonies—is cemented by outfits like the Penguins ("Earth Angel"), Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers ("Why Do Fools Fall in Love?"), and the Five Satins ("In the Still of the Night"), among others.
1957 The Everly Brothers release "Bye Bye Love," the first of many hit songs about teen love, lost love, unrequited love, and eternal love that will prove to be lyrical templates for many boy bands to come.
1958–63 Philadelphia, home of Dick Clark's American Bandstand, becomes teen-idol ground zero, with three record companies and a host of producers, promoters, and djs making overnight sensations of Fabian, Bobby Rydell, and Frankie Avalon.
1959 Dion and the Belmonts release the single "A Teenager in Love."
1961 The Beach Boys, a quintet of uniformly toothy Californians, invent a sound combining heavenly harmonies with utopian imagery of surf, sun, and girls.
1962 The Osmonds, five singing brothers from Utah, begin performing barbershop-style melodies at Disneyland. Youngest brother Donny joins the band later, resulting in both a poppier style and almost instant teen-idol status.
1964 The Beatles appear for the first time on American tv, on The Ed Sullivan Show, followed soon after by the movie A Hard Day's Night. Hysteria ensues. Meet the Beatles becomes the top-selling album in history.
1966 The Monkees, a television show about a wacky young rock 'n' roll band patterned after A Hard Day's Night, premieres complete with a cute one, a serious one, and not one but two goofy ones. The show runs for two seasons, during which the Monkees garner a rabid following of teen fans—many of whom boo Jimi Hendrix offstage when he is put in the very weird position of opening for a fake band.
1967 Teenage British-Australian brothers the Bee Gees hit number one in the U.K. with their single "Massachusetts." Precocious songwriters and musicans through the '60s, their greatest success will nevertheless come later, as arguably brilliant contributors to the disco oeuvre.
1968 Bubblegum—the effervescent genre of pop epitomized by the Archies ("Sugar Sugar"), the Ohio Express ("Yummy Yummy Yummy"), and Tommy James and the Shondells ("I Think We're Alone Now")—enjoys a brief period in the spotlight. It was neither played by teens nor particularly marketed to them, but it was intrinsically teen music. As critic Lester Bangs wrote in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, "The irony, which everybody missed at the time, was that while rock was trying to be so hip and 'adult,' many bubblegum songs had some of the most lubriciously explicit lyrics in the world."
1969 Family singing group the Jackson 5 is signed to Motown Records. A string of hits and a much-loved cartoon series soon follow.
1972 Kiss forms in Queens, New York. Ostensibly a band for adults (see: penis metaphors, tongue waggling), Kiss's cartoonish presence proves ideal for marketing to kids in their teens and younger—with Kiss lunchboxes, masks, comic books, and cereal-box promotions.
1975 A symbolic monkey wrench is thrown into the clean-cut works of the boy band when British clothing-boutique owner Malcolm McLaren constructs the Sex Pistols—supposedly in order to expose the empty commercialism that had consumed the purity of rock 'n' roll. Scottish teenybopper act the Bay City Rollers garner number-one hits in both the U.K. and the U.S. Their youthful, tartan-clad image makes for international fave-rave status, but behind it is a very unpretty picture that in the coming years will include drugs, attempted suicide, vehicular manslaughter, and side careers in pornography.
1977 Menudo forms in Puerto Rico and goes on to become the first Latin band to achieve global success. Members are required to leave after their 16th birthday (the age limit is later extended to 18); this structure provides a training ground for successful adult careers, most notably Ricky Martin's. Meanwhile, producer Jacques Morali creates meta–boy band the Village People. Like the Beatles or the Monkees, bands that offered a dream date for each fan, the Village People takes the fantasy even further, serving up a tongue-in-cheek assortment of homosexual icons.
1983 Teenage fivesome New Edition releases the high-pitched "Candy Girl." Assembled by producer/songwriter Maurice Starr as a new-style Jackson 5, the group quickly chafes under his creative control and fires him.
1986 New Kids on the Block, a quintet of blue-collar Bostonians, release a self-titled debut album under the tutelage of former New Edition producer Starr. By 1989, the New Kids and their fusion of pop, rap, and unforgettably bad dancing will be the biggest-selling act in America and a mainstay of teen-fanzine covers.
1990 Nelson, twin sons of onetime teen idol Ricky Nelson, hit big with their debut album After the Rain. Not a boy band in the typical packaging, Nelson is rather a fusion of the boy-band ethos with the power chords of musical forebears like Winger. Of the duo, critic Gina Arnold writes: "There was a time when I objected to bands like this one imposing the shallow dreams and false values of their golden locks and starry eyes on the defenseless minds of unsophisticated little girls. I thought those girls deserved a better mousetrap, and that it was the responsibility of the rock 'n' roll community…to provide quality music with content and depth for those little girls to chew on. But now that I'm older, I doubt if that's true. I think that Nelson understands those girls—that there's a bond between the two groups, which people like me have no right to deny either faction."
1991 British teen soon-to-be-sensation Take That release a debut single, "Do What U Like," on their own label. The band is unlike many of their teen-band counterparts in that they write their own material and have no apparent Svengali, but they will also eventually commit the unfortunate act of foisting Robbie Williams's solo career upon the world.
1994 Irish prefab quintet Boyzone have their first hit, a cover of the Osmonds' "Love Me for a Reason."
1997 Hanson, three blond brothers from Oklahoma, release "MMMBop," a ridiculously catchy single in the tradition of the Jackson 5.
1998 After hitting it big in Europe three years earlier, the Backstreet Boys' U.S. debut is the third-biggest seller of the year.
1999 The boy band explodes. Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, Savage Garden, 98°, 5ive, Westlife, Youngstown, BBMak, and on, and on, and on. Taking fauxness to a whole new low, fictional boy band the Meaty Cheesy Boys shills for Jack in the Box by singing love songs to the fast-food chain's Ultimate Cheeseburger. A company press release asserts, "While the ad is obviously intended to parody the current wave of young, sensitive-yet-hunky boy groups, it's clearly an effective pitch for a popular product, a chance for us to build our brand with our target 18 – to 34-year-old male customers." Because those are the people who appreciate boy bands?
2000 Always quick to exploit a trend, MTV teams up with ABC to produce the reality series Making the Band. The show documents the nationwide talent search and rehearsal process resulting in O-Town.
2001 The Beatles are named "#1 Boy Band" in the April issue of Tiger Beat, largely on the strength of 1, a compilation of the Fab Four's 27 number-one hits that, aptly enough, spent eight weeks at number one in the U.S. and hit number one in another 33 countries. In a March 30 USA Today front-page story, Trina Yannicos, a Beatles fanzine publisher, offers one possible explanation for the phenomenon: "A majority of today's artists seem to be manipulated by their managers, record companies, and corporations. Until today's pop stars stand up for their creative rights, the record-buying public, who are mainly young people, will continue to long for a musical past that encouraged experimentation and originality." A visit to Amazon.com reveals that customers who bought 1 also snapped up the Backstreet Boys' Black and Blue.