A Look Back At Boy Bands

Feb. 11, 2013
Mikael Bingham works for charities in Vancouver and is the Deputy Editor of Ballastmag.com. She has a degree in ...
“As long as God keeps making little girls, there will always be boy bands.”
– Lou Pearlman, creator of Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync

I just about screamed my face off when New Kids on the Block announced they would be touring this summer with Boys II Men and 98 Degrees — because they’re my boy band and I have to scream for them. I’ve been screaming for more than 20 years now, and I’ll keep screaming until they disband permanently. That’s what girls do for their boy bands.

It’s the screaming that transforms a band of boys into a boy band. It’s the screaming hordes of girls crowding against barricades, chasing down limos, tearing at their hair, fainting dead at the sight of their beloved Nick or Donnie or Lance or Harry or Bobby. It’s unlike anything you’ll hear at a rock show. People scream at Metallica concerts, but it’s different from the high-pitched shriek that rises from the collective throats of girls responding to their boy band. I know: I’ve screamed for U2; I’ve screamed for Weezer. I’ve even screamed for Billy Joel. But those sounds were nothing compared to what came out of me — and from all around me — the first time I saw my New Kids live on stage.

My mom would tell you that the Beatles were a boy band, and you would balk because neither you nor I would ever put them in the same category as LFOVIP or Mytown. But she would be right because, in their early years, they elicited the screaming that is the hallmark of the genre. In the ’70s, girls lost their minds over boy bands such as the Osmonds, the Jackson 5 and the Bay City Rollers. It’s a long tradition, encompassing many variations — just look at the multi-generational membership of the Latino vocal group Menudo. But let’s jump forward a few years to 1982, and consider the pinnacle of boy band evolution: the five-piece.

The five-piece boy band — keeper of adolescent girl hearts since the late 20th century — is the ultimate boy band iteration. Broadly speaking, a properly assembled five-piece covers every girl’s fantasy: you get the soulful superstar, the responsible older brother, the bad boy, the baby and the fifth member, who, depending on the group, might be a shy guy, a muscle man or a do-gooder.

We get the five-piece in batches every five to 10 years or so. They saturate the market until they exhaust our patience, then disappear as we find ourselves re-discovering some other pop archetype. I had New Kids on the Block. My younger sisters had Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync. British girls listened to Take That, Boyzone and 5ive. Today’s young women turn to mush over One Direction and The Wanted.

EditionBut before all of these (mostly) white boys crooned their first treacly ballad, there was New Edition. And before New Edition, there was Maurice Starr — the unsung hero of this cultural phenomenon. Back in ’82, Starr had the good fortune to see a group of five African American teens perform at a talent show in Boston. Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie Devoe and Ralph Tresvant were New Edition, and their long recording career began when Starr signed on as producer. The fuse of the five-piece boy band bomb was lit.

Just to be clear, the Jackson 5 had five members. So did the Bay City Rollers. The major difference between earlier versions of the five-piece and New Edition was the subtraction of all those pesky instruments. Guitars got in the way of all the groovy dance moves. A drum kit obscured the lower half of an entire member, making it difficult to know whether or not his feet were adorable. New Edition, apparently named as such to denote an updated interpretation of the Jackson 5, were all-singing, all-dancing, some-rapping and no-playing. It’s the way the five-piece has looked ever since.

To adults, New Edition’s early work sounds completely inane. Their first few albums are filled with the kind of songs that, in this day and age, only Ke$ha would consider recording — simple, Casio keyboard jingles with lyrics that describe love in pre-teen terms and involve a lot of spoken interludes and mid-tempo raps. But songs like “Cool it Now” and “Candy Girl” (which samples the Jackson 5′s “ABC”) were brilliantly executed for the boy band audience. They were safe listening for little girls. In fact, to a pre-adolescent mind, they were precisely what romance was supposed to be: boys like girls, girls like boys, friends try to interfere, but then everything’s okay and everyone goes out for sodas.

Their later work — less doo-wop, more R&B — was the perfect sequel to the Does he like her? Will they go on a date? drama of their earlier albums. Bobby Brown left the group, it’s true, but Johnny Gill — he of the impossibly arousing voice — joined and produced vocals that made 15-year-old hearts leap into 15-year-old throats. Sexy, but not explicitly so, because to hint in the boy band world is to succeed. When Michael Bivins whispers “Come on baby, let’s go get wet” in “Can You Stand the Rain,” he’s talking about going outside in a downpour. Or is he?

Starr’s collaboration with New Edition was short. Together they produced only one complete album and a handful of moderately successful singles. While New Edition went on to become R&B superstars, Starr had only just sipped at the cup of boy band profitability.

With his next project, Starr struck gold. In 1984, he formed New Kids on the Block, rightly positing that if five black kids could achieve the kind of success that New Edition had achieved, five white kids could bring the teeny bop world to its knees. Although their first album flopped, their second, Hangin’ Tough, a collection of catchy love songs for the 10- to 16-year-old set, has sold over 17 million copies since its release in 1988. With five Starr-penned singles from the album, including their first number one “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” cracking the Billboard top 10, and a massively successful VHS compilation of music videos, live concert performances and documentary footage, the “five bad brothers from the Beantown Land” turned into first-name-only celebrities: Jordan, Joey, Donnie, Danny and Jon.

The New Edition template proved adaptable, and for a few years after Hangin’ Tough NKOTB reigned supreme on the cassette players of pre-teens worldwide. Jordan Knight’s sweet falsetto rang in the ears of fawning fans. Joey McIntyre’s baby-blues stared out from Tiger Beat centerfolds. Ah yes, I remember it well. Those were heady days of record-breaking pay-per-view specials and million-dollar merchandise deals. Never mind the tapes and videos — I had action figures, playing cards, novels and song books. There were sleeping bags, T-shirts, napkins, puzzles, lunch boxes, board games and jewelry. Starr’s little brainwave had succeeded in unimaginable ways.

In 1990, New Kids released Step By Step, which went triple platinum. The album’s title track topped both the U.S. and Canadian charts, and we were all singing along. The five-piece format caught on across the pond, too, as Take That began producing hits like “It Only Takes a Minute” and “A Million Love Songs.”

But by 1991, grunge was the new buzzword. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were starting to appear everywhere, even in Tiger Beat magazine. The world was growing weary of the screaming. New Kids on the Block and Maurice Starr parted ways in 1993, and, like Lennon and McCartney, neither part was greater than the whole. Their breakup, plus Robbie Williams’s departure from Take That in 1995, effectively ended the first wave of the five-piece boy band.

There’s a clear line from New Edition to New Kids on the Block to Backstreet Boys to ‘N Sync, and it goes like this: Starr discovered New Edition, then put New Kids together. Business person Lou Pearlman went to a New Kids show and thought, “Hey, I could do this,” and then he did. Pearlman created Backstreet Boys, who released their self-titled debut album in 1996. After forming BSB, Pearlman made a second foray into the genre by signing ‘N Sync to his label with the help of founding member Chris Kirkpatrick, who had just missed the cut for Backstreet Boys. ‘N Sync released their self-titled debut album to the American public in 1998.

Jaded by the tender age of 13, I remember the first time I saw the video for Backstreet Boys’ “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” on MusiquePlus. I thought, My little sisters are gonna love this shit; good thing I’ve got Spacehog, and pretended not to care as this newbie boy band rose to prominence. But I did care. I hid my fascination while secretly reveling in thoughts about those scrubbed and earnest faces, thoseone-and-two-and… dance routines. It was all so familiar, yet so alien.

At some point, it occurred to me that, unlike Starr, who had molded relatively unrehearsed teen boys into singing and dancing money-makers, Pearlman had mined the Florida performing arts world for his Brians and Justins and Kevins. The format was evolving. Why start with diamonds in the rough when there were so many shiny, young gemstones already polished and cut by voice coaches and stage mothers?

Around the same time that Backstreet and ‘N Sync were tearing up our hearts, Louis Walsh, the U.K.’s own boy band svengali, produced Boyzone (the Irish Take That) and Westlife (the other Irish Take That). Put together by the same management team that had created the Spice Girls, 5ive emerged as the edgy five-piece, and the market was flooded with sappy, saccharine balladry and crisp, clean pop. And I was right: my sisters — two and four years younger than me — loved that shit. They ate it up by the spoonful, making the second wave of five-pieces even more ubiquitous than the first.

Backstreet Boys

According to the internet, Backstreet Boys are the most successful boy band of all time. Also, Justin Timberlake would likely triumph over Bobby Brown for the title of best loved ex-boy band member. Pearlman, it must be said, had a knack for the five-piece. He took the precedents and refined them, going so far as to create a reality TV series – Making the Band — about putting a five-piece together. But nonetheless, by the early 2000s the world had once again grown weary of hearing young girls scream at cute guys, and the boy bands faded from view.

Now here we are, over 15 years sinceBackstreet’s Back, almost a quarter of a century since Step By Step and nearly 30 years since Candy Girl. And what are girls listening to? One Direction and The Wanted — five-piece boy bands for the new generation. Dressed like adorable baby hipsters and auto-tuned to vocal perfection, these boys sing innuendo-laden songs about (what else?) going on dates with girls they like, kissing, romance, etc. It’s the third wave, and you can be sure that your daughters, nieces and kid sisters are riding it. And what’s changed since New Edition? Well, the production is slicker, the look is more polished and the boys may represent a slightly more diverse set of ethnic groups, but they’re also more homogenous than ever.

Consider for a second that every single member of New Edition went on to some kind of post-boy band success. That’s a feat that no five-piece boy band has achieved since, and a testament to the depth of talent in the group. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine the boys from One Direction existing outside of the ensemble. In fact, they became a group because none of them would have progressed on the U.K. X Factor as solo artists. The producers and managers of these new bands have created cohesive units free from the burden of standout individuals and personal ambition. It’s consequently unlikely that these five-pieces will be platforms for any solo superstars. Well, maybe — but only for one or two at most. It almost doesn’t matter though, because the tunes are still catchy, the boys are still cute and the girls are still screaming.

I was only eight when New Kids on the Block’s Step By Step was released, but I was hooked the first time I heard the title track. Sure, I’ve rebelled like a truculent teenager, going through alternative, Lilith Fair and art rock phases, but in the end I always come back. I’m hooked. That’s the point.

As soon as I saw the New Kids’ 2008 reunion announcement, I called my best friend to tell her about it. We screamed because that’s the only appropriate way for a girl to respond to her boy band. We had both been far too young to attend a New Kids concert when they first rose to fame back in the ’80s, but on November 21 of 2008 my pre-adolescent dream came true: 26 years old, with a university degree and long-term boyfriend, I stood in a stadium crowded with my fellow fans — younger women, older women, pregnant women, hip women, professional women — and screamed at the top of my lungs when my boy band appeared on stage.

This is the power of the five-piece: girls united in passion. You love your boy band because together you and your girlfriends sang their songs, frenched their pinups and staked claims on members. You thereby bound yourselves to each other and to every other group of girlfriends who performed this ritual. I’m a Jordan girl, Jill’s a Donnie girl, Rachael’s a Joey girl. You may be a JC girl, a Robbie girl or a Max girl. It doesn’t matter. Let’s make our bond official and scream. TC mark

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