One Direction, The Wanted And The 'Return' Of The Boy Band: Did They Ever Really Go Away?
"Boy bands are hot again," James C. McKinley Jr. wrote in a New York Times article on Mar. 23.
Not since New Kids on the Block in the '80s, and the Backstreet Boys and 'NSYNC in the '90s, have boy bands been so predominant.
The tipping point for the recent spate of boy band dominance came when One Direction, a creation of Simon Cowell (the "American Idol" judge), became the first British band to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
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Their debut CD, "Up All Night," sold to the tune of 176,000 copies in its first week, a feat that no British band had ever achieved before, not even such icons as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Bee Gees, the Sex Pistols, Oasis or Radiohead.
One Direction is one of the biggest music groups of the year, but other boy bands are also selling plenty of CDs and digital singles. The Wanted, another British boy band, recently scored a Top 10 hit with "Glad You Came." Mindless Behavior, from Los Angeles, landed their first CD at Number 7 on the albums chart. And Big Time Rush, stars of their own popular TV show on Nickelodeon, reach a huge daily audience on the most widely distributed kids' channel the world.
But even with all of this activity swirling around the new boy bands, is it correct to say that the boy band is back? After all, two famous groups that ruled the pop charts in previous decades, New Kids and the Block and the Backstreet Boys, are still at it in 2012. The fully grown men are currently on a mega-world tour through June under the super group moniker, NKOTBSB, a united front that spawned from a 2010 NKOTB show in New York City. And longstanding boy bands (e.g., Hanson, the Jonas Brothers, even Boyzone) are still holding strong.
So, perhaps, the better question to explore is, Did the boy band ever really go away?
What's in a boy band?
As a starting point, IBTimes went back to school to examine the makings of a boy band.
"The boy band has to be composed of young men, marketed based on their looks, explicitly for young women -- tweens -- in particular," said Jeremy Wallach, an Associate Professor and Publicity Coordinator in the Department of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University.
"That's the core of the boy band genre."
He added that "most [boy bands] are in the New Kids on the Block mold, playing watered-down R&B music. They tend to be in quartets ... that sing and do choreography."
However, McKinley of the Times points to recent innovations in the boy band concept.
"Neither One Direction nor the Wanted uses choreographed dance moves like those American bands of a decade ago," he wrote in the New York Times. "And The Wanted has laced its songs with references to partying and sexual hookups, putting a new spin on the usually wholesome formula."
Although the term "boy band" didn't appear until the '80s, there have been many groups that could have been called just that throughout the history of popular music. Before the '80s, boy bands were commonly known as "male vocal groups."
These groups included the Drifters and the Cleftones from the doo-wop world, the Beatles, the Monkees and the Raspberries from the rock genre, and in the last three decades or so, New Edition, Boyz II Men, the Backstreet Boys, 'NSYNC, Menudo, Westlife (and so on), from the land of pop.
One thing is clear: However one defines the boy band concept, the genre -- generally associated with pop music, ridiculously good looking young men, non-instrument-playing singers and optional choreographed dance moves -- has been around since the days before the Beatles sang their first note in front of their first screaming pre-teenage female fan.
Bring on the screams
Boy band fans are and have been predominantly female. A hardcore One Direction fan recently said that the group's fan base is approximately 95 percent female.
Bowling Green State's Wallach said that number is a little too high.
"There are also implicit audiences," he said. Those audiences include "older women, gay men, even straight men. There are several publics that boy bands appeal to."
But for one lifelong Backstreet Boys fan, the genre is much more than the marketing package.
"[Boy bands] are music artists, harmonizing in groups of up to five members. I know a lot of people are not likely to agree, or would even scoff at that definition, but it's only because of the term 'boy band,' [that] it can be sort of a stigma," said Toni, creator of fan site "A Backstreet Army" on Tumblr.
Toni, who requested that her last name be withheld, said that for the Backstreet Boys, the label "boy band" will never go away, but it's something its fans have acknowledged and accepted since the group's debut nearly two decades ago.
"Music is music and it goes beyond a genre or label," she added.
Boy bands are back on the charts, but did the genre ever really go away?
Given all of this, our conclusion is, no matter the occasional backlash, the "boys" never really disappear. From the floppy-haired Beatles to the smooth vocals of Boyz II Men to the fresh-faced Jonas Brothers, the boy band genre cycles through highs and lows in popularity and critical acclaim but endures throughout the years.
Since then, solo artists like Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Shakira have taken Hanson's place -- until now.
Fifteen years after Hanson topped the charts, the Wanted brought boy bands back to the top with their debut single, "Glad You Came."
"The world has always loved a boy band ... like any genre in music, certain groups go through peaks and dips, and as we've not really had a band break through on a global scale for a few years, the hunger and appetite is there again," says Chris Buckley, lead editor of One Direction fan site OneDirection.net.
The fan site exploded in traffic since its launch in 2010, just after Cowell created One Direction for the UK version of "X Factor." In March, OneDirection.net received more than 1 million unique visitors, compared to just 150,000 visitors in January, Buckley said.
Sure, the Jonas Brothers haven't posed together for any major magazine covers in the last two or three years, but the group never announced an official break-up either -- just a brief "recording hiatus." Though the Backstreet Boys are down to four members (Kevin Richardson announced his retirement in 2006), the group has since released two albums (sans Richardson), with a third on the way.
Boyzone, the popular Irish boy band of the '90s (that was not called Westlife), released their fourth studio album in 2010. (How come no one declared the genre's great "return" then?) Boyzone is now preparing for a 2013 world tour.
"There's always been a market for boy bands . . . it's not something that was ever extinguished. Sometimes it mutates," explained Wallach.
It's all about the fans . . . online
A significant age gap exists between fans of the Backstreet Boys and say, Big Time Rush, the Nickelodeon quartet. But aside from the generation gap, the experience has always been a little something like this:
Play the pop-heavy songs on repeat.
Stand in line for hours at the mall for a signing or special mid-afternoon performance.
Send "I Love You" messages to a favorite member (via fan mail, or Twitter).
Spend too much money on concert merchandise.
Temporarily "tattoo" the name of said favorite member on arms and other body parts with a Sharpie pen.
And so on.
Fans have also kept their boy band pride alive on social media, with chatter spreading like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook. (This week saw the popularity of trending topics like "One Direction Fever," "1D Get Naked" and "Always With Jonas Brothers").
Social media keeps current boy bands connected to their fans -- all while keeping older boy bands relevant, continuously hyped -- at lightning speed.
Personal Twitter accounts of boy band members have enjoyed a surge of new followers too (we're looking at you, Liam Payne, whose follower count increased from 1.8 million one month ago to 2.6 million, as of Friday).
Over on Facebook, the Backstreet Boys have more than 6 million "Likes," while One Direction shows up on more than 4 million different news feeds around the world. And let's not forget all the fan sites and groups on Tumblr, Facebook, etc., that happily provide fans with up-to-the-minute details on the love lives and whereabouts of their favorite boy band.
"Social media has paved the way for some of these groups," Bowling Green State's Wallach said. "That's new. But in terms of the fandoms, [social media has] consolidated it. It's provided an outlet for people to share their nostalgia, for people who are older, too."
If anything has changed in boy band fan culture, it's the way and the degree to which the fans express themselves.
"The Wanted were at an airport and one of the fans was screaming, 'Have sex with me!' Back in our day, the most [extreme] reaction I would see from a fan was, 'Marry Me!' written on posters," said Toni of A Backstreet Army.
"Today's fan base can be a lot more open at a young age than what I remember our boy bands fan base being," she added.
* * *
Boy band fever has always been around, in one variation or another, but the U.S. is typically one of the last countries to crush on the latest group.
Nearly two decades ago, the Backstreet Boys made young girls and their parents cry -- in Australia, France, Canada, South America and pretty much everywhere except for America. The group's home soil finally hopped on the BSB train in 1996, when the group released "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)." At the time, the boys already had one studio album under their belt, along with a handful of sold-out concerts in Europe and Canada.
'NSYNC followed a similar path years later, touring first in Europe before giving America a try.
"I find [boy band geography] very funny . . . it's true to an extent in Australia, too. In the '90s, you had bands like Westlife and Boyzone that we didn't really know about here. It kind of kept the boy band thing alive, when no one really cared about it in America," Wallach said.
"This is not terribly surprising, given American culture in general. We tend to reject last year's model and constantly look for the next big thing," he added.
Even if the next big thing has been sitting on top of music charts in other countries.
As One Direction, The Wanted and Big Time Rush continue to drive the latest faces of the genre onto an increasing number of magazine covers, TV appearances and billboards in Times Square, perhaps the most appropriate declaration would not be that the boy band is back, but rather, the boy band never left -- it just takes a breather ever few years, at least in America.
For now, boy band mania is king. Earlier this week, One Direction so overwhelmed and overjoyed the daughter of Anthony Lee from Brisbane Australia, the father cried boy band-induced tears of his own.
"We don't need tickets now," he told a television reporter with Mi9 after he and daughter Catie met members of One Direction.
"We tried so hard, all the competition," he said of their efforts to win tickets to the sold-out show Wednesday at the Brisbane Convention Centre. "She's come so far, she's been on the radio, I've been on the radio, still no tickets, but this is the make-up for it, isn't it?"
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