The panel discussions at this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, included one titled “Guilty Pleasures: Imagining a Post-Snob World.”
The discussion focused on the role that music media and music critics have in a world where fans have wide access to electronic files of recorded music and don’t need taste-makers and music brokers to help them decide what is worthy and cool and what isn’t.
One of the panelists was Lindsay Zoladz of Pitchfork.com, which, among music websites, is like Championship Vinyl, the record store in the movie “High Fidelity”: a place where the music elite gather to preach and learn about the latest and coolest in independent music.
Zoladz, who spoke via Skype, said that to prepare for the discussion she’d searched Twitter via the hashtag “guilty pleasures.” The first tweet she found was: “The good thing about earphones is no one knows you’re listening to the Backstreet Boys.”
The Backstreet Boys were one of the most commercially successful recording artists of the late 1990s. They were also a boy band, a group of five handsome and talented guys in their teens and early 20s who had been contrived for the sole purpose of singing songs about puppy love and romance, songs that were sexually ambiguous enough to resonate with girls as young as 5 and as old as 18.
Like their contemporaries at the time, ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys were generally ignored among the serious (snobbish) music media as another fleeting novelty act that would go away, which they did, for a while. But at the time, both were commercial juggernauts. Over the course of three years and three albums, the Backstreet Boys sold almost 28 million albums in the United States alone. Concurrently, ’N Sync sold 26 million copies of its three albums.
It’s natural for anyone who reads music media like Pitchfork to dismiss groups like the Backstreet Boys as irrelevant. But as it turns out, those boy bands have resonated deeper than many of us thought they would at the time.
Yes, the boys got older. Some got married and started families. But so did the young girls who were infatuated with them, girls who now are women expressing their fondness and nostalgia for that period in their lives and the music that was a big part of it. The evidence is right before us: Welcome to boy-band weekend in Kansas City.
Friday night, the latest phenomenon in the long, loud and frenzied history of boy bands comes to the Sprint Center: One Direction, an Anglo-Irish ensemble that emerged from a reality/talent show and has amassed an enormous worldwide army of fans.
In 2010, the five men in their late teens and early 20s met on the British version of “The X Factor,” the talent-reality show founded by Simon Cowell, formerly of “American Idol.” After failing to advance as solo performers, they were encouraged to start a vocal ensemble. So they did.
They have since sold almost 10 million copies worldwide of their two albums and become the first British group whose debut album hit the U.S. charts at No. 1 (Sorry, Beatles.) They are bringing with them the power-pop band 5 Seconds of Summer, a teenage quartet from Sydney, Australia, who are in line to become the next Jonas Brothers or the next Hanson: a group of young boys who write and play their own songs. The opening gig for this tour has ignited their popularity, too.
Sunday night, Kansas City is hosting an older generation of boy bands. New Kids on the Block, who dominated the pop charts in the mid-’80s to early ’90s, will be in town for their third Sprint Center show in five years. The openers are two other reunited boy bands: 98 Degrees, a foursome from Los Angeles who had nine Top 40 singles in the late 1990s; and Boys II Men, a group from Philadelphia who sold almost 25 million records from 1991 to 1997.
Tickets remain for the New Kids show, but those for the One Direction show are gone. They went on sale in April 2012 and sold out almost immediately. Face-value prices were $29.50 to $77.50. Ticket brokers are selling good seats for anywhere from $800 to $2,500 and higher.
This boy-band craze isn’t going away, especially these days, and there are reasons why. Young music fans will always have crushes on cute, fresh-faced boys. Social media, music-streaming services and YouTube will promote the music and inflame the hype. And as that person who was so shamefully indulging in the Backstreet Boys was acknowledging, some of the songs in this genre are as timeless and catchy as any.
The history of boy bands goes back at least to the 1960s and the Beatles, who were a mop-topped teeny-bopper band before they became studio magicians with facial hair. Then came the Monkees, the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds.
Every decade since has produced ensembles of boys and/or young men with one intent and several things in common: Sell music and merchandise to young girls. In the 1970s there were the Osmonds, the Bay City Rollers and Menudo. In the 1980s there were New Edition and New Kids on the Block. In the 1990s, there were Boyz II Men, the Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, 98 Degrees and Hanson. And in the 2000s, there have been the Jonas Brothers and now One Direction and the Nickelodeon creation Big Time Rush.
In “The Encyclopedia of Children, Adolescents and the Media,” Maurice Starr, who managed New Edition and created New Kids on the Block, explained to a writer the formula for starting a boy band: “Combine somewhere between three and six (typically four or five) young, singing and dancing males; have each represent a distinctive personality type; carefully choreograph their (individual and band) images as closely as their dance steps; and mass-market them to an audience consisting mostly of preteen and young teen girls.”
It’s a process that needs replenishing because its nature is fleeting: Everyone involved outgrows it. But when the formula is working it can be as lucrative as any in pop music. The late 1990s may have been the golden era for boy bands. That’s when the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync were selling records by the millions and concert tickets by the hundreds of thousands. What they were really selling was fantasy.
In the essay “Please Don’t Go Girl” on the website Rookiemag.com recently, writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd confessed to being a former New Kids fan and explained the nature of the attraction:
“People who don’t understand the process of crushing on someone you haven’t met — and will never meet — might look at this as weird or antisocial, possibly even stalker-ish, behavior. But those of us who have been there know better: It can be a very useful way to figure out how you feel about dating, love and sex before you even want to consider it in real life. Your fantasy relationship with Harry Styles (of One Direction) is something you made up; you have all the control in this relationship. He’s a mirage, a product of your own mind. You can make him whatever you want him to be.”
And these days, more than ever, you can connect with fellow stalkers to praise and defend your favorite band or teen idol. Social media has brought more heat to the boy-band hype, and fans are using it to punish those who insult their heroes.
At that SXSW panel discussion, Simon Vozick-Levinson of Rolling Stone recalled getting besieged by angry Justin Bieber fans after he reported that Bieber’s “My World 2.0” album wasn’t the commercial blockbuster his previous records had been. Bieber, who has more than 40 million Twitter followers, started the outrage, tweeting: “It’s just sad when some adults need to bring people down.”
“I became the target of a Twitter heat campaign,” Vozick-Levinson said. “For me, at times it was an experience that was somewhere between irritating and terrifying.”
But it also revealed how technology has given legions of young fans a way to express themselves.
“There was a time if you were a 12-year-old kid who loves a pop star that was a private thing,” he said. “But now you can go public, and you can go after people like critics and people who traditionally had more power.”
Social media also gives the bands a way to address those loyal followers, cementing the bond between them and making the boys seem more present, more real, which can only help sustain the brand.
One Direction is mustering that kind of power: It has assembled 13 million Twitter followers and more than 2 million Facebook friends. And it has several YouTube videos with more than 100 million views each, including “What Makes You Beautiful,” which has racked up 400 million views. The band isn’t going anywhere too soon, and even when it does, there will most likely be another in line to take its place.
As long as there are preteens who need a place to vent their innocent crushes, there will be boy bands. Some of them will be legitimate bands, musicians who write their own songs and play their own instruments, like Hanson, the Jonas Brothers and 5 Seconds of Summer. Others will be an assembly of boys chosen for their looks and their ability to sing and pull off whatever dance choreography is required.
But what gets lost or dismissed beyond the cheesy dance moves and the teen-idol personae are the songs, some of which are as well-crafted and enduring as songs from the Motown or Philadelphia soul catalogs.
Max Martin is responsible for some of those. The Swede has written hits for a slew of pop stars and bands, including the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync. I don’t know what Backstreet Boys song that person was hiding through earphones, but if it was “I Want It That Way” and “As Long As You Love Me,” I understand the appeal.
In an essay titled “Sells Like Teen Spirit,” critic Robert Christgau addressed the quality of music and vocals in the genre, starting with Boyz II Men: “It was Boyz II Men who raised teensploitation’s musical standards. New Edition minus the bubblegum, their rap-savvy cross between the (Jackson 5’s) teen showbiz and the Chi-Lites et al.’s post-soul post-doowop generated countless copycats, bandwagoneers and conceptual hops and skips.”
The music required better vocals, he wrote, something the Boys delivered “more capably than their blander ex-stablemates ’N Sync, who play Engelbert Humperdinck to their Tom Jones, or Motown muscleheads 98 Degrees, whose beefcake strategy targets older teens. But they do it their way, submerging Boyz II Men postsoul in a teen-idol sincerity that reaches back beyond Shaun Cassidy to Frankie Avalon and Tab Hunter.”
Given the extreme likelihood that more waves of boy bands will follow the One Direction/Big Time Rush wave, it can be worth laying down the snobbery and finding some legitimacy beyond the boy-band surface. I got this message on Facebook on Monday night: “Spotify has revealed to me that you’ve been listening to the Backstreet Boys for research purposes I assume.”
Let me shamelessly confess: It was for both business and pleasure.