Boyz ’N Bands
The boys are back! Today’s much-touted boy band revival is giving the young ladies something to scream about—as if they didn’t already have Bieber Fever. The truth is, since the 1960s, boy bands haven’t disappeared for long from the pop music scene. Many live on, increasingly less boyish, for decades of comeback tours. Here, with notes on the latest crop, are some observations on the rivalries, slow jams and teenybopper transcendence of boy bands.
Signed by Motown Records in 1968, the Jackson 5—brothers Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and their impossibly charismatic frontman, Michael, then just 10 years old—quickly became huge hit makers for Berry Gordy’s Detroit-based label. The four number-one Billboard Hot 100 singles they produced over the next two years (“I Want You Back,” “ABC,” “The Love You Save” and “I’ll Be There”) transcended the R&B category, and the Jacksons, worshipped by teenybopper fans across racial lines, established the paradigm for the boy bands that followed: flashy outfits, synchronized dancing, ultratight harmonies and just the right mix of upbeat pop tunes and torchy, sentimental ballads.
About a decade later, five black Boston youngsters aimed to re-create the Jacksons’ success. Even their name signified their ambition: New Edition, as in “the new edition of the Jackson 5.” New Edition covered Jackson 5 hits in early performances and later emulated the Jacksons’ “bubblegum soul” sound in such singles as “Candy Girl” (1983) and “Cool It Now” (1984). On June 28, 2009, in a tribute to Michael Jackson, who had died three days before, a less-than-new New Edition donned its predecessors’ mantle once again, performing a Jackson 5 medley at the BET Awards.
New Edition formed in 1978 but didn’t cut its first record until several years later, after the group—then consisting of Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Bobby Brown, Ronnie DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant—performed in a local talent show run by Boston-based impresario and rock star manqué Maurice Starr. Starr immediately signed New Edition to a contract on his label and produced the act’s debut album, Candy Girl (1983), featuring songs he’d written. Starr, however, didn’t treat the boys very nicely: At the end of their first concert tour, he handed each a check for $1.87, claiming the rest of their earnings had gone to pay hotel bills, etc. They dropped him, and Starr retaliated by suing them for use of the name New Edition (he lost) and by soon forming another boy band—this one an all-white group of Boston-area youngsters chosen through auditions. Starr’s original name for them, Nynuk, mercifully didn’t stick. When they signed with Columbia Records, the group became New Kids on the Block. NKOTB’s first album, filled with bubblegum songs penned by Starr, went bust, but their popularity inflated with their second album’s first single, “Please Don’t Go Girl” (also written by Starr, 1988).
Some boy bands form themselves—such as New Edition, whose original members were elementary school chums living in Boston’s Orchard Park projects. Just as often, though, a pop impresario manufactures them. That’s how ’N Sync, perhaps the biggest boy band act of the late 1990s and early 2000s, came to be. ’N Sync’s original members included two pairs of friends—Chris Kirkpatrick and Joey Fatone, plus former Mouseketeers Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez—as well as a fifth boy, Lance Bass, suggested by Timberlake’s vocal coach. But the band was the invention of Orlando, Florida–based starmaker Lou Pearlman, who’d previously created the Backstreet Boys. Pearlman, who also formed and managed several other, less successful boy bands, is quite the piece of work. He has been sued by virtually every group he’s managed and in 2008 was convicted of running a massive Ponzi scheme, landing him in the federal clink. As a colorful old showbiz crank, Pearlman is something of a cliché. Shady managers who launch formulaic boy bands into superstardom are so commonplace in the music industry that the practice was satirized in the 2000 MTV movie 2ge+her and a spin-off series.
With the exception of certain prototypes—e.g., the Jackson 5, two of whom played guitar, and the Monkees, a “Beatles lite” group manufactured for the NBC sitcom that bore their name—boy bands are not usually bands at all, in that they don’t actually play instruments. What they do is sing.
At least, they’re supposed to. The boy band universe has occasionally been perturbed by lip-synching “scandals,” the biggest involving Milli Vanilli, a duo created by German producer Frank Farian in 1988. After a meteoric rise, Milli Vanilli abruptly crashed in 1990 when it came out that former models Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus were mouthing songs recorded by studio vocalists. A few years later New Kids on the Block confronted lip-synching accusations by an associate producer of their third album, Step by Step. The Kids confessed to the lesser infraction of using a studio-recorded backing track while performing live, but they sued their accuser (who recanted).
And then there’s ’N Sync, whose very name (which alludes to vocal synchronization, not fakery) still leads internet skeptics to speculate that the boys weren’t really the ones singing—a charge whose unfairness is demonstrated by ’N Sync’s many superb a cappella performances.
’N Sync and Backstreet Boys were both the brainchildren of impresario-cum-felon Lou Pearlman. Both originally had five members who ran the gamut from adorable to supercute. Both groups were fashion trendsetters (though BSBs dressed more tastefully), and both could dance (though ’N Sync’s choreography was more energetic and inventive). And because the bands formed just a few years apart, their careers as pop superstars overlapped—begetting a media-fueled rivalry in which fans either committed to one group or let their throbbing hearts be painfully divided.
Nothing in American pop culture ever dies, it just goes into cold storage to be nostalgically rewarmed. Thus the BSB–versus–’N Sync rivalry gets periodically rekindled, as in “Feud,” a 2013 episode of the Fox series Glee. Replaying the boy bands’ “epic clash for pop-culture supremacy,” glee club director Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) and codirector Finn Hudson (Cory Montieth) square off with renditions of ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” and BSBs’ “I Want It That Way.” While Finn strikes trademark BSB poses, Mr. Schue reenacts the famous marionette routine from ’N Sync’s original “Bye Bye Bye” video. Of course, the competitive medley proves how very alike the two groups really were.
For decades after the Jackson 5 sang “Shake it, shake it, baby” (in “ABC,” 1970), boy bands really shook it. Neatly synchronized dancing was as central to most boy bands’ performances—in music videos and onstage—as close-knit vocal harmonizing. New Edition defined the moves in the early 1980s, mixing styles drawn from Motown, break dancing, Broadway shows and calisthenics. Boy band choreography reached an acrobatic apogee in ’N Sync videos like that for “I Want You Back” (1996). (The breakaway career of crotch-thrusting Justin Timberlake sticks the MJ archetype.) But in the boy band revival of the early 2010s, led by Brit groups One Direction and the Wanted, dancing seemed almost to disappear. The video for One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” (2011) features hand clapping and some hopping around; the dancing in the video for the Wanted’s “Glad You Came” (2011) is limited to lame discoing in Ibiza. Neither contains anything approaching choreography.
Obviously, America had to come to the rescue. Enter L.A.-based boy band Mindless Behavior. “We dance like the Jacksons,” MB brags in “Keep Her on the Low” (2013). That boast is too modest: Footwork-wise, they’re better than the Jacksons ever were—well, except for Michael.
Young men have always harmonized together, but the boy bands of the past several decades have identifiable precursors, including a cappella quartets—originating in 19th-century African American barbershops—and the doo-wop groups of the 1940s through the early ’60s. Even the Beatles, whose sharp harmonies distinguished them from many pop groups of their era and who ran antically about in the films A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), set precedents, musical and behavioral, for later boy bands. But the boy band phenomenon’s strongest taproot may be rhythm and blues—specifically, the male soul groups (the Four Tops, the Miracles, the Temptations et al.) who recorded for Motown Records during its 1960s heyday. The Jackson 5 joined that lineup late, but they fortified Motown’s crossover appeal and broadened R&B’s audience to include squealing, hormonally agitated tween girls. Not that boy bands play only to the pubescent: Boyz II Men later boosted the Motown label’s fortunes—and restored R&B’s premier place in mainstream pop—precisely because their exquisitely sung hits demolished demographic boundaries. Given the group’s refined vocal skills and wide audience, the Boyz have, with justification, objected to being categorized as a boy band at all.
Danceable, upbeat pop tunes with catchy hooks are essential to any boy band’s repertoire. But to keep their female fans’ hearts aflutter, the dudes sometimes slow it down and sex it up. Like they’re talking to you, girl. That means throwing a few seductive ballads—some “baby-making music”—into the mix. The emphasis has differed from group to group: Backstreet Boys released more ballads (e.g., “I’ll Never Break Your Heart,” 1995) than ’N Sync, though of course ’N Sync sang them too (“I Drive Myself Crazy,” 1999). But no boy band’s success has depended so completely on ballads as Boyz II Men’s. Their stratospheric 1990s hits “End of the Road” (1992), “I’ll Make Love to You” (1994) and “One Sweet Day” (with Mariah Carey, 1995) all belong to that pulled-heartstrings, aching-loins genre. Boyz II Men even released The Ballad Collection (2000), which consists of torchy cuts they’d recorded over the prior decade. Ballads as emotionally undiluted as these, however, are rare in the boy band revival’s discography—though One Direction’s “Over Again” (2012), reminiscent of 1980s New Romantic anthems, comes close, and Mindless Behavior’s “Forever” (2013), aside from its too-fast-to-slow-dance beat, slides nicely into the syrupy mold.