words by Jayda Jasmine
What is a boy band? The specific requirements are still widely debated, for example, are you a boy band if you play instruments? Should they have choreography? Do they have to make pop music?
Although there are conflicting ideas of what exactly a boyband entails and when they began, the term ‘boy band’ itself was popularized in the 80s. However, the structure of boy bands can be traced back to the 60s. For our purposes, we’ll be using the Beatles as a jumping-off point.
We’ll walk through a few of history’s biggest boy bands in the past decades, from the 60s to the present, and their impact on the modern genre that we know today.
The Unclear Beginning of Boy Bands (1960s)
The Beatles are either the quintessential boy band or the furthest thing from a boy band depending on who you talk to. Some say that they are not a ‘boy band’ due to the fact that they play their own instruments and write their own music. However, the nature of their fanbase of young girls, and the content of their songs, arguably place them in boy band territory. Another boy band, The Monkees, formed in 1966 and had a similar style to the Beatles. In fact, they even started off with a sitcom playing a band who wanted to be as big as the Beatles (Big Time Rush anyone?). These groups, but mostly the Beatles, solidified the presence of boy bands in pop culture.
The “Family Band” era of Boy Bands (1970s):
Jackson 5 while the Jackson 5 broke barriers in all avenues of music, we’ll be focusing on their contribution to the boy band ‘genre’. First, they broke out of the rock mold of the 60s and implemented their own R&B/Soul sound. They were also one of the first groups to incorporate choreography in their sets, and they’re regarded as the first non-white boy band. Similar to the Monkees, they leaned into television and to off their individual personalities. The Osmond Brothers also followed the “family band” mold and put out R&B-inspired pop songs in the 70s. Similar to the Jackson 5, their selling points were their “polished performing style, instrumental skill, and vocal talent”. Although not a full family band, Menudo, a Puerto Rican boy band that became popular in the 80s, was made up of a couple sets of brothers and cousins. It is important to mention Menudo because they’re the first popular non-white, non-English speaking boy band. By the way, if you know Ricky Martin, then you’re already aware of one member! “Family bands” in the 70s would eventually see a resurgence with groups like the Jonas Brothers in the early 2000s.
The Beginning of “Pop” Boy Bands (80s-90s):
Maurice Starr is responsible for both New Edition and New Kids on the Block. If you weren’t aware, there has been a friendly competition between the two groups due to their business relationships with Starr. After Starr separated from New Edition over financial disagreements he set out to create a boy band of “white boys who could rap, sing, and dance”. Thus, New Kids on the Block was formed. Both groups incorporated choreography, harmonies, and New Kids on the Block especially putting an emphasis on audience and fan engagement. New Kids on the Block reached pop charts while New Edition largely remained in the R&B genre. This is likely due to the racialized nature of the music industry; white performers are categorized as pop by default and black artists often must ‘cross over’ from other genres. These standards are unfortunately very clear when examining the boy band genre. The case study of New Edition, and New Kids on the Block, where New Kids on the Block was essentially a white copy of New Edition, is comparable to Boyz II Men and *NSYNC in the 90s and early 2000s.
“Golden Era” of Boy Bands (Late 90s-Early 2000s):
These groups essentially took everything that their predecessors did and built upon it to make it a cultural phenomenon. This is when boy bands became solidified as boy bands. There were faces of the members on sheets, mugs, and posters, as well as pop culture references to the groups and their dedicated (often painted as borderline hysterical) fans. *NSYNC in particular was a proof of concept for boy bands as their early albums “established their appeal to a large, youthful fan base with plenty of disposable income”. The fact that they coexisted with so many other groups in the market such as The Backstreet Boys, Boys II Men, O-Town, Dream Street, LFO, Savage Garden, 98 Degrees, and more proved the sustainability of the boy band model. The most recognizable groups of this era were The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Boys II Men. The first two of these groups were created by Louis J. Pearlman who also worked to create New Kids on the Block. It is important to again point out the racialized lines in the music industry. *NSYNC found global popularity and success while their “group harmonization owes much to the virtuosic style established by the popular African-American boy group Boyz II Men”. This is another example of “pop”, meaning popular music, being dedicated to building a platform for white performers. The show “This Is Pop” on Netflix elaborates on this ‘Boys II Men effect’ in the industry, you can watch the episode here.
The Comeback of Boy Bands (Mid 2000s – 2015)
While the Jonas Brothers opened the door to this era with their signature Disney sound and hit anthems such as “Year 3000” the creation of One Direction in 2010 solidified the return of boy bands. While One Direction had many hits, one of the most noticeable impacts they’ve made has been in fandom culture. Directioners dominated stan Twitter, a ‘side’ of Twitter that is purely dedicated to talking about one’s favorite artists usually reserved for the most engaged fans. The amount of widespread support that the band received online and the communities that popped up on platforms dedicated to the band very clearly laid the foundation for modern fandoms. This is a noticeable shift from previous eras of boy bands where physical products dominated fan circles. While 1D merch was important and is still relevant, things like fanart, fan fiction, edits, and exclusive concert videos became just as important.
During this era other bands such as Big Time Rush, The Wanted, and 5 Seconds of Summer also entered mainstream music. 5 Seconds of Summer drew in some controversy when Irwin stated, “We’re not a boy band—we’re a band, we don’t want to be called the next One Direction. That’s not us”. The evidence for this argument was the fact that they had a ‘rockier’ sound, played their own instruments, and wrote their own songs. However, The Beatles, the Jackson 5, and the Jonas Brothers also played their own instruments. The Beatles definitely wrote their own songs as well. Each of these bands also focused on their own genre: rock, R&B/Soul, and pop respectively. This is an example of when the term becomes conflictive.
Modern Boy Bands & Perfecting the Boy Band Model (2017 – Present):
Although BTS has existed since 2013, their first western ‘realization’ took place in 2017 when they began overseas promotion on popular American platforms like Jimmy Kimmel, radio events, and award ceremonies. BTS is perhaps the quintessential modern boy band due to their extreme popularity, dedicated fanbase called ARMY, and innovative creations. Rather than exclusively focusing on ‘fluffy’ topics such as young love, they also shine a light on things such as unjust societal systems, mental health, and issues that the youth face today. They also have a complex storyline that takes place in Webtoons and MVs. The various ways for fans to become involved in their community have ultimately led to a tight-knit, and fiercely loyal fanbase. Fan engagement is definitely a strong suit, a factor that has kept them in the limelight (others being their altruistic nature, humility, and talent). Their widespread online support is comparable to One Direction’s. The same online communities and fan-made creations that circulate the internet are still very relevant and important. The group has taken these fandom staples a step further and introduced online concerts, fan meets, vlogs, and their own variety show in order to show off their personalities and to better connect with fans (If you haven’t seen Run BTS, it’s hilarious and I highly recommend checking it out!).
Their success is so important and notable because as we discussed, pop music has largely been a lane for white performers. The fact that a non-white, non-English speaking group is finding such great success in the west seems like a big step in the right direction. It is important to note that although they have great popularity their fanbase has pointed out mistreatment, racism, and obvious favor towards more ‘traditional’ American artists. Not to mention the debate of whether they are ‘Kpop’ or ‘pop’ especially when it comes to western award shows. Other Korean boy bands are quickly becoming popular in the states such as Stray Kids, NCT 127, Monsta X, and Ateez. These groups, and BTS, are introducing western audiences to new concepts in music, extreme choreographies and stages, and new experiences for fans to engage in.
There are also active American boy bands such as Why Don’t We which formed in 2016, and has started to gain traction in recent years. They’re an American boyband that was formed in LA and are inspired by boybands such as Boyz II Men, The Beatles, and CNCO. CNCO is also a current Latin American boy band made up of four members. The group is based in Miami and they rose to fame by winning the first season of La Banda, which in turn, earned them a five-year recording contract with Sony Music Latin. These bands resemble the One Direction model that focuses largely on singing and fan engagement.
While boy bands are a modern development in music, they seem like they’re here to stay. As a fan, It’s exciting to see the ways in which fan engagement is improving and the new groups that are surfacing. Keep an eye out, you never know when the next cultural phenomenon is on the way!