Words: Chloe Bacon
If you’re reading this then you more than likely already know just who or what a boy band is, but just in case you didn’t, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines a boy band as “a small ensemble of males in their teens or twenties who play pop songs geared especially to a young female audience.” But where did the term boy band come from and how did we get from The Beatles to BTS?
So what exactly is a boy band? For many there are 7 key criteria needed for a group to be considered a boy band:
However, this list is redundant because as soon as you read it you can think of at least 3 boy bands that don’t fit these complete criteria. One Direction didn’t have choreographed dances, The Beatles largely wrote their own music and Boyz II Men aren’t classified as pop.
The one thing that boy bands all have in common is the devoted fandom. Boy bands have led to all manners of hysteria since even before the term was coined in 1985. The Beatles are a prime example of this with a whole other term created for it ‘Beatlemania’.
The term boy band didn’t exist till the mid-eighties but they were certainly around a lot earlier than that. The earliest idea of a boy band goes back to the Doo-Woop groups of the 1940s and 50s. But it’s not until the 60s that music historians start tracing them back to the Beatles, one of the world’s first (and biggest) boy bands.
But are The Beatles really a boy band? The Beatles are clearly and understandably titled the greatest band in history and many do consider them to be the first-ever boy band. Some others, however, don’t agree with this title although that’s likely due to the stigma that surrounds the term boy band. Early reviews of The Beatles such as these “They … sound like a group of disorganized amateurs whose voices seem to be fighting each other rather than blending…. “ and “The Beatles must be a huge joke, a wacky gag, a gigantic put-on” prove that The Beatles before they saw critical acclaim were very much treated like any other modern boy band would be.
The critics didn’t see or perhaps understand what the jam-packed auditoriums saw, they didn’t recognise the hype or the talent.
Beatlemania established the benchmark to which every other boy band since has been compared to. So surely by association, they must be classed as the first. Andrew Unterberger of Billboard agrees “I still believe the most important qualification for a boy band is in the way they’re received by their general fanbase, and the Beatles essentially set the template (and the bar) there for audience screaming, for favourite-member debating, and for -mania suffixing. And of course, their early songs are about as pop as pop (or at least rock) gets.”
Another notable mention for early boy bands is The Monkees, the Big Time Rush of the late 60s if you will. The band formed for the television show named The Monkees by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider who gained success of their merit once the programme finished in 1968.
Music historian Andrew Sandoval wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that The Monkees “…paved the way for every boy band that followed in their wake.” Something seen quite clearly when you look at future studio-created boy bands, especially Big Time Rush who also started on a sitcom-like programme.
And last but by no means least The Jackson 5 who not only allowed for Michael and Janet Jackson to have the lasting music careers they had/have also established many of the traditional boy band conventions as mentioned earlier.
By the seventies, boy bands had expanded outside of pop and out into other languages and countries. Menudo the Puerto Rican boy band was founded in 1977 and were one of the biggest selling Latin boy bands in history, and didn’t officially disband till 2009 barring a brief comeback in 2015. Menudo didn’t achieve much of their success till the 1980s becoming the most popular Latin American teen group of the era all whilst selling over 20 million records worldwide.
The most unique aspect of Menudo is that as soon as a member became too tall or reached the age of 16, they were swapped out with the shorter, younger version. Throughout their long history, Menudo has had 35 official members all of which were swapped out by the time they reached their mid-twenties unless they left the group for other reasons.
Over in Scotland the Bay City Rollers were gaining popularity and for a short but intense period, they were considered to be the next Beatles and were considered to be worldwide teen idols. The British Hit Singles & Albums noted that they were “tartan teen sensations from Edinburgh”, and were “the first of many acts heralded as the ‘Biggest Group since The Beatles’ and one of the most screamed-at teeny-bopper acts of the 1970s”. By this time ‘Rollermania’ as it was coined was rife with the bands’ fans having a distinct uniform of tartan trousers and scarves, which the band then used in their promotion and merchandise.
The late seventies and eighties saw American boy bands find the success of big boy bands gone by. First, with Boston group, New Edition who are often credited with being the reason the term boy band exists. An American R&B group founded in 1978 who didn’t find their big break till 1982 after they entered a Boston talent contest. Although the group came in second which meant no recording contract or prize money, the producer Maurice Starr saw promise and took them to the studio soon after. Their debut album saw great success and produced singles that went number 1 on the R&B charts in both the US and the UK.
New Edition parted ways with Starr after their debut album, who then formed the next big American boy band New Kids on the Block, another Boston based R&B group. New Kids debut album flopped with only one song charting on Billboard’s Top 100. This was likely because Starr their producer and manager, wanted them, a white R&B group, to win over black audiences first due to their sound.
It’s all thanks to a Florida radio station that New Kids on the Block saw the success they did. Following on from their disaster of a debut album the group started on their second album, when this album came out Starr wanted to again focus on black audiences. The video and single was sent to BET and black radio stations until one Floridian pop station started playing it. This radio station gave New Kids on the Block their fanbase, young girls.
New Kids mania carried on well into the nineties with the track Step by Step becoming their biggest single and the album of the same name selling 3 million copies in the US alongside 16 million units across the rest of the world.
The nineties was the super decade for boy bands.
In response the huge boom that was the inception of New Kids on the Block, European labels and managers wanted to cash in. Hence the boy band Take That was formed. Take That could arguably be the most successful boy band in British history. They hold the record for most shows at the O2 Arena and have sold 45 million records worldwide, this all comes despite their many hiatuses and ever changing line up, going from a 5-piece to a 3-piece over the last 20 years.
And on the other side of the Irish Channel you had Louis Walsh forming the boy band Boyzone, otherwise known as the ‘Irish Take That’.
Whilst Take That, Boyzone and others such as Westlife were taking over the British/European fanbases you had the founding of the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC in the US. There’s been and there continue to be much debate other which of these boy bands is the better and depending on your own personal taste the answer will defer.
The impact these 4 groups alone had on the boy band genre is immense. Metro in 2016 argued that the Backstreet Boys were the boy band that made it acceptable for men to like boy bands. The music that was created for boy bands has since permeated across all genres with artists such as DaBaby sampling NSYNC on his track INTRO.
For a while it seemed as if the naughties brought about the death of the boy band at least that was the case until the Jonas Brothers saved the day. Formed in 2005 they gained much of their popularity due to Disney. The band of brothers from New Jersey sold 17 million records before their split in 2013 and also starred in 3 projects with the Disney Channel; Camp Rock, Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam and Jonas (which was then rebranded to Jonas LA).
Over in Britain JLS was the next big thing after having come second on The X Factor. They didn’t find as much success as the boy bands before them, in part due to the fact that the UK and Europe was still very much loving the boy bands of the nineties.
Both the Jonas Brothers and JLS split in the early 2010’s having decided to each focus on their own ventures, for example JB from JLS went and started his own farm, Kevin Jonas started a family and had his own reality show following his familial life. Having said that the 2 boy bands reunited in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Much like The Monkees in the sixties, the boy band Big Time Rush got their big break on a Nickelodeon television show aptly named Big Time Rush. The band and the show followed most of the characteristics that The Monkees followed with the exception that the group were friends before the show/band was formed. Their music was written for them with some input from the boys and designed to follow along with the television show. However it was clear to Nickelodeon from the start that Big Time Rush would be bigger than a show and this was proved to be true when, in 2012, Parade Magazine placed them above One Direction for ‘Best Boy Band in the World’.
We begin the 2010s with arguably the most successful boy band in history, One Direction. Formed in 2010 thanks to The X Factor and Simon Cowell, One Direction went on to have success that can only be imaginable to some despite having come third on the talent show.
Propelled into fame mainly because of social media the band released 5 albums before their hiatus in 2016 and experienced fan hysteria that can only be compared to that of Beatlemania. It’s because of this hysteria that the fans, aptly named ‘Directioners’ enabled One Direction to sell over 70 million records worldwide and go on 4 world tours, 2 of which were all stadiums.
Thanks to One Direction we move onto our next boy band 5 Seconds of Summer, an Australian boy band who actually play their own instruments, something not often done. Originally stemming from YouTube the band didn’t truly find international success till they supported One Direction on their Take Me Home tour.
After the release of their debut self-titled album in 2014 5 Seconds of Summer have gone on to sell more than 10 million albums and 2 million concert tickets. They’re the first Australian act to achieve 3 number one albums on the Billboard 200 and are one of Australia’s most successful musical exports in history.
Now K-Pop hasn’t been discussed as much as it could’ve been in this article but we can’t skip the Bangtan Boys, otherwise known as BTS. BTS are a seven piece South Korean boy band that debuted in 2013 under Big Hit Entertainment. By 2017 after having found great success across Asia they struck gold in the US, breaking numerous records. They are the first Korean act to receive a RIAA certification and the first Korean act to top the Billboard 200 with their release Love Yourself: Tear in 2018.
As well as finding success in the US they found success across the world too. They’re the first and only Asian, non-English speaking act to be titled the IFPI Global Recording Artist of the Year (2020) and during their last world tour they became the first Asian and non-English speaking act to sell out Wembley Stadium.
Outside of music the groups influence has led to them speaking at the United Nations and are official tourism ambassadors for Seoul. Most recently the band have announced a collaboration with McDonalds, releasing a special meal deal in 50 countries around the world.
It is clear that boy bands have provided us with some of the most influential music in history, for example the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band but they also influence culture, see BTS and the United Nations. So why then is the term boy band deemed an insult?
The answer is simple, misogyny. It’s no wonder the term boy band didn’t exist until the mid 1980s when marketing experienced a boom. It was an era where companies could push certain things onto teenage girls, an important demographic of the economy ever since WWII. And so the term boy band was born.
Gendered marketing has existed since the 1920s and it’s generally considered that anything marketed towards women and young girls is frivolous and less important. That’s why boy band is seen as an insult, anything that is marketed to young women is coded as silly or bad by anyone that isn’t female.
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