by Lily Lyons
“It’s like expecting a packet of biscuits to have soul,” a recent op-ed said about listening to boy band music. If we were talking about any other genre that kind of statement would be considered a pretty brutal burn. But for writing about boy bands it’s expected. There’s no music quite so easy to hate as boy band music. And I used to be one of the boy band haters. I would diss One Direction as a way to make conversation at parties. I had never heard their songs but I assumed I didn’t have to. It was bound to be the sweetest, most empty bubblegum pop, the kind of music only hysterical 14-year old girls who were ignorant of anything better would like. Then I started listening and reading and things got more complicated.
Boy bands are often slickly manufactured and their music can be amazingly simple. But they serve a purpose beyond being saccharine. That purpose is to speak to and validate young girls while helping teenage boys explore their queer identities. Boy band music is written for and about girls, with decidedly androgynous images and lyrical content. In an entertainment industry that often defaults to pleasing the straight, male gaze when marketing music, such behavior feels subtly radical. When you consider this aspect of boy bands, hatred for them suddenly seems less purely motivated by a desire for musical quality.
To see and believe the radicalism of the boy band you have to step back in time to witness its beginnings. Picture yourself in the early 1960s when girl groups were conquering the airwaves. These girl groups (think the Shirelles and the Ronettes) had a lot in common what boy bands would become: their images were carefully calculated and their members had little creative control. But they also gave girls a musical space to explore what it meant to be female as the birth control pill went on the market, the bikini became chic, and the civil rights movement began to take shape. For the first time girls were taken seriously as consumers and shapers of popular culture. The success of the girl group formula begged for a musical response, and found that response in the creation of the boy band, beginning with the Beatles.
We don’t like to think of the Beatles as a boy band, much less as musically indebted to girl groups. But girl group music is fundamentally in their DNA, from the many girl group songs they covered to their singing in falsetto (perhaps so that women could sing along more easily.) The Beatles were also the first male band to realize the potential of girls as consumers and create a largely female, diehard fan base. Sadly “Beatlemania” also marked the beginning of calling boy band music vapid. The screaming female fans who loved the Beatles were written about as unwitting victims of corporate marketing, speaking to the swiftness of society’s discomfort with this new music for girls.
The music industry was hot on replicating the monetary success of the Beatles, and soon the iconic boy bands we know appeared, from The Jackson 5 to the Monkees and New Edition. Just when everyone thought that the boy band phenomenon couldn’t get any bigger, 1990s managers and record labels discovered a new potential fan base for boy bands: gay teenage boys. While this move may have been profit-based, music has historically been a space for gay people to reimagine heterosexual narratives. The evidence that space had been made for queer interpretations of boy band music was everywhere including in the lyrics of the Backstreet Boys:
“I’ve tried to hide it so that no one knows
But I guess it shows
When you look into my eyes
What you did and where you’re comin’ from
I don’t care, as long as you love me, baby,”
—The Backstreet Boys, “As Long As You Love Me”
Lyrics like these are beautifully ambiguous. Young girls could think they were about a crush accepting his girl’s love despite her flaws, while boys who had recently come out probably heard the song as a reassurance that it was okay to express their sexual preferences. Those boys could also find the lead singer of the track, Nick Carter on the cover of xy, one of the only magazines for gay teens at the time.
Of course boy bands aren’t solely empowering. As the recent New Edition biopic point outs, band members were often taken advantage of and stifled creatively. And some boy band songs—such as One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful”—uphold as many sexist standards as they contradict. But while we should critique the problems of boy bands, we also need to develop an appreciation for their renegade history and revolutionary aspects. Boy bands may not say much lyrically or musically, but they do leave a critical space for their listeners to imagine, question, and validate their sexual identities. And by leaving this space, they tell a group of young girls and queer boys that they can be loved and wanted the way they are. That someone is listening.
HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BOY BANDS? LET US KNOW IN THE COMMENTS.