By Kshitij Mathur, Batch of 2019
Backstreet boys, NSYNC, Jonas Brothers, JLS – what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear these names? Yes, boy bands!
With dashing good looks, smooth moves and soothing tones, boy bands have always stolen the hearts of teenage girls around the world. As early as the 1960s, boy bands have dominated music charts and have influenced some of the biggest pop culture trends.
Nowadays, however, boy bands are very different, not to forget that they are not ‘proper’ boy bands. All these bands do these days is stand on the stage, wearing skinny jeans and vans sneakers. Some even have the audacity to pick up instruments. That’s not what a proper boy band is. What makes a boy band is 5 guys living together in a huge mansion somewhere in Florida, having matching outfits, synchronized dancing and way over budget music videos!
Fifteen years ago, appealing to young women was serious business. Young men had to work very hard to perfect suitably feminine dance moves to win girls’ hearts. Consequently, things got pretty ridiculous.
NSYNC members were marionettes at the whim of an evil, hot female puppeteer. Backstreet got reanimated in space in the year 3000. Revisiting “Quit Playing Games with My Heart” (and I cannot recommend this exercise enough) is unsettling. You will find five grown men lounging on an abandoned playground, unbuttoning their shirts but not removing them, writhing independently, together, in the rain. This looks absurd now, but back then, all of these erotic theatrics seemed like THE hetero thing to do.
The boys of One Direction are still impossibly pretty, but they don’t have to emote so hard to get girls to like them. Harry Styles, the youngest member of 1D, often seems to be saying: “Can you believe we’re actually doing these weird boy band dances? Neither can I.” Even when Styles is required to appear serious, like when he’s standing face-to-face with a girl and telling her that she’s beautiful, in “What Makes You Beautiful”, he looks like he’s barely holding in his laughter.
But the boy band industry has made one notable improvement in its new model – rarely do members of One Direction appear constipated. This is a recent development. When the Backstreet Boys hit the charts in 1997 with “Quit Playing Games With My Heart”, they targeted young women with their choreographed, pelvic dance moves, lubricated abdominals, and a pained look that appeared to originate in the lower intestine. “Girl,” the look says, “My love for you is so strong, it is beginning to affect my digestive tract.” If you’re not familiar with the facial expression to which I am referring, grab a mirror. Curl your upper lip, flare your nostrils, furrow your brow. Imagine that you are confused, offended, and oddly aroused. Remove your shirt, and voila! That is the look!
Compare that to the expressions that dominate One Direction videos. One Direction looks … happy. These boys smile. They joke around. They jump on trampolines with inflatable bananas lodged between their legs. Yes, sometimes, deep in a hook, they can appear slightly inflamed. For the most part, though, they seem to be having a good time being international sex symbols. The lyrics of One Direction songs may be peppered with serious ‘girls’, but the boys’ performances tell a different story.
So with the traditional boyband feeling like a museum piece, and the lazier, beige replacements no longer selling like they used to, how can this floundering form be resuscitated? What JLS did have over One Direction, Union J and their lethargic ilk was a work ethic. They’d been rehearsing and playing talent shows for years by the time they made it big. Their desire and drive to succeed was palpable, as was their instinctive chemistry when it came to performing. Somewhere along the line, pop became lazy. Dance moves became arm waggles or pointing, or – in the case of One Direction – just walking from one side of the stage to the other while thinking about something else. If the boy band is going to return to its former glories, it needs to excite a new generation of fans who have somehow come to see bored-looking video content or black-and-white selfies as suitable social media engagement. It’s as if these bands have been aimed more at the late-20s and early-30s mums who vote on The X Factor than the typical teenage audiences of old. Who wants to faint and cry to someone playing an acoustic guitar?
One place ‘proper’ boybands still thrive is South Korea. While I’m not suggesting we introduce the strict contracts favored by the K-pop industry, where members are recruited young and trained for years and years, there is something to be said for the effort put in. If that’s too much to ask and we have to go down the credible and authentic route, then why does that have to involve guitars and skinny jeans? Why can’t we rope in producers like Diplo or Skrillex or DJ Snake, audition kids who know what a dance routine is and create something with a bit of energy? Let’s not allow the boyband to die. Not yet. Not like this.
For those of you still having faith in the original boy bands, don’t forget that Backstreet Boys are coming back this new year with their world tour!
*Plugs in earphones and listens to Backstreet’s Back*