A Brief History of Boy Bands
by David Smay
Boy Bands rule the world and they always have. (And by “always” I mean “since Beatlemania.”) You wouldn’t think pubescent girls had that much power, but you underestimate sexual hysteria at your own peril (cf. The Bacchae by Euripedes. Any right-thinking director would update the play by setting it at a Backstreet Boys concert.)
I wound up digging both the big Backstreet Boys hits [of 1999], but those guys' problem is that they're not bubblegum enough: They're way too indebted to the adult-oriented ballads of Boyz II Men. I couldn't imagine Betty of the Archies shaking a tambourine to their music. (Chuck Eddy, Pazz & Jop, Village Voice)
Are Boy Bands even bubblegum to start with? It’s tough to draw a clean line between bubblegum and teen idols. Some pop fans take a hard stance here insisting that true bubblegum bands don’t have teen—only faceless studio bands or cartoon creations qualify. Sifting through the pop dig of the sixties and seventies, however, it becomes clear that this facile bit of taxonomy can’t hold. The Monkees sold on their faces (Davy foremost). The teen idol of the Seventies, David Cassidy, sang lead in the canonically bubblegum Partridge Family. Tommy Roe, Mark Lindsay, Dino, Desi & Billy, Tommy James—they all did hard time on planet Tiger Beat. When the quintessential bubblegum voice, Ron Dante, put out his solo album (essentially an extra Archies record with the same musicians and pool of songwriters) he angled for that teen mag audience right down to his photo insert.
The history of boy bands takes many a wayward turn beyond even the most generous definition of bubblegum. But be patient, I’ll keep it brief and on point and you’ll see how Boy Bands partake of the gumly wafer while staying something less than devout.
While brother acts and vocal harmony groups pre-date Vaudeville, the Boy Band as we know it first emerges with the Beatles. Their non-threatening cuddliness (quite a makeover by Brian Epstein on a bunch of working class speed freaks from Liverpool) was one of their big selling points and the band notably sold below the puberty line. Subject to outright scorn and dismissal when they broke in America, the band grew up and took their pre-teen fanbase with them. The mop tops left a motherlode for bubblegum musically (and their Pronoun Phase of early hits rarely rises above bubblegum standards lyrically). But it was their image as four complementary cuties that gave us the working model for Boy Bands ever after. Prior to the Beatles nobody gave a damn who the Belmonts were. Okay, after the Beatles nobody cared who Dion was (their loss), but the point is that in the post-Beatles era you sold your group as a merry band of (artificially and narrowly typed) lads.
When building a Pre-Fab Four it’s best to stick to the blueprint. Hence, Mike equals John as The Smart One. Substitute Davy for Paul as The Cute One. Micky is their Ringo, The Funny One. Peter stands in for George as… Hmmm, the somewhat mystically other one. The Oddball, one supposes, prone to non-sequiturs and prompting eye-rolling and blank takes from his comically tolerant mates. Now note, these types have but the faintest resemblance to the actual persons. Mike and John were certainly smart, but so was Paul McCartney before he baked his synapses in THC. And you typically wouldn’t put The Funny One as the lead vocalist, except Micky had the best voice. [Authorial bias noted here: Ringo & Micky are my favorite Beatle and Monkee respectively. In the Boy Band universe it’s vital to stake your identity to your chosen one and make it known. The fact that I also prefer Charlie Watts & Keith Moon should not be construed as a drummer bias but simple good taste.] Are the Monkees bubblegum? I say unequivocally… Sometimes. Really, it’s absurd to insist on an either/or definition. Every time Jeff Barry or Boyce & Hart handled them they were undeniably pink and chewy and popping.
The Jackson 5
Berry Gordy did not become the most successful music mogul of the sixties by missing trends. Berry saw the Monkees, the Kasenetz & Katz acts, the Archies and quickly sussed that Motown could do that and do it better. And they did. But more importantly (as we’ll see) the J-5 are indirectly responsible for the current teen pop explosion. Berry worked the bubblegum angle through the Jacksons’ early recordings and backed it up with the hottest tracks ever recorded. The early Jackson 5 singles have no peers in pop thrills. But even in the J-5 cartoon we find an only partially successful effort in differentiating the boys. Sure, Jermaine was The Pretty One and Michael was The Prodigy. But Marlon? I’m drawing a blank on Marlon. And Tito was… well, Tito had The Hat. Despite this failure in product branding, the Jackson 5 still got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Operating on Sam Phillips’ dictum that if you just find some white kid to sing like those black kids you’ll make a bundle, the Osmonds were quickly foisted on a suspecting public. Showbiz vets, the Osmonds started on The Andy Williams Show and were cooling their heels between gigs when the market niche for a white Jackson 5 opened up. The Osmonds are sorely underrated in today’s pop market and their Mormon Anomalousness has been overshadowed by Michael Jackson’s unslakeable ambition to embody Every Conceivable Celebrity Oddity. But snappy Osmond hits like “One Bad Apple” and “Yo Yo” deserve a new audience, and besides, Donny sang his ass off. Sure, he wasn’t Michael Jackson but he had a freakishly soulful style for a white kid from Utah. (Donny’s George Michael inspired comeback attempt in the ‘90s was not such a stretch.)
The Osmonds passed on the usual N.Y. musicians who played on so many bubblegum classics, nor did they use the Wrecking Crew in L.A. Instead MGM prexy Mike Curb, sent the boys to Muscle Shoals. In Memphis, George Jackson, one of Rick Hall’s staff writers, gave them “One Bad Apple” and they were on their way. Admittedly, recording in Memphis was the pop move to make in the late sixties, but aside from Dan Penn’s work with the Blue-Eyed BubbleSoul of the Box Tops it’s rare to hear the Muscle Shoals rhythm section on a bubblegum record.
Frankly, The Osmonds are ripe for a full hipster reevaluation. Not only did they pull off a credible Glam Rock gesture with “Crazy Horses” but they’ve got an Apocalyptic Mormon Concept Album (The Plan) simply begging for Lisa Suckdog’s exegesis and a Money Mark remix. Their heavy metal rewrite of The Book of Revelations, “The Last Days” successfully exceeds any satire that Spinal Tap could muster.
Bay City Rollers
The Rollers occupy a weird space in the pop continuum. They are equal parts bubblegum, Glam Rock and Boy Band. Rollermania proves once again that the durable Boy Band formula transplants beautifully to any number of locales. Scotland, Puerto Rico, Orlando, Florida—it doesn’t matter. The Rollers’ music holds up well due to the careful pop craftsmanship of Phil Coulter (“I Can Only Give You Everything”), Bill Martin and Phil Wainman (the Sweet’s engineer). Their earliest hits (as with so many ‘70s Teen Idols) rehashed Brill Building staples, but they struck gold when they recorded Coulter & Martin’s “Saturday Night.” Tartan shock waves rolled through the popverse with striking and unintended consequences.
I hate to blow the mystique, but at the time we really liked bubblegum music, and we really liked the Bay City Rollers. Their song “Saturday Night” had a great chant in it, so we wanted a song with a chant in it: “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go!” “Blitzkrieg Bop” was our “Saturday Night.” —Joey Ramone
TV shows followed both in Britain and in the U.S. (Krofft produced, no less) but “creative differences” and the pressure of Rollermania itself ended their brief reign. The Rollers’ post-fame slide ranks with Mötley Crüe for Behind the Music fodder: child molestation and child pornography, vehicular manslaughter, suicide attempts, AIDS, financial mismanagement and fraud. Inevitably, Courtney Love optioned their story to be made into a movie.
There’s a huge gap in Boy Bands between the Rollers and New Edition. In between (from a teen pop/Top 40 perspective), you’ve got the Disco era and the early MTV groups of the ‘80s. Disco gives us nothing Boy Band. Well, the Village People might qualify as a Boy Band on Christopher Street, but the Bee Gees were far too old and hairy and dentally intimidating to play the brother act for pre-teens. While neither a Boy Band nor particularly bubblegum, Duran Duran did efficiently plug this gap in the pop cultural psyche. They made danceable hits, the boys were cute (and distinct enough to allow a variety of favorites – a staple of Boy Band dynamics) and young girls had to be hosed down after their concerts. Further, Duran Duran’s avowed ambition to cross the Sex Pistols with Chic differs little from the formula advanced by the Backstreet Boys of grafting Boys II Men harmonies onto Gap Band grooves. It’s a Pop Funk thang.
One further fascinating but tenuous connection between Duran Duran and bubblegum involves the men who directed their early revolutionary videos, Godley and Creme (“Girls on Film,” “Hungry Like The Wolf”). When Graham Gouldman contracted with bubblegum kings Kasenetz and Katz, he recruited his buddies Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, with Eric Stewart, to record one of the last Ohio Express singles, “Sausalito.” Whatever happened to those guys? They formed 10cc, of course.
Maurice Starr is a genius and Ving Rhames ought to be lining up the rights for a film bio before Courtney Love moves in. Maurice got his start with the second tier funk band ConFunkShun but didn’t make his mark until he and his nephew, Michael Jonzun grasped the import of the cheap synthesizers popping up on New Wave hits and more significantly, Afrika Bambaataa’s Electro landmark, “Planet Rock.”
Soon under the moniker the Jonzun Crew they crapped out the endearingly rinky-dink “Space Cowboy” and techno forerunner, “Pack Jam.” Thus bankrolled, Michael spotted some kids at a local talent contest (they came in second) and Maurice decided the market was ready for a new Jackson 5 (hence, they were the New Edition).
What was so great about New Edition was their irresistible blend of bubblegum pop and sweet soul, the kind responsible for hits like "Popcorn Love" and "Candy Girl" (guided, of course, by the hand of producer Maurice Starr, who went on to recycle these songs for white-bread clones NKOTB)... Who could have known they would go on to dominate the world of hip-hop and R&B in the '90s? —Rebecca Wallwork, All-Music Guide
New Edition slipped through that narrow doorway Maurice opened for them, pulled themselves out of Roxbury and remade R&B into their own image (New Jack Swing). Bobby Brown, Ralph Tresvant, Johnny Gill, Bel Biv Devoe all went on to score #1 R&B hits as solo artists, and Michael Bivins produced Boys II Men’s (who took their name from a New Edition song) influential first album. Boyz deserve a note here for their over-arcing influence on the contemporary Boy Bands. They provide the immediate touchstone back through the vocal group tradition that includes the Temptations, the Miracles, Five Satins, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.
New Kids On The Block
Operating on Sam Phillip’s dictum… does this sound familiar? In a satisfying twist, Maurice exploited his own legacy after New Edition dumped him. He just moved one neighborhood over from Roxbury to Dorchester to find his New Kids. The teen pop market exploded in the late ‘80s and New Kids on the Block were the Kings of ‘80s bubblegum. Maurice wrote catchy hooks (he once claimed to write ten songs on the plane from New York to Boston) and saved on session musicians by recording all the instrumental tracks himself. Low overhead, high return. In truth, most ‘80s bubblegum sounds as dated as last year’s synthesizer. The hooks are there, but the cheap production gives it a brittle edge that hasn’t aged well.
By 1987 Debbie Gibson and Tiffany grappled for the Teen Queen crown, Jem & the Holograms brought cartoon rock back to television, and Menudo worked the Latin Market. The NKOTB phenomenon pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars (largely through their concert appearances) and they established the boilerplate for contemporary Boy Band shows with their frenetic, choreographed hip-hoppity dance moves. What makes Maurice Starr’s achievement even more spectacular is that he didn’t have the combined talent pool of Nickelodeon and Disney that Lou Pearlman works with to draw from. Both Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre managed to scrape back onto the charts after more than a decade’s absence which must be some kind of record for perseverance in the Boy Band universe. And without NKOTB we wouldn’t have Mark Wahlberg’s fine career as a supporting actor.
Menudo fascinate as a conceptual art project. The sheer ruthlessness of taking some poor kid, making him a star, and ejecting him from the group at 16 takes your breath away. Pygmalion as written by DeSade and Warhol. It ranks right up there with Kirshner’s cartoon band revolution for Master of Puppets genius. Like the Bay City Rollers, Menudo suffered a sex scandal within its management. (Running a boy band seems to rank right behind Priest and Scoutmaster on the NAMBLA job board.) Of course, Menudo’s most famous alumni is the hip-swiveliest pop star since Elvis, the King of Latin Pop, the toothiest grin since Donny Osmond, the most fey disavowal of his sexuality since George Michael: Ricky Martin.
America will never grasp the import of Take That. When Boy Bands died a grunge-related death in the early ‘90s, the cause was taken up in the U.K. Modeled directly on NKOTB (right down to the uneven talent distribution) Take That first gained acceptance on the gay club circuit.
Take That’s Greatest Hits... tells only half the story, since mere records cannot convey the exciting hairstyles, Howard Donald's arse, or depict the lads dressed as deer, but it's compulsive enough. Their hectoring “Do What U Like” debut merely scraped the Top 10, yet the remainder is peerlessly bright, intelligent pop full of joyfully plastic brass, and naturally stars “Back For Good,” Gary Barlow's one truly fantastic song. —Danny Eccleston
Take That's boyish good looks guaranteed them a significant portion of the teenybopper audience, but in a bizarre twist, most of their videos and promotional photos had a strong homosexual undercurrent — they were marketed to pre-teen girls and a kitschy gay audience simultaneously. —Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All-Music Guide
Just as Take That seemed on the verge of bringing Boy Bands back to the U.S. they split. Other British Boy Bands like East 17 and Boyzone soldiered on, but the Spice Girls quickly moved in for the kill and absorbed both Take That’s U.K. market and the world domination which had eluded the lads.
They’re out there taking dance classes in stripmalls in Louisiana, singing Boys II Men songs in the school hallways in Kentucky, appearing at county fair talent shows and roller rinks. They’re southern showbiz kids and they’ve all converging on Orlando. O-Town, home to The Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Trans Continental Records. In the ‘90s, The Disney Channel remade The Mickey Mouse Club and somebody had an eye for talent. That show alone gave us Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell (Felicity) and half of ‘N Sync (Justin & JC). But first came Backstreet.
Lou Pearlman, a man Time magazine labeled “florid” (that’s code, get it?) made his money in shipping and then bought the Chippendale dancers. Lou founded Trans Continental and set the Backstreet Boys up with Johnny Wright, NKOTB’s road manager. Johnny took the Boys to England where the market was much more hospitable to teen pop in the early ‘90s. After Hanson and the Spice Girls softened stateside resistance to bubblegum, Backstreet popped and locked their way back home to unprecedented chart dominance. Both Hanson and the Spice Girls sadly flopped in their 2000 follow-ups while in contrast BSB closed in on one billion dollars in total revenue. One Billion. The brain boggles. The music? Unlike their NKOTB predecessors, everybody in Backstreet sings well enough to be a solo act. When they settle into a dance groove they rely heavily on a mid-‘80s Gap Band vibe. But they make their money with the gooey ballads and that’s where Boy Bands look a lot more like Teen Idols than bubblegum.
Backstreet’s only challenger for current Boy Band supremacy are the just as Orlando-based, just as Lou Pearlman launched, just as litigious, just as pretty, label-mates on Jive Records, ‘N Sync. BSB were not happy to have their biggest rivals making the same leap from Trans Continental to Jive Records. The most notable things about ‘N Sync are: their successful escape from their Trans Continental contract; that they broke all sales records with No Strings Attached, selling 2.5 million in a week (doubling the previous record by BSB. Take that, indeed); their ubiquity; Justin Timberlake’s ascension into Heaven solely on the basis of his puss; that Justin dates his Mickey Mouse Club co-star Britney Spears; and “Bye Bye Bye” and “It’s Gonna Be Me” are ace pop songs.
That’s the history of Boy Bands up to the minute. A discerning eye might’ve caught that thread of gay impresarios that runs from Brian Epstein forward. And Boy Bands do have a gay audience. Cynical observers can’t help wondering what boys would be doing on backstreets, and noticing that everybody calls Lou Pearlman “Big Poppa.” But a front-page story in The Advocate in 2000 gives some credence that it’s less a matter of chickenhawks than young gay men tentatively approaching their sexuality and finding a safe, creamy, hairless (non-threatening) chest to obsess on. Just like the girls.
Are Boy Bands bubblegum? Sometimes they are and it's not a tough call: "Candy Girl," "Saturday Night," "ABC," "I'm a Believer," "Bye Bye Bye," "One Bad Apple" to cite just the obvious examples. Bubblegum is an undeniable strand through Boy Bands, but so are Teen Idol ballads, and more recently dance music and the vocal harmony tradition. Bubblegum remains only one part of the Boy Band formula, but we contend it's the best part.