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A Brief History of Boy Bands

Boy bands: love ‘em, hate ‘em, you can’t escape ‘em. They’ve been dominating pop music since the 1960s. While there’s plenty of thought-provoking and interesting discourse surrounding the authenticity of musicianship, female fan basis and the sexist qualities of boy bands, this article will not address that. Instead, this article is inspired by a pure love of boy bands—of their songs, the mania they inspire, and the individuals who continue to make music long after the bands are disbanded. Here, I will explore some of the best tracks of these boy bands, and their members’ solo careers.

 

The Beatles

Let’s start with the Beatles who were, especially in their early years, the quintessential boy band with catchy choruses and legions of screaming (general female) friends. Listen to their 1963 B-Side hit  “Do You Wanna Know A Secret?” for its moody, yet loving tone, then switch over to the 1965 “Drive My Car” (make sure to enthusiastically sing along with the “beep, beep, yeah’s”) for an offbeat yet upbeat tune and finish with the 1968 “Helter Skelter” for an angstier vibe.

Of the Beatles’ members, Paul McCartney has had the longest and most successful career,  but personally, I think that George Harrison has produced the most interesting music post-Beatles. His first two albums were heavily inspired by the sitars of Indian music, but my favorite is the 1973 album Living in the Material World  which features “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)” as the first track.

 

The Four Tops

The Four Tops were a hit Motown sensation in a nation heavily divided by race during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Start with “It’s the Same Old Song” (1965) for its tribute to lost love backed by a funky swinging beat, and finish with their Supremes duet “River Deep—Mountain High” in 1971. The Four Tops were unique in that none of their members went on to have solo careers, but rather continued to work for group efforts underneath the Motown label.

New Edition and New Kids on the Block are basically two-side of the same 1980s coin. They each sang, danced and were generally camera-ready at every turn. For each, their released singles are truly their best work. Listen to New Edition’s 1984 “Cool It Now” (arguably you should watch the music video too) for high-pitched harmonies and electronic beats. Then switch to New Kids on the Block’s “Step By Step” (1990) for some incredibly coordinated dancing and catchy “step by step” chanting. Their post-boy band contributions are unfortunately negligible.  

Boyz II Men

Boyz II Men completely changed the game; they were both soul and pop, both R&B and swing, and generally, they were acapella. They could go drop an upbeat tune or break your heart with one soul-searching melody, all in matching outfits and precise steps. It is from this cloth that all 1990s boy bands would be cut. Their 1991 debut single “Motownphilly” is one of their best songs but my favorite album is actually their 2007 cover album, Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA.

 

Backstreet Boys, N*SYNC

Ah, the late 1990s and early 2000s: the age of the boy band as it might be called in history textbooks years from now. There were several of them, including Dream Street, LMNT, 98 Degrees and O-Town, but the biggest were obviously the Backstreet Boys and N*SYNC.

Both formed by the same (corrupt and eventually jailed) manager in Florida, BSB and N*SYNC were forced to be competitors from day one. Luckily, we here in 2016 can simply enjoy all their music for what it was, without having to choose sides (although most of us prefer one to the other, even to this day—what can we say, we’re 90’s kids).

Backstreet Boys, the older of the two, requires a listen to the 1995 international hit “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” as its upbeat electronic quality defines their sound for the next few years. Millennium (1999) is their most popular album in the United States and deservedly so, as it features my favorite track “Larger Than Life,” a jump-up-and-down scream-along track, and the heart-wrenching fan-favorite “The One.”

If you’re looking for something to tide you over until the next Backstreet Boy album (due in 2017), AJ McLean’s 2015 single “Live Together” is an angsty, drum-filled cry for world peace while Nick Carter (and yes, he is Aaron Carter’s older brother) has found a sound in his indie-pop 2015 single “I Will Wait.”

N*SYNC had far fewer albums than BSB but greater domestic success. Listen to “No Strings Attached” (2000) for a dance-floor vibe as the boys give up their hearts to a femme fatale, “Digital Get Down,” a now cringe-worthy song about the blossoming Internet-driven dating scene and then turn to their 2001 Grammy-nominated, “Girlfriend,” for an upbeat yet soulful rendition of why they should be your man (sexist, yes, but also catchy and sometimes just what you want to hear).

Obviously, Justin Timberlake is the N*SYNC success story and his greatest hits are as varied as his career. “Like I Love You” from his 2002 debut album Justified features his falsetto accompanied by a strong drumbeat, the 2006 “My Love” is an exemple of his beat-boxing ability and his canny use of strong producers such as Timbaland and the more recent 20/20 Experience shows his growth as he presents a comprehensive and fluid album.

 

The Jonas Brothers

When N*SYNC broke up in 2002, there was a brief boy band drought—until the Jonas Brothers arrived on the scene in 2007/2008. They were one of the first “boy bands” to play their own instruments and write their own songs since the Beatles, and certainly the most popular one to do so in decades—they also didn’t dance, although they had coordinate movements during their concerts.

Personally, my favorite Jonas Brothers’ song is “Mandy” (2006), which features guitar solos and a scream-singing chorus that features Nick Jonas’ pre-pubescent voice. However, everyone should also listen to “Wedding Bells” off of their unreleased fifth album, which is a sad piano-based soliloquy to lost love (i.e., Miley Cyrus). When the band split, Nick Jonas was the first to venture out on his own with a group called Nick Jonas & the Administration (2009). Although no longer a group due to his solo ventures, listen to “Rose Garden” (reportedly inspired by Selena Gomez) for its jazz guitar and pitter-patter song structure.

 

One Direction

Last but not least, One Direction (put together in the fashion of BSB and N*SYNC in 2010) took the world by storm—the new “Beatlemania,” according to many sources (take that with a grain of salt, but it’s worth mentioning). Although their first two albums are decidedly more pre-conceived, Four and Made in the A.M. deserve a full listen through.

If you don’t have time for that, check out the 2015 song “Wolves” for its chorus, “Still the One” from 2012 Take Me Home’s deluxe edition for its ability to lighten the mood (scream along, it’s so stress-relieving I promise) and “Happily” (2013) for its indie-pop rock sound pioneered by Harry Styles. In fact, to get an accurate reading on One Direction’s sound, I would ignore all their released singles and go straight to their album tracks.

Although the band is currently on “hiatus,” members Styles, Niall Horan and Liam Payne have all be rumored to be working on music. Currently, Horan is the only one to have released music, a single called “This Town” that debuted at No. 1 in September 2016. It’s a one-mic, one-take tune from Capitol Records that features an acoustic guitar and soulful lyrics a la the Lumineers. (In case you’re wondering about Zayn, he did not stick it out until the hiatus and therefore, does not qualify for this article.)

 

So here you have it, a history of boy bands—not in its entirety, but in a generous portion. This is the family tree of boy bands, as each new generation pulls and references from the others, even to the point of covering other boy band’s songs for the sheer sake of honoring their musical inspiration.

Image Credits: Tumblr

English major, History minor, Diet Coke addict // senior at Kenyon College // Memphis native // please contact hewittr@kenyon.edu for resume & full portfolio 
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