From the Beatles to One Direction: How to Identify a Boy Band
I have a 13-year-old cousin who I carefully monitor on Facebook, both for her safety and my edification. Not long ago, she began posting pictures of members of One Direction, a band I had specifically avoided even knowing about because, as far as I could tell, they were a boy band totally made up by some producer somewhere to sell records (downloads?) and get little girls whipped up into a frenzy. I’d seen that before and made a point of hating it (see: middle school). But then I happened to watch their adorable video for “Kiss You” and something snapped in my brain. Suddenly, I was the 13-year-old I absolutely wasn’t at 13 (Counting Crows was my favorite band back then, obviously). I started going back into the annals of boy band-hood and wondering: What makes a boy band a BOY BAND and not just a group of dudes playing music together? Why are ‘N Sync and One Direction boy bands but Counting Crows and Mumford and Sons just bands? Here, my friends, is what I discovered:
To be a boy band, you have to sing catchy tunes about girls.
Most people will tell you that The Beatles were the first boy band. I wasn’t always convinced of this because they are MUSICIANS and wrote their own stuff and went on to each have pretty amazing individual careers. However, on closer inspection, I realized that they STARTED as a boy band and then morphed into just a band. Back in the “I Want To Hold Your Hand” British Invasion days, when they all dressed the same and had those cute haircuts, they were definitely a boy band. And the first clue is the peppy and sweet songs about girls. Songs that say: “Hey, we’re just a bunch of nice, approachable dudes, hanging out together, talking about you, the girl we love, in a really respectful way.” As a person who knows a lot of dudes well enough to know that generally when they are alone talking about girls the subject of holding hands RARELY comes up, I think this must be part of the appeal of boy bands. A horde of teenage boys can be quite a terrifying thing to a young girl in real life. And individually too, boys are scary. They hurt your feelings, don’t ask you to dances, break-up with you on Valentine’s Day because you won’t have sex with them, etc. But not boy bands. They are always a group of cute dudes who just want to hold your hand.
There can’t be a real front man.
I use Backstreet Boys as an example here because clearly, IN MY OPINION, this is the Nick Carter show. BUT, the band isn’t “Nick Carter and the Backstreet Boys,” just as The Monkees isn’t “Davy Jones and the Monkees.” Someone is always going to be “the cute one” and “the goofy one,” but the lack of a front man is crucial because it shows that you are all on the same level, there are no divas (even if there are) and, in support of the subject matter of your songs and the non-threatening vibe you are going for, none of you are the silver back gorilla or the alpha male. You’re just a group of good-time-loving beta bros, hanging out, not hurting anyone.
You can be a group of brothers, but only if you are still somehow sexualized.
One of the great debates I had with myself and others while coming up with this list is: Can a group of brothers be a boy band? My main question was Hanson. They seem in some respects like a boy band. They are cute and have matching haircuts and sing happy music. But they also were missing something. I originally thought it was that they were brothers, but then I thought of The Jackson 5 and The Jonas Brothers, both CLEARLY boy bands. Why one and not the other? As my friend Kevin Hobson put it: “Jackson 5 and Jonas Brother count because they were sexualized by their handlers. Hanson never really was.”
Your music has to be dance-able, especially at high school dances. It helps if you have dance moves that can be emulated.
The boy bands that stand the test of time all have this in common: Their music makes you want to dance. I missed out completely on the New Kids on the Block craze because I had no TV and my parents at that point were playing a lot of Paul Simon, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson records around the house. However, there was a girl down the street who knew ever single move to the “The Right Stuff” dance and she would do it on her front stoop every day. She also wore a side ponytail, which I couldn’t do since I had a bowl cut. I was, of course, consumed with jealousy.
You have to be a little sexy. Not TOO sexy, but definitely sexy.
Boyz II Men is by far the sexiest of all the boy bands, but they are also an example of how to do boy band sexiness right. Since, as you know, the goal is to be as un-intimidating and approachable as possible, while remaining masculine and heterosexual (ish, see the next requirement), boy bands must strike the right balance of sweetness and romance with straight-up sex. Spoiler: they always err on the side of romance. Can you imagine Lil Wayne singing: “I’ll make love to you, like you want me to, and I’ll hold you tight, baby all through the night?” Answer: no. Because his music is for straight men and Boyz II Men is for everyone else.
You’ve got to have a little (or a lot) homoerotic tension.
Teenage girls have always loved to see boys showing each other a little love. And by “always” I mean since at least 1998 when wrestling inexplicably became my favorite spectator sport. Somehow boy on boy hugging (“wrestling”) and butt patting makes the participants seem a little more benign and maybe, a little more likely to hug/”wrestle” us or pat us on the butts IN A FRIENDLY WAY. Basically, boys who can show they love each other can show they love us too! They can talk about feelings! When they are angry, they’ll probably cry instead of punch a wall. And we like that! Granted, One Direction takes it pretty far with their genital-touching and kissing but somehow, doesn’t this make them even cuter? Even if they are all in love with each other and have no interest in having actual relationships with girls, who cares? Some of the sweetest, most girl-positive boys I know are gay. Would a straight man have made me this video expressing his love for me? Probably not. And I think we can all agree that it would be safer for teenage girls if all their boyfriends were actually interested in being friends and loving them for them and not actually having sex with them at all.
So which boy band is your imaginary boyfriend? Spend the day watching this whole playlist, including not-really-a-boy-band Hanson and a special boy band moment from Top Gun, and get back to me. I’ll just be here in my cubicle, trying to learn New Kids on the Block dance moves.