Heartbreakers: The Evolution of Boy Bands
Some surprise faces - plus what happens when you meet a heartthrob years after their heyday.
Boyz II Men (Photo: Todd Plitt / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Boy bands somehow carry a different cultural weight to other popular acts, and remain a long-serving phenomenon that keep on throwing looks and ballads that break girls, boys, grannies’ hearts and parents’ banks with their hypnotic power.
The Walker Brothers. Boyz II Men. BTS. Since the dawn of record-producing time, different constellations of boys from different places just keep coming in their mini clans with signature crooning, melodic hits and syncopated dance routines: not to mention the camp outfits and iconic haircuts.
The overall squeaky-clean image was sometimes infused with a public scandal and a ‘are they/aren’t they’ fellow popstar lover, and other invasive public curiosities over one’s privacy. This seems also to be a typical requirement for your average boy band member. Throw in a tooth-and-nail fight audition process, a stealthy, cash-hungry behind-the-scenes management team with a ruthless eye for success and a ‘sex-sells’ attitude, and you’ve got yourself a top boy band.
Did you know Ryan Gosling was almost a Backstreet Boy? That One Direction lost on The X Factor UK? Whether 5ive actually had five members? Formed by Spice Girls’ management, this British act indeed began as five, shrinking to four, and now three: their latest single is as recent as 2021. Meanwhile, the aforementioned BTS (whose acronym translates to Bangtan Boys aka Bulletproof Boy Scouts) consistently break streaming and sales records the world over.
Let’s see how exactly we got to this point.
Is this pop?
What makes a boy band if it’s not copycat outfits, catchy tunes and pretty faces sold in a shiny pop package? Could we call the Pet Shop Boys one? What about Blink 182? Or are they holding too many instruments?
Perhaps proving that the thirst for pop icons and a curiosity about their origins will never tire, a 2021 Netflix docuseries This is Pop tries to get to grips with what qualifies as pop, and who are the forces of nature that make it to the very top. The first episode is boy band-centric, titled The Boyz II Men Effect, and charts the humble beginnings of the gut-wrenchingly tender four-piece from Philly, responsible for many ballads including ‘End of the Road.’ But whilst they certainly pioneered a level of cheese and sincerity that hadn’t even been captured by the likes of 90s stalwarts New Kids on the Block, Bros or Wham, their matchy-matchy, togetherness brand of brotherhood by way of harmonising en masse to the object of your affections was nothing new.
What came after these 80s groups and the very early 90s B2M were a flurry of groundbreaking twinky outfits from Take That and Boyzone to Backstreet Boys and 3T, whose blend of camp and machismo was a bestselling combo. They were as pretty as a picture but with enough muscle to keep them backflipping into the street. Artists like Justin Timberlake used their boy band success (the highly unoriginal and thus brilliant N*Sync) to later launch flourishing solo careers. As for Hanson, there was the long blond hair of three brothers and the enduring magic of ‘MMMBop.’ Now grown up, the brothers still tour and record - but the majority of those mystical locks have been sadly chopped with age.
But it was back in the 60s that boy bands in all their shapes and sizes began. Off the back of Motown outfits like The Jackson 5, The Temptations, The Four Tops and others, a trio named The Walker Brothers (who were in fact not brothers at all) brought the choreography down a notch and introduced the high stool and heavy sunglasses. Helmed by iconic singer-songwriter Scott Walker (real name Noel Scott Engel) who went on to have a wildly successful and alternative musical journey, the trio were one of the first to flutter their pretty wings in the form of what came to be known as the more pop-centric boy band - different to the likes of the Motown brigade or the massive Beatles (whose fandom was tantamount to any boy band today and then some, but who did write their own songs).
With songs such as ‘Make it Easy on Yourself,’ and ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore),’ the band are said to have drawn bigger fan bases than even Beatlemania did. There was something more gentle and accessible about these lads.
The impact of Walker and his bandmates was unsurmountable upon pop and experimental music alike forevermore. Another member born John Maus had used the name Walker since his teens, and so it was adopted by the three. Later, another artist with the same name, the avant-garde John Maus, would make waves in the 00s hypnagogic pop movement, which many credit him with igniting. His personal origins are quite unGoogleable, and his name seems suspiciously familiar. David Bowie, who was in no less than five all-male bands - The Konrads, The Manish Boys, The Lower Third, The Buzz, The Riot Squad - before he hit fame as a solo artist, famously stated that he never would have been the artist he became without Scott Walker, so it’s not hard to imagine noughties Maus may be making an ode to another Walker Brother. You might even deduce that Ariel Pink and the Haunted Graffiti, a band which Maus was for a short time a part of, are also a type of boy band with catchy, lovesickly hits like 2010’s ‘Round and Round’ and its lyrics like "Sentimental heart breaking, everything is my fault."
In another twist of little-known, major-points cool factor, It was in fact the Pet Shop Boys’ manager who put together a more roughed-up version of Take That named East 17 in the 90s. They were named after their London postcode and included a dog barking at either end of their ‘club parody’ chart cyclone of a debut, ‘House of Love.’
Never meet your idols
In the 00s, we still had classic-style boy bands though. Some Irish lads that went by Westlife and sounded a lot like Boyzone fully embraced strictly sad songs and harmonies and matching white outfits, stripping themselves of dance routines or any humor. They retreated happily to the high stools of Walker Brothers era (sometimes sat on by Boyz II Men when the heavy pleather suits became too much). Meanwhile, Jonas Brothers led the religious boy band sect. As perhaps a comment on the pop machine, N*Sync made weird videos with them as puppets.
When this writer was in their early 20s, a dramatic brush with sort-of fame meant I was transported back in time to me aged 12.
It was around a decade after the British boy band sensation Blue hit the scene with their formulaic ballads and soft R&B and soared the charts with the likes of ‘All Rise’ and ‘Fly By’ (and finger ever on the pulse, let’s not forget when Elton John recruited the foursome around his baby grand to cover ‘Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word). My fluttery, useless pre-teen love for screeching ‘cheeky-chappie’ frontman Lee Ryan had over time relented, and I’d thankfully discovered Bowie, but I could never forget the three concerts I’d attended, with my army of screaming girlfriends and posters and the hours of MTV I’d watched waiting for their new vid to crop up for the 17th time that afternoon.
On a train whizzing out of London through the British countryside and hungover in sweatpants, my friend and I gasped in astonishment when Lee Ryan, of Blue chief crooner fame, stepped onboard. After years as a journalist and working at labels, I’d never seen the appeal of selfies or autographs, but suddenly, everything changed. The 12 year old me had risen from her seat and slithered over to the former star, recently shamed from an explosive and ironically, lothario-laden recent stint on the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother. What followed was a selfie and a friend request from my past hero and some innocent texting about the Christmas holiday. It was a fantastic present that the young me was purely dying over, and one that quickly died out: but not before I screenshot plenty of his egomaniacal Facebook statuses and rants: he was still living in his Tops of the Pops era, clearly. Eventually I had to unfriend.
You can take the boy out of the boy band...
As the 00s drew to a close and the 10s descended upon us, reality TV and the internet took over, making boy bands more accessible to their fans than ever. No longer would you have to sit watching MTV for hours to catch one video; you could follow your heroes on social media.
The now-defunct One Direction were certainly not the first of reality TV’s massive pop successes, but they were for sure the biggest. Alongside riveting erotic fan fiction (seriously, check it out) that took standom to the next level, 1D were the only group in the Billboard album chart history to have their first four albums debut at the top spot. The next biggest sensation was, finally, from a continent that wasn’t Europe or America. Korea’s BTS rack up billions of streams worldwide from their staggering nine studio albums to date, and there is an estimated 136M total ARMY of dedicated fans worldwide.
More recently, AI virtual boy bands have taken the industry by surprise: Japan unleashed the totally digital Ascana, and then Strawberry Prince, who are flesh and blood artists hiding permanently behind digital avatars and are huge on YouTube. Perhaps fans feel more of an allegiance to a virtual star than they do to the one stirring up tabloid drama.
Boy bands will always be a pop culture phenomenon, we love them, and warning: this playlist might make you go all fangirl/boy. Make up a slick routine in your white vest and don’t forget to stand up from the high stool when the key change comes.
Words by Alexandra Pereira