How do you define a boy band? Is it the style of music? The look? The dancing? The shadowy figure in the background pulling the strings of the four to six good-looking young men picked specifically to appeal to a broad but almost always young female audience?
As part of All Things Considered's ongoing series on men in America, NPR Music's Frannie Kelley spoke with Jason King, the host of NPR Music's R&B stream, about how the idea of the boy band has evolved over the years. If you start all the way back in the mid-1960s with The Jackson 5 and follow the screams to One Direction's dominance today, many questions arise. Does a boy band need to be factory produced? What happens when the boys get too old? What happens when the sexuality in the songs becomes too obvious? Where is the line between a boy band and a man band? And perhaps the most blasphemous question: Can you argue that The Beatles might have been a boy band?
You can hear Frannie and Jason's conversation at the audio link on this page, and listen to a Spotify playlist of dozens of songs by boy bands new and old below.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, I'm Melissa Block.
(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS SONGS)
BLOCK: And with that, our series on men takes a musical detour today, as we hear about boy bands and why they're not called man bands. NPR's Frannie Kelley and Jason King, both music journalists, have been thinking about this and wondering how the idea of the boy band has evolved over the years - from New Edition to One Direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL")
ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) That's what makes you beautiful.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: First, what is a boy band? Where do they come from? And what is the difference between a boy band and a man band?
JASON KING, BYLINE: OK, so boy band we can define as an all-male vocal group. They're usually in their teens or their 20's. They could be a duo, a trio, quartet, quintet, sextet - doesn't matter. But they're generally performing crossover pop material to a largely teen or preteen female demographic. So there's a few things that really distinctive a boy band from what you might call a man band. Boy bands are usually factory produced, meaning that there's usually some kind of CEO or talent manager who's a Svengali, who's involved. He's responsible for the sound and the look and the casting of the band. The band often has interchangeable members so there's a lot of turnover. Very often boy bands, as opposed to man bands, are performing a kind of bubblegum pop music, which reaches a large demographic - not a lot of musical complexity, very simplistic messages. And very often the big difference is that boy bands don't play their own instruments and they rarely write their own songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE LOVES YOU")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.
KELLEY: OK, but when I think about boys bands, I think about their fans. And then my first image is actually Beatlemania. I don't think most people would say the Beatles right away, when you mention a boy band. But how do they fit in?
KING: Well, I think in a lot of ways the Beatles created the template for boy bands. They were never called boy bands at the time. That term didn't even come up until decades later.
KING: But early on, they were basically covering songs by artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry and so on. The music was definitely bubblegum. But most people don't think the Beatles as a boy band because the later work that they did, starting with albums like "Revolver" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club." And that work really eclipsed some of the earlier work. They write their own songs. They were seen as kind of auteurs of their own destiny. And so I think when you're talking about a boy band, the real key that underwrites what a boy band is that lack of control, right? That there's someone else's manipulating the whole thing to produce a specific effect in young girls as their audience.
KELLEY: Right, but not all boy bands, then, have to sound the same to achieve that effect.
KING: Exactly, I think when we talk about boy bands, there's a great diversity to the range of sounds that's associated with boy bands. And maybe you should listen to some of that diversity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF IT ISN'T LOVE")
NEW EDITION: (Singing) And if it isn't love, why does it hurt so bad? Make me feel so sad inside.
KELLEY: That's New Edition who, to a lot of people, is the err boy bands. They come up in the early '80s, which you could call the golden era for boy bands. And they're begun by Maurice Starr. Then he goes on to start New Kids On The Block.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEP BY STEP")
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Step by step, ooh baby.
KELLEY: In 1991, New Kids On The Block makes more money than Madonna and Michael Jackson. So I guess my question is how did Maurice Starr know that this was going to work?
KING: Well, there was a model for Maurice Starr. And that was Berry Gordy. Berry Gordy was the CEO of Motown - a black man who looked at the Beatles, saw how successful they were and said, let me do the same thing. So he put together the Jackson 5 - well, they're already together. But he basically signed them to Motown, brought them to Los Angeles and started the Jackson 5 mania, which was very similar to Beatlemania. And then in the 1980's Maurice Starr, who was also a black man, takes Berry Gordy's example of the Jackson 5 and starts his own bubblegum black group doing R&B music, which is New Edition. And then when New Edition doesn't cross over the way that he'd like to. And you have to remember the '80s was the decade of crossover - Michael Jackson, Prince and so on. He says, let me put together a white band of young guys, whose - their image is going to be based on the New Edition and I'm going to put them out there and they're going to be successful. And they were.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
KELLEY: Now we have New Kids On The Block. They're selling a product to young girls which is also going to be used by these young girls to define their own sexuality and to divine these boys' sexuality. And the way that works is through these archetypes. You have John, Paul, George and Ringo - everybody has her own favorite. You have the Jackson 5 - pick a brother. You have New Edition - you can be a Bobby Brown fan or not, if you so choose. So not only do each of those characters exponentially increase a group's fan base. They also provide safety in numbers in a sense because, basically, each girl is having these connections in front of other people. Right, it's not like a solo star. It is less direct. And I think that all combines to making something that, at least parents think, is very PG. I'm not sure it's quite so clean in the girl's minds.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE LOVING YOU")
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: Oh, how I'll be loving you, forever.
KING: I think that's true. And I mean I think the other thing we have talk about it, when you talk about the boy bands, is race. You know, in the context of the U.S., obviously, there's a long history in which to be a black man or a Latino man is to always already automatically be threatening. And so one of the things that's interesting about the New Kids Of The Block is that, you know, here are some working-class young white men, who appeal larger to white females. But you also have Boyz II Men who comes along the scene. And they are basically modeled on the kind of barbershop, you know quartet or quintet model. They are sort of non-threatening but they also have certain kind of musical moments like I'll make love to you, all right, which is on the borderline of being sexual or not.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL MAKE LOVE TO YOU")
BOYZ II MEN: (Singing) I'll make love to you, like you want me to.
KING: From then, you also have groups like Jodeci, who most people don't think of as a boy band at all, because, you know, they're making a lot of innovative musical choices. But, of course, once you see the rise of Backstreet Boys and NSync and groups like 98 Degrees and LFO from Britain - groups like Take That and so on. The '90s really becomes a time of kind of racial consolidation of boy bands. And from then on, we really think of the boy band as being white, even though there are black boy bands like B2K and Imajin and Immature. You don't have the kind of crossover potential and certainly not the sales numbers that you see with the white boy bands. And that takes us up to the contemporary moment with groups like One Direction and The Wanted and so on, where even if there are multicultural members, basically the kind of racial character group is white.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GLAD YOU CAME")
THE WANTED: I'm glad you came.
KELLEY: Boy bands are made for young girls and there will always be young girls spending a short time going through some of the biggest changes of their lives. So the concept will never go away. I'm Frannie Kelley, NPR News.
KING: And I'm Jason Kind, host of NPR's streaming R&B channel I'll Take You There.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GLAD YOU CAME")
THE WANTED: The sun goes down, the stars come out and all that counts...
BLOCK: Need more boy band music? You know you do. We have a playlist that covers 50 years of boy bands at npr.org/music - indulge. This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.