Boy Bands are the music industry's whipping boys. Sure, they sell millions of albums, but any girl past the age of puberty feels the need to hide her beloved copy of the Backstreet Boys' Millenium beneath Sarah Mclachlan's Mirrorball. And it's still more socially acceptable for any boy past the age of ten to deny loving for LFO's "Summer Girls." Critics, "hard core" musicians, and teenage boys alike rip Boy Bands to shreds with a ferocity usually directed at serial killers and mass murderers. "They don't play instruments." "They're prefabricated." "They don't write their own music." "They're pretty-boys." "They're nothing but pawns of the record companies." Are all those charges true?
Before I go any further, I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not a teenybopper in disguise. I do not secretly lust after Drew from 98 Degrees, deluding myself that if he could just look into my eyes, he'd fall madly in love with me and whisk me away from my mundane existence. I learned about this recent bubblegum-music renaissance -- perhaps led by the platform-shoe-wearing, girl-power-advocating Spice Girls, and taken to new heights by the Backstreet Boys -- pretty late. I hadn't heard an 'N Sync song until November 1998, and by then their album had already gone multi-platinum.
When I finally did find out who the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync were, I did what seemed natural: I mocked them. My imitation of 'N Sync's "God Must Have Spent (A Little More Time On You)" made small animals cringe in terror, and to this day I still do a wicked parody of Backstreet Boys "Everybody." But sometime between 'N Sync's appearance on MTV's top video countdown, and a temp job at MTV (during the course of which I was immersed in all things Pop), my parodies stopped being so funny; I was actually starting to like my victims. At first I refused to believe this could be happening, and clung to my Live, Garbage, and ManBreak CDs as though my life depended on it. I insisted on playing Metallica, classical music -- anything to deny my growing fondness for an actual Boy Band. When such denial was no longer possible, I casually let it slip to my friends -- who knew me as a rock-loving fool --that I kind of liked 'N Sync. Affection for 98 Degrees and L.F.O. quickly followed. Boy Bands had earned a permanent place in my CD collection. My Limp Bizkit CD is still crying out in protest.
What could drive a rock-loving girl into the world of Boy Bands? Severe head trauma? Depression? After ruling out these possibilities, the answer came to me in a dream. The popular Boy Bands are actually good. Observe.
Boy Band pop fills a void. The struggle for a sense of meaning in this world tinges just about every lyric carefully crafted by Live. Cake's sarcasm can be enlightening or mildly depressing, but is always interesting. Then there are the powerful, political lyrics of Rage Against the Machine. But if we view music as an analogy for life, we may recognize that we sometimes need down-time from the stress of our daily lives -- an outlet into a simpler world that's black and white, our own Pleasantville. For millions of music listeners, pop is that outlet. One only need look Boy Bands' most rabid fans -- adolescent girls -- to confirm that theory. Girls this age are confused about who they are and what direction they should be heading. Relationships with friends and parents are getting strange, their bodies are betraying them, and they're constantly receiving conflicting messages as to how they should be and how they should look. The last thing they want to listen to when things get tough is music that makes their already confused lives more confusing, which is why their thirst for pop is insatiable. The names of "underground" Boy Bands like Five, C-Note, and No Authority roll off their tongues as easily as names like The Pixies, The Ramones, and MC5 roll off the lips of rock fanatics. And adolescent boys are not immune to the appeal if music with simple lyrics; after all what is Limp Bizkit's "Nookie" but 'N Sync's "I Drive Myself Crazy" with different lyrics and a driving rhythm? (Sorry, Fred -- it is.)
The most popular Boy Bands are talented. 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, 98 degrees, and LFO are all really good at what they do. You may say they have no talent, and that they're just cute and well trained. But all one has to do is sit through a really bad karaoke session, or watch a beginners' dance class, to realize that singing and dancing requires skill. If the aforementioned boys were bad at what they did, I guarantee that you wouldn't have heard of them. After all, it's not just pre-pubescent teens buying their CDs. Backstreet Boys didn't sell more than a million CDs in a week exclusively on the wallets of twelve-year-olds. Adults are buying those CDs too -- and yet, unless you have a teenage sister, I doubt you can name the most popular songs by SKANDAL or Take 5. Why not? Those guys are just as cute as the Backstreet Boys, 98 degrees, or LFO, but their songs don't seep into your consciousness the way those of the genre's more popular practitioners do. Admit it: at some point this year, you had "I Want It That Way" stuck in your head. Cuteness will only take you so far (mostly to the cover of Bop); you've got to be catchy to get on top. "Catchy" is the prime mover behind the success of Britney Spears, and lack of it is the reason for the pathetic failure of New Kids on the Block's "darker" album of 1994. In fact, 98 degrees had a very good song out in 1997 called "Invisible Man"; it got a ton of radio airplay but no one bought the album because the song was good, but not catchy. It wasn't until the new album, 98 Degrees and Rising, and the release of the somewhat catchy "Because of You" and the ultra-addictive "Hardest Thing," that they achieved commercial success.
Boy Band songs are right for particular moods. I dig Tori Amos's "Silent All These Years," but do I want to get married to it? Perhaps if I predict that the marriage will end in divorce. On the other hand, "I Do" by 98 Degrees is a perfect wedding song; it appeals to the romantic within us. 'N Sync's "I Drive Myself Crazy" satisfies that part of us that wishes, after we've broken up with someone, he'd continue pining for us. Boy Band songs speak to the hopeless romantic in each of us -- the one to which we'd never own up in the light of day.
You like them. Maybe you don't like Backstreet Boys enough to buy the album, but you like them enough to hesitate before changing the dial when they pop up on the radio. As a music lover, you know you should hate these bands with a passion, but you can't seem to get "Tearing Up My Heart" out of your head. And you hate yourself for it. I've seen a lot of acts whose music resides on the border of good taste that have pretty strong followings, and none have inspired the widespread hatred Boy Bands have. But if you really hated Boy Bands as much as you claim to, would you have read this far? Deep down inside, you want it That Way.