Clem Bastow never camped out for a glimpse of NSYNC’s Joey Fatone, or swooned at the sight of Kevin ‘Backstreet’ Richardson. But the oft-ignored talent of much-maligned boy bands is not lost on her.
It will surprise no one who knows me or my work, even remotely, that I was not an especially cool teenager. Of a weekend, I would lock myself in the shed and do watercolours while listening to The Best of The Hollies. I was so obsessed that I went and got an expensive colour copy (it was 1997) of my original vinyl album cover (it was 1967 in my mind), so I could stick it on the inside of my school locker.
At the time, I thought that this was all terribly sophisticated; far less mortifying than my friends’ tastes in 1990s boy bands. Not for me the childish joys of Backstreet or Boyzone, my logic ran. I listen to REAL music. It wasn’t until time went by (ie, I became less of an insufferable teenager) that I realised The Hollies were a boy band, and that boy bands have provided some of popular music’s greatest moments.
The truth is, my transition happened quickly: not a year later, when British boy band 5ive’s ‘Everybody Get Up’ was released. The song, with a Joan Jett ‘I Love Rock’n’Roll’ sample so audacious as to achieve some sort of plagiaristic transcendence, was the dumb stadium pop track I didn’t know I was looking for.
In retrospect, 5ive – the male equivalent of Spice Girls, manufactured by the same management team of Bob and Chris Herbert – were possibly the finest of the 1990s boy bands. A good part of this was due to their self-awareness, which was made clear in their 2001 video for ‘Let’s Dance’. Released more than a decade before One Direction’s video for ‘Best Song Ever’ (which referenced ‘Let’s Dance’), 5ive’s video finds the band playing three roles: as a Borat-esque documentary film crew; as themselves in a pitch meeting for their new video; and as themselves in the resulting deeply satirical clip. At the time, 5ive singer Sean Conlon was very ill, so was represented in the video by a cardboard cut-out. It’s a level of self-parody that approaches the sublime.
This is not to say only the self-aware boy bands have mined pop gold; some of the best boy band songs are the ones that are blissfully earnest. Take That’s ‘Back for Good’ (with Gary Barlow’s mysteriously poetic lyric a fist of pure emotion) is a pop classic that deserves to be in the upper echelons of any ‘greatest ever’ list. (I would go so far as to ignore any list that doesn’t include it.)
It’s the earnest moments that I really treasure. As much as NSYNC’s sophisticated ‘Girlfriend’ (2002) is a wonderful moment of R’n’B pop crossover (it was released when Justin Timberlake was on the cusp of going solo and becoming cool), there’s something more joyful about their daggy and relentless earlier work, like ‘Bye Bye Bye’ or ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’. Both singles were released when the band looked less like Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue models, and more like The Wiggles if someone had laced their drinks with acid.
There’s earnestness in a last-ditch effort, too, like when the Backstreet Boys returned in 2005 with their first single in nearly four years: ‘Incomplete’, a desperately serious power ballad. I’m not ashamed to recount that I gave Never Gone (their album of that same year) four stars in the arts pages of a major broadsheet newspaper. Similarly, when Backstreet Boys teamed up six years later with New Kids on the Block, the resulting NKOTBSB track, ‘Don’t Turn Out the Lights’, was so stupid it made me cry tears of joy.
These late-career offerings from boy bands who are now well and truly men have a poignant quality. Seeing Backstreet Boys or 5ive singing their boyish hits as they approach their fourth or fifth decades reminds me of the fate of former child stars who had the misfortune of going through puberty. In a 2007 interview with The Washington Post, Jackie Earle Haley, the actor who was once the cute little guy from The Bad News Bears (and is now 53 years old), eloquently discussed this fate: “My self-esteem got attached to this thing that wasn’t real, and when that stopped, you’re stuck with an identity that doesn’t exist. That’s a deep hole to climb out of.”
Why are we so loath to let these artists become ‘man bands’, and instead expect them to stay trapped in eternal boy band twilight? What is it about boy bands’ work that sets them apart from their female counterparts? For me, it’s the emotional vulnerability that boy band songs communicate. A cynic (or a mercenary record exec) would chalk this down to the fact that the songs are crassly written to appeal to pre-teen girls, so they have to deal in innocent expressions of pure love. I think there’s something deeper at play, even though I can’t quite put my finger on it.
The boy band renaissance came in the early 1990s, in the direct aftermath of hair metal and grunge (genres amusing to me, as both are often considered misogynistic, despite the fact Poison looked like a bunch of pretty girls and Kurt Cobain was one of the 1990s’ most compelling forces against gender expectations).
Lyrically, the concerns of boy band songs were, well, boyish, a counterpoint to the rigid masculinity of Bon Jovi or other ‘grown men’ of popular music. This has crystallised in One Direction, a modern-day boy band who are constantly sobbing and hugging each other, and whose emotional vulnerability has, if anything, raised their stocks in the eyes of women and girls everywhere. In a world where boys feel increasingly uncomfortable discussing their feelings, that can only be a good thing.
Most importantly, however, the songs are really, really great.
By Clem Bastow
This article first appeared in Ed#483