THE HISTORY OF BOYBANDS
Boybands: the guilty pleasure music acts that nobody seems to admit to loving but are some of the most successful musicians in music history. So, how did these bands become so prolific? And where did it all beging
What defines a boyband?
Let's start simple; what actually is a boyband?
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a boyband is “a pop music group made up of young men who sing and dance”. Many music scholars could give you about 5000 different true definitions of a boyband. Although this definition may have shifted over the years and may not be all-encompassing, it gives a good base to the types of bands being discussed.
This definition is why you won't see iconic retro bands such as The Beatles, and more recent bands such as Busted, Fall Out Boy, and 5 Seconds of Summer here. Although they are ‘bands of boys’ and many people have historically referred to them as such, they all have set instrumental ability and aren’t completely focused on vocals and don’t have a carefully curated ‘boyband’ image like the rest of the bands that are going to be mentioned.
Where did boybands begin?
It's pretty much established that boybands began all the way back with barbershop quartets. It’s not clear where barbershop quartets started but, it’s suspected they were African American in origin in the 1800s, and became their most popular across all cultures in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The groups would sing acapella, with each member having a specific vocal role.
Many would say that The Beatles were the first big boyband which is definitely valid, but as they don’t really the definition being worked off here, we won't include them.
It wasn’t until much later that we come across boybands in the sense that we know them. For that, we have to travel over 50 years into the future.
1960s and 70s - Jackson 5
Chances are, you know exactly who Jackson 5 are and even if you don’t, you still know all the words to ‘ABC’. Jackson 5 consisted of five brothers from the same family; Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon and of course the most famous of them all Michael.
The group can be defined by all sorts of genres, but the best way of describing it is soul-infused pop. Their music took huge influence from Motown bands that came before them.
A lot of the characteristics of boy bands going forward are taken directly from Jackson 5, proving once again, that black artists are at the root of pretty much every music genre and trend.
1980s - New Edition and New Kids on The Block
In the 1980s we saw the likes of New Edition and then later on New Kids on The Block rise to fame which is where we really see the idea of the modern boy band coming forward.
New Edition, who got their break in 1982, are the band that music buffs would class as the beginning of the sudden boyband craze that took off over the next couple of decades. The band's main genre was R&B, and they became incredibly successful very quickly.
However, the band got screwed over significantly by their management, contracts, and record labels. Although they were successful, it’s safe to say they didn’t earn as much as they should have; especially for being the pioneers of such a powerful genre.
Following on from New Edition there were New Kids On The Block, their poppier and whiter counterpart, created by the same man behind the former. The band mimicked New Edition’s style but changed the genre to pop music.
New Kids On The Block are probably the first boyband that was specifically curated to be the ‘perfect’ boyband. They were individually chosen by a man already significant in the music industry to sell: and that’s exactly what they did (eventually, after a very unsuccessful first album).
1990s - Boys II Men NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and Take That
The 90s was the decade that boybands in the sense we know them now really exploded. In pretty much every country across the globe you had successful boybands taking over the charts, which includes major players like NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys in the US and Take That in the UK.
It was Boys II Men that started off the decade, alongside many other black R&B grounps. Although they didn't have the same classic pop sounds as the bands that came later, they certainly paved the way for them.
Later in the 90s, NSYNC, The Backstreet Boys and Take That, among so many other bands that it would take too long to write, exploded onto the scene.
Everyone became obsessed with boybands and they completely dominated the music market in the 90s. They were designed to cater to make pre-teens go crazy, and as we all know, if you get the fangirls on your side then you’re bound to be incredibly successful.
These bands were as generic and bubblegum as pop can get and weren't in any way ashamed about it.
Not since this point has the classic boy band genre been so successful, with The Backstreet Boys being the most successful boyband of all time selling 130 million records in total.
However, it seems like no boy band is without its flaws and, once again, there were issues with management and contracts.
2000s - Westlife and The Jonas Brothers
Although the early 00s were mainly taken up by the remnants of the boybands from the late 90s, the 00s also presented a brand new bunch of pop-driven bands to brand new audiences. Although boybands weren’t quite as prolific as they were in the decade before, there’s no doubt the boyband craze was still alive and well.
We saw the introduction of Irish music manager Louis Walsh’s successful Irish pop bands like Westlife. Although Walsh had also been the brain behind Boyzone in the 90s, it was Westlife that really help shape the boyband scene in the early 2000s. Westlife are still the act with the most number 1 single debuts in UK chart history (yes, more than any other artist).
Then the late noughties saw the rise of Disney sweethearts The Jonas Brothers and at this point, the classic boyband mold began to shift a bit. Their style of music shifted closer to pop-rock than the bubblegum pop of boybands gone by, and the band are pretty well known for playing their own instruments as well as leading on vocals. However, because of the way they were marketed and distributed in the US and beyond, they still fall into the boyband category more so than other bands that could be seen as their equivalents like McFly or Busted.
2010s - One Direction and BTS
There’s no way to talk about the history and success of boybands without talking about One Direction.
As someone who followed the band from the get go, as in watched them whilst they were on The X Factor and was a fan ever since, their meteoric rise to fame was something to behold.
What was especially interesting about One Direction was the way they were marketed. Clearly, their management had seen that the appeal of the sweet sicky boyband was waning, so created One Direction to appear slightly more quirky and rebellious. Just 5 British lads being lads. And boy did it work.
They became the first band ever to have 4 albums debut at number one on the Billboard charts, they had the highest grossing tour by a vocal group ever, and sold over 70 million records worldwide.
With 5 albums in 5 years, and every single one of those albums being an absolute smash hit, its safe to say that the craze that surrounded the bands of the 90s was back and bigger than ever. With social media allowing the band to build quicker than any other band before. The band had the highest grossing tour ever for a vocal group. Because their success was built previous to their first album release, their debut single was the most pre-ordered in Sony history. They were one of the biggest bands on the planet with no music out yet, so their trajectory after they released music was expected but still astounding.
Then following on from One Direction's 'break', we got introduced to the the band that made KPOP mainstream in the west: BTS. Once again, it was the power of social media that really propelled BTS to its unprecedented success.
This type of boyband is a completely new thing, with a different type of ’idol’ fanbase. The idol system is pretty complex but incredibly interesting, so please give yourself a chance to read up about it.
Although the band began with a hip-hop influence, as they’ve become more successful in the west you can tell their music has become slightly more generic and pop-based.
BTS became the first Korean band to ever top the US Chart with their album. The band are the most successful music act in Korean history. They’ve won copious amounts of awards, broken a ridiculous amount of records. However, they’ve gone beyond just music and become pop-culture iconics, with them featuring in Time magazine and partnered with UNICEF.
BTS truly brought the boyband to a brand new level, and possibly changed the game forever going forward.
What’s the future of boybands?
Even in their prime days, the average boyband only exists for just under 7 years which is just about long enough to rise to fame, make a lot of money, have a few arguments between themselves or with labels, and then move on. The lifecycle of a boyband is not long at all, which allows them to be replaced by another, and then another, which is exactly what’s been happening since the 80s.
As long as there are ‘stans’, there will be music moguls that want to cater to them and create these well-rounded boybands to do so.
However, it’s not as easy to do that now. Fans are getting smarter and are able to see through the lack of genuineness that came with some of these bands
If a boyband is to be successful going forward, then they need to feel genuine and they need to engage with their audience.
Part of the success of boybands is that their fanbase, which is mainly young women, is so unbelievably die-hard and supportive. And you know why that is? Because they embrace young female music fans.
Speaking from experience, being a young woman who loves music can be exhausting, as you can get pushed to the side for the other fans which make a band seem more ‘legitimate'. But, one of the common threads through all of these bands is that they appreciated the support of young women. They acknowledge the fact they would not be successful without the young women who were shouting from the rooftops about how great they are and buying multiple copies of every single piece of music they put out.
Did they do this so these young women would continue to make them a lot of money? Probably. But, the fans felt like they were being heard, and that’s all fans ever really want.
Quite frankly, maybe rather than scoff at boybands, some of the more alternative bands and artists that consider themselves higher than thou should take a leaf out of their book.