Keep Calm and Listen to British Boy Bands

by Laura K. Garrison

The United States and Great Britain are linked by history and pop culture. In the UK, artists are seen as having “made it” once they are accepted by mainstream America. On this side of the Atlantic, we often prefer the British version to our own (think Skins, or Love Actually versus Valentine’s Day). We love their cute accents and peculiar slang–they love our materialistic consumerism that makes them lots of money. This symbiotic relationship has created several “british invasions” that have changed the course of music on both sides of the pond. During the first Invasion, rock n’ roll pioneers like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were the soundtrack of an era of tumultuous social change; during the second, New Wave acts like Duran Duran and Billy Idol ruled the airwaves of MTV. We are experiencing the beginning of a third British Invasion, its leaders being boy bands like One Direction and The Wanted.

If only they were a few years older…

If you haven’t already caught the One Direction “infection,” you probably soon will. When friends started to get caught up in their hype, I was skeptical because I’d like to think I have more sophisticated taste in music, but it only took one listen to their first single “What Makes You Beautiful” for me to get it. Comprised of British/Irish members Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, One Direction came together during the 2010 season of Britain’s edition of The X Factor (see them sing Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars“). They recently appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, performing twice (“What Makes You Beautiful,” “One Thing“) and making a cameo in a sketch alongside Sofia Vergara. Tickets for their 2012 tour sold out in ten minutes, but they have already announced plans for a 2013 summer tour to compensate. Though the expiration dates on boy bands tend to be short, it appears One Direction will be around for the next couple of years so you might as well have a listen.

In short, boy bands tap into the emotional needs of girls and in return receive their fifteen minutes of fame.

In comparison, The Wanted is a slightly older, slightly sexier version of One Direction. Members Max George, Siva Kaneswaran, Jay McGuiness, Tom Parker and Nathan Sykes are also British/Irish and were selected during a mass audition in 2009. You’ve probably heard their second single “Glad You Came” from their debut EP in the United States. It’s a current dance pop hit that gets frequent airplay on the radio and quickly gets stuck in your head (I literally listened to it nonstop last weekend). Though they haven’t yet reached the popularity of One Direction, their infectious sound is a promising indication that they could be the next big thing here in the States. They embarked on an American tour earlier this year and finished up back home in Great Britain and Ireland.

The novelty of boy bands has long humored me. In elementary school I listened to the Backstreet Boys (“I Want It That Way“) and *NSYNC (“Bye Bye Bye“) on cassette tape (Nick Carter and Lance Bass were my favorites, respectively), and I was one of the Jonas Brothers’ earliest and most dedicated fans through middle school and high school (they grew up twenty minutes from my hometown, so my fandom was more influenced by pride than music). Before you judge me on my taste in music, I’d like to make clear that I grew up on the likes of The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Costello, The Police, and today they are amongst my most played on my MP3 player. With the budding careers of One Direction and The Wanted on the periphery of current music, it begs the question: how does a girl like me with a penchant for music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s also get suckered into the manufactured sound of boy bands?

See ya later, *NSYNC

For the most part, boy bands follow a formula. They rarely form organically; rather their members are put together by a music executive to fit a certain image. Their rise to popularity is meteoric, usually on the heels of some other fading male music act (I predict that Justin Bieber’s falling star is directly attributable to the popularity of One Direction). Few if any members of a boy band can actually play an instrument or write their own songs, but their passable voices, synchronized dance moves, and the wonders of synthesizers make up for what they lack. Usually, only one or two members can be considered cute in the traditional sense, but their fame automatically elicits fainting, crying and screaming from fans lucky enough to be in their presence. Each member has a distinct persona like “the cute one” or “the funny one.” Their stylists dress them in suits, tight pants, and/or matching outfits, tapping into the female appreciation for a well-groomed man. Their sexuality is ambiguous, as parents of their youngest fans would refuse to buy tickets to see a boy band blatantly selling sex to their prepubescent daughters (their subtle sex appeal, however, is more obvious to their older fans). And, of course, just as quickly as they appear, they are replaced by another cookie-cutter act. But don’t worry, in fifteen years they may reemerge with a new album and tour (like Backstreet Boys’ “This is Us” and New Kids on the Block recently did, and also conjointly with “Don’t Turn Out The Lights“) or one member will break out with a music and/or film career (as Justin Timberlake has successfully done).

BSB, getting ready for a new album in 2012

It’s easy to see why they remain so popular with girls of all ages; after all, everything about them is tailored to feminine fantasies. Girls latch on because their sappy music recalls the sort of love recounted in fairy tales and the members easily fit into their dreams of the future, a Ken to their Barbie. They appear to be the perfect boyfriend, so unlike the boys they go to school with on a daily basis. Unlike the real boys in your life, members of boy bands are unafraid to call you beautiful or say “I love you,” have an actual sense of fashion, and are publicly stating that they are looking for love, not sex. In short, boy bands tap into the emotional needs of girls and in return receive their fifteen minutes of fame.

At this point in my life, I’m happy to say that I appreciate the bubblegum pop of bands like One Direction and The Wanted for what it is, but I have moved on from the obsessive fangirling I once dedicated to Nick Jonas. As long as taping up Tiger Beat posters in your bedroom remains a rite of passage, girls will grow up alongside boy bands who become nostalgic reminders of simpler times (who hasn’t listened to the Backstreet Boys at least once in the past year?). When it comes to today’s choice of pop idols, remember the mantra: Keep Calm and Listen to British Boy Bands.

Laura K. Garrison is a first-year at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

Images courtesy of Right Move, Pynk Celebrity, and We Speak News.

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