Mark Medina, program director at Washington area Top 40 outlet Hot 99.5, has seen pop sensations come and go, but even he was surprised by the reception for One Direction when it played at the radio station’s Rockville studios a few weeks ago. Fans showed up holding signs for the band eight days before the guys’ scheduled appearance, and four girls flew from San Diego to hear the band play two songs and get a photo.
“I’d never seen anything like, it,” he says. “We had people fly in from other states; we had girls trying to sneak into the building.”
Historically, there’s a boy band boom every decade or so: New Kids on the Block and New Edition ruled the ’80s and early ’90s, Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync dominated the late ’90s and early ’00s, and, right on cue, here comes the new crop aided by pop music’s cyclical nature.
Over the past few years, the pop airwaves have been hip-hop-dominated but, during the past several months, the music has segued into rhythmic-leaning pop and then into straight-ahead pop. “Acts like Katy Perry and Rihanna have paved the way for pure pop music’s return,” says Keith Caulfield, Billboard’s associate director of charts. “What’s been missing were girl groups and boy bands. It’s such a good environment for this kind of act in pop music right now.”
In the grand tradition of boy bands, these acts share certain traits with their similarly manufactured pop ancestors: Members of the Wanted and Big Time Rush auditioned for their parts at a casting call. The members of One Direction were put together by Simon Cowell after trying out individually for the British edition of “The X Factor.” The former “American Idol” Svengali thought they’d perform better as a collective. Additionally, such groups tend to have snazzy dance moves, don’t write the majority of their songs or play their own instruments and, of course, have hair as shiny as a pony’s mane.
The new trio spans the spectrum of boy bands from squeaky clean to semi-bad boys. Big Time Rush is similar to the Monkees with its own TV series as a launchpad, and the group appeals to kids and tweens.
One Direction fills its songs with such teen-girl catnip as “Don’t need makeup to cover up / Being the way that you are is enough” in the BRIT Award-winning best British single, “What Makes You Beautiful.”
Members of the Wanted have a touch of naughtiness and like to talk about their love of drinking with Chelsea Handler. The Wanted’s manager, Scooter Braun, who also handles Justin Bieber’s career, stresses that they can play instruments, although that skill is not remotely on display in the video for “Glad You Came,” which focuses more on the five members’ abilities to doff their shirts and be stared at adoringly.
“Here’s the best part. The music is pretty good,” Medina says. “That has everything to do with radio’s excitement. The Wanted has the most sophisticated sound [of the current crop]. If you didn’t have any picture in your mind, I don’t know if you’d hear the Wanted and go, ‘That’s a boy band.’ ”
This new crop of boy bands is spawned by social media as much as by television and radio. Months before One Direction or the Wanted stepped foot on American soil, they had engaged fans through YouTube, Tumblr and Twitter (each member has his own Twitter account so fans can reach out directly to their favorite).
“I told the boys, ‘Let’s do less about broadcasting what you’re doing and start talking about what you feel,’ ” says Braun, acknowledging that teenage girls adore that level of engagement but that all fans respond to authentic emotions.
Not that TV doesn’t help. Big Time Rush’s television show pumps its music through the shows like oxygen. One Direction caused pandemonium during its “Today” show appearance March 12 and has garnered a coveted performance slot on “Saturday Night Live” on April 7.
“The ‘Today’ show for me was the most amazing thing,” says One Direction’s Liam Payne. “There wasn’t enough room for everybody to come up. They couldn’t even see us. They were just hanging around to get a glimpse of what’s going on.” And it’s not just girls who are in on it: “I had a few guys chasing me down the street as I was leaving my car” in New York, Payne says.
But, refreshingly, new media will never replace the basics, which haven’t changed since the days of ’60s and ’70s fanzines Tiger Beat and 16 Spec: One Direction’s media kit comes with a sheet for each member with a dreamy picture and details on his favorite food, what he looks for in a girl and whether he prefers sun or snow.
Newman is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.