Writing today’s weekend cover story about the cross-generational phenomenon of boy bands prompted a very basic question: What is a boy band?
Probably the easiest definition is it is a group good-looking male singers brought together by producers to be a pop music act geared toward the tween and teen markets. That definition fits groups such as current heartthrobs One Direction and turn-of-the-millennium stars such as ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, whose Cincinnati concert tonight was the catalyst for our story. Give them a crack team of writers, producers, and stylists, and you have a hit. And going back in the decades, it also fits ensembles such as The Monkees, which were formed for a TV show and then became a band.
But it doesn’t fit everyone, Exhibit A being The Beatles. Yes, they made the girls scream in ecstasy just by showing up. But they were not formed. They came together for genuine mutual musical interests, going through several incarnations by playing gigs together before arriving at their Fab Four lineup of George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr.
But their early appeal was the very definition of boy band fervor, so adored by teenage girls the screams would drown out the music at their concerts. And the music played into that: songs about holding hands and being your man.
Maybe the most instructive comments in my interviewing came from Elizabeth Orndorff and Marty Wayman, who were teens at the time and said the dreamy appeal fell away as The Beatles moved on to more mature songs and experimental music on albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“I think they gained a whole new audience,” Orndorff said. “People really started to take their music seriously.”
The closest thing in my generation, which went through middle and high school in the 1980s, was Duran Duran, which also did not form in the traditional boy band way, but did elicit that kind of fervor — trust me, I was there, and in fact, a friend of mine who was crazy for Duran Duran really inspired the story.
One thing we quickly determined the story was not about was groupies. They are a different, and much smaller breed of super fans who actively try to meet and in many cases — ahem — get to know the band members. The hair metal scene of the ’80s is legendary for its groupies.
But here, we were talking about something more distant, though I did hear several stories about trying to call band members at their hotels. We’re talking about a more chaste, romantic infatuation that in many cases lasts as long as your typical middle school romance.
In reporting the story, the fans sort of became the definition of boy band; a group that elicits a visceral, passionate reaction that is probably more important than the music.