The EDGE asks just what happened to the prolific 90s Boy band
There are three arguably frightening images that define my childhood musical education. The first involves a curly-haired Justin Timberlake clad in denim and dancing on puppet strings, the second was my constant preoccupation to find the Backstreet Boys plane during every airport visit, the third was my niggling feeling that Five were in fact car thieves masquerading as a band.
It’s a fact almost too painful to confront: our music industry was once ruled by men miming in matching attire. Five have sold 20 million records worldwide, Westlife a reputable 44 million, N*Sync 53 million and the Backstreet Boys a staggering 130 million. Though we now treat the boy band with haughty indifference, these statistics can longer conceal our collective shame: the 90s boy band was an ingenious creation. Manufactured music once managed to manufacture the musical tastes of the worldwide majority.
There is something despicably shameful in knowing that a band as insignificant and musically bereft as the Backstreet Boys have outsold music acts that have defined our musical consciousness. Prolific artists such as Nirvana, Johnny Cash, Metallica and Bob Dylan each fall commercially short of this damaging decade of transient teenage adoration.
The figure behind boy-band supremacy, and ingenious lines such as ‘You are my fire, the one desire’ is Swedish Super-producer Max Martin. Martin’s ‘I Want It That Way’ has become a mid-tempo musical prototype – the most successful song ever recorded by a boy band. Though layered with endlessly meaningless lyrics that resemble a primary school poetry class, a music video featuring cringe-worthy bleach white outfits and choreography involving too many hand on heart based gestures – it’s difficult not to respect this innately asinine song. It has a melody so manipulative that subtle swooning ascends effortlessly into beat-based backing and a surprisingly gentle crescendo chorus.
Maybe it was Brit-pop, rapper Eminem resurrecting mainstream hip-hop, or just a combination of tedium and frustration…the boy-band lost a generational hold. Justin Timberlake is no longer tweaking his dimples, wearing matching diamond earrings and leading his backing band of bland, dancing munchkins; instead he’s hooking up with Timbaland and laying down seriously smooth electro-R ‘n’ b beats. The Backstreet Boys are one member down and flagging through a second-failed comeback. Westlife, once the kings of hollow, stool-sitting, ‘my-nan-loves-this’ ballads are now reduced to covering Michael Buble songs and performing on the X Factor as second fiddle to JLS. The boy-band is all contrived artifice: image, songwriting, sexuality – substituting quality for banal quantity.
Where can the boy-band go from here? In an industry that is tired of cliché love lyrics and stereotyped personalities in matching outfits, the boy band is floundering. Take That are now essentially men, writing their own material showcasing dapper suits and facial hair – It’s a struggle to remember the days when they instead cavorted topless in what could be leather S&M gear and yellow jelly. Now, only X Factor escapees JLS are preventing the British boy band candle from being extinguished. Though prevented from mass-million sales by the endemic reduction in physical record sales and the revolution of internet downloads, these pec-flashing, hand-flipping, smooth-moving boys have proved that instruments, song-writing credits and no-auto-tune are still a distant reality.
Also, Max Martin is still very much alive: instead infecting our ears with catchy pop gems like Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ and Kelly Clarkson’s ‘My Life Will Suck Without You.’ The Backstreet Boys may never fully come back…but the attempt to resurrect the boy band formula, or at least their characteristic terrible-but tolerable pop sound is still creeping into our industry, albeit through female artists. Glancing through the YouTube comments adorning one JLS video (‘Omg I love Marvin’/ ‘this is my fav song ever’) is enough to remind the world that no matter how credible our industry seeks to become – there are always absent-minded teenage girls to drag us back into the manufactured pop abyss.