The Horatio Algers of Pop
ABC’s new series, Making the Band, is one of the most entertaining things on television this year. And contrary to what you’d expect from its pre-teen-friendly TGIF scheduling, it’s also the most trenchant look at the boy band craze available on television or anywhere else certainly mile beyond MTV’s soggy boy band movie, 2Gether. It’s ironic too, given MTV’s self-proclaimed lock on marketing to and shaping pre-teen desires, that it has taken a collaboration MTV, The Real World producers Bunim/Murray Productions, and ABC to pull off what the aging music channel couldn’t do on its own.
Here’s the two minute pitch: a nationwide talent search for young, male singers and dancers yields a few dozen semifinalists. All these young men are flown to Orlando to try out for the Malcolm McLaren of teeny-bopper bands, Lou Pearlman (the brains behind the Backstreet Boys, ‘NSYNC, and LFO). The man himself whittles this group down to eight, and eventually to five. Throughout the process, the guys are judged on singing and dancing, plus charisma and other showbiz intangibles. In the end, the five who survive become Pearlman’s new band, O-Town. That fame and fortune will ensue is so obvious it barely needs to be mentioned.
Making the Band is structured like the more recent seasons of MTV’s real life soap opera, The Real World, but with a few new tricks (likely the D. A. Pennebaker-inspired split screen was added to boost a rock ‘n’ roll verite appeal.) As MTV learned from the London and San Francisco Real Worlds, sane people tend to avoid conflict, so unless you want a cast of real nuts, you need a mechanism to keep everyone together and instill tensions. Starting with The Real World - Boston, the producers added a stipulation to their offer of free room and board and vacations: everyone on the show had to participate in a project or else move out. In Boston, this project was working at a youth center; in Seattle, a flaccid alternative radio station; and in Hawaii, a nebulous community outreach/advertising program centered around a surf shop.
With Making the Band, the producers of The Real World have finally found the ultimate group activity. Not only do the boys on Making the Band have to participate, but they want to. As they say over and over, it’s the “most important thing” in their lives. For all the guys who auditioned, and perhaps particularly for the eight who remain in the running, being in a boy band is the fulfillment of all their dreams. Although they’ve all adapted to the cameras’ near-constant presence and started playing to it in spite of themselves, the fact remains, they’d be there even if the cameras weren’t. And that’s the biggest difference between Making the Band and The Real World.
Another difference is the cast. As The Real World has aged, it has fallen prey to its own publicity, so that many potential cast members audition for the project fully aware of the process. This leaves the producers who are hungry for characters who appear unself-conscious with two choices: to cast the few naive, giggly young people who are unaware of what they’re getting into and tend to be as boring as you’d expect, or else to cast irritating showmen like San Francisco’s Puck, and more recently Hawaii’s Tek insufferable assholes whose only possible dramatic salvation is an on-camera breakdown, which never comes. That you can sense the desperation in their act is comforting for my faith in humanity, but it offers little relief to the viewer.
The boys on Making the Band, on the other hand, are as ingenuous as eight Opie Taylors. But, due to the relative gravity of their situation they have huge careers riding on the outcome of their competition their conflicts and problems have weight. Of course, the world won’t end if Trevor doesn’t make the cut, but as a viewer, I can empathize. Who among us doesn’t want a shot at the big time, whatever we imagine that to mean? It’s real drama. And its hokiness makes you want to kick out the screen on your tv only occasionally.
So who will be weeded out in the next few weeks as they make the cut from eight to five? Will Pearlman choose shy, brooding Ikaika Kahoano; mercurial songwriter Jacob Underwood; Jacob’s sidekick and fellow careerist, Erik-Michael Estrada (sorry, no relation); or two-timing ladies man Paul Martin? Or will it be one of the more unobtrusive boys: dreamboat Ashley Parker Angel, quiet Michael Miller, quieter Bryan Chan, or even the earnest but vocally challenged Trevor Penick? The cruelty of the competition is almost unbearable, but the decisions are made with commendable fairness, and besides, it’s really good tv.
Because Making the Band is so fun to watch, it’s easy to forget how much it’s telling us about boy bands and the culture that spawns them. Even though they’re annoying, they’re also the biggest-selling pop phenomenon in recent memory, so it behooves pop culture aficionados to pay attention. Making the Band tells the story of a boy band through the life of the band itself. In a telling scene in the third episode, the boys are late to a vocal practice because they’ve been goofing off and staying up too late. In a moment of anger, their vocal coach lets loose a bald-faced truth that is rarely mentioned: that all these guys are replaceable, that if they aren’t willing to put in the work, then someone else is, and that the final product won’t be any worse for it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and this shows in the boys’ faces but it’s really the central truth of the teeny-bopper band. The guys are talented, but it isn’t their show; they’re bit actors, not directors or writers, and there’s always an understudy. It’s a play, like the touring company of Cats. The trappings of fame that the guys enjoy is not the fame of an artist. They’re nobody’s Bob Dylan. They’re Dylan McDermott.
The upside for the boys is that in pop culture, people with nothing to say can have enormous fan-bases. And today’s pop stars mean as much to the little girls who love them as the Beatles and the Stones did to their fans 35 years ago. For the cynics who are worried about deserved fame, a quick comparison with another tv music program is instructive. Compared with some of the talentless, lazy tattoo receptacles that are lionized on Behind the Music, the guys on Making the Band are the Horatio Algers of pop. Yes, their fame is being “handed” to them, but only if they commit to a whole lot of work. Is that really any worse than someone who gets to be a star because his brother needed a bass player?
At the same time, I sympathize with the feeling that great music shouldn’t be pre-fab. That mystical element is missing. Shouldn’t there be more substance or more struggle? More time spent in garages or on stoops? More history shared by band members? But just watch: these guys are already making their own mythology. To them and their future fans, that ugly strip mall in Orlando is the Cavern Club. And that concert they went to last week, by (ex-Backstreet Boy and current Pearlman client) Phoenix Stone that was Television checking out Blondie at CBGB’s.
I would never argue that O-Town is the artistic equal of any of the greats of rock ‘n’ roll, or even Billy Joel. But if you’re wondering about the Boy Band Craze, if you just don’t get it, watch Making the Band. Appreciate the work that goes into creating a pop sensation, whether it’s ‘NSYNC or the Ronnetttes. And maybe, you’ll finally find out what the little girls already understand.