Up All Night

In Defense of Boy Band Mania

The last time the music business had a legitimate reason to feel good about itself was a time when boy bands ruled the world and albums were flying off shelves.

One Direction
Up All Night
Syco / Columbia

During the week of 8 April 2000, ‘N Sync sold 2,416,000 copies of No Strings Attached. According to Billboard, that was the only album to ever sell more than two million copies in the span of one week. Later that year, during the week of 9 December, the Backstreet Boys moved 1,591,000 copies of Black & Blue, the fourth quickest-selling album of all time. The two in between? ‘N Sync’s Celebrity in August of 2001 (1,888,000) and Eminem’s The Marshal Mathers LP in June of 2000 (1,760,000). 

In fact, of the ten fastest-selling albums ever, eight were released between 1999 and 2002. Of those eight, five came from arguably the last three teeny-bopper acts that enjoyed a nearly unparalleled rein at the top of the pop charts (‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears) while the other three slots were filled twice by a hip-hop phenomenon (Eminem) and a greatest hits package from the Beatles. By the end of 2009, No Strings Attached had moved more than 11 million units. 

To add a sense of perspective, consider this: Of the best-selling albums in 2011, only three cracked the one million mark, while no position lower than 23 on the list enjoyed sales of more than a half-million. And when you concede how much of an exception to the rule everyone knows Adele has proven to be, all you are left with in terms of million-selling artists last year is nothing more than a pop star who has arguably already reached her plateau and is on her way back down the mountain (Lady Gaga) and a novelty act that was only able to barely break the one million mark because of a combination of musical trend, exposure and fantastic timing that clearly deemed itself profitable (Mumford & Sons). 

So… what does all of this mean? Well, if nothing else, the above numbers make a pretty strong case for the following: The more success that super-duper, bigger-than-life, mega pop acts can obtain, the easier the notoriously slumping music industry as a whole can breathe. And that conclusion doesn’t exclusively apply to the late ’90s and early ’00s, either. You do remember New Kids on the Block, don’t you?

It’s simple math, really. The last time the music business had a legitimate reason to feel good about itself was a time when boy bands ruled the world and albums were flying off shelves quicker than you could say “bye, bye, bye”. Since that boom, we’ve seen the lightning-quick rise and just-as-fast fall of everything from pop-punk (Good Charlotte, Fall Out Boy) to rap-metal (Limp Bizkit, Korn) to cock-rock (Nickelback, Staind) to pop-reggae (Sean Paul) to even Auto-tune-centric hip-pop (T-Pain, or, say, anyone you hear on the radio today that makes you immediately think to yourself, “when is this going to finally go away?”).

So it should be with open arms, then, that record executives and fans of popular music alike welcome the recent news that British boy band One Direction set a Billboard record when it became the first UK outfit to debut in the Top 200 with a No. 1 album… ever. Yes, ever. As in, not even the Beatles were able to accomplish such a feat.

“Boy bands are hot again”, James C. McKinley Jr. of The New York Times wrote on 23 March. “Not only did One Direction sell 176,000 copies of its album, Up All Night, in its first week of release, but the group — whose members’ ages range from 17 to 20 — has generated mobs of swooning girls everywhere it plays.” (“Boy Bands Are Back, Wholesome or Sexy”)

The success of One Direction may be only the beginning. Acts such as Big Time Rush, the Wanted, and Mindless Behavior are all starting to bubble over into the superstar category quicker than most may realize. As Gerrick D. Kennedy of The Los Angeles Times pointed out, Big Time Rush’s Elevate has sold more than three million digital tracks and its Nickelodeon television program averages a little more than 3.5 million viewers. Mindless Behavior, meanwhile, made waves when their merchandise sold more than $100,000 on Interscope’s website late last year. The group’s first outing, #1 Girl entered Billboard‘s R&B/Hip-Hop chart at No. 2 last fall. 

All of this can be described as only good news for an industry that has taken its share of lumps over the past decade. It’s been no secret that label executives, talent agents, and even artists themselves have yet to figure out a consistent, profitable answer to the rapidly evolving music world. Sure, digital sales have risen in recent years, but to think that new acts still have the power to produce hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue — much like they did during that previously addressed golden era — is now nothing more than illusory.  

But that doesn’t mean the Power of the Boy Band has ceased entirely. Witnessing the rise of these particular groups is both nostalgic and comforting on varying levels. It’s a reminder of the days when true pop stars were still allowed to exist and album releases were events of unparalleled magnitude, creating frenzies among the masses and allowing music lovers from all walks of life to ignore their own day-to-day struggles in light of such massively polarizing occurrences. Even if you hated and/or still hate boy bands, pop vocal groups, or choreography, you couldn’t/can’t deny the amount of passion such phenomenons generate within its fans. If nothing else, it’s at least fun to watch from afar.

“Historically”, The Washington Post‘s Melinda Newman wrote last week, “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”. (“Like Clockwork, It’s Time for Another Wave of Boy Bands”, published in UT San Diego)

… Or, so the music industry hopes. 

While the success of boy bands has long been derided by music fans, critics and taste-makers alike, the numbers don’t lie. If the industry is going to survive as is on any level whatsoever, it’s going to need the help of these types of success stories. What the current state of music almost certainly doesn’t need is another Tennis, M83, or Islands — acts that are largely acclaimed, yet can’t sell massive amounts of records on a consistent basis. History has proven that those types of artists will always exist, regardless of if major labels are selling hundreds of records a year or hundreds of millions of records a year. There will always be an outlet for cool bands to do cool things, if only because part of what deems such artists “cool” in the first place these days is that they never seem to be able to sell more than 20,000 copies of a record.

Whether you prefer country music over polka music, or rock music over hip-hop music, or funk music over bluegrass music, or soul music over punk music, or jazz music over electronic music doesn’t really matter in this case. All that matters is the simple fact that you like music. And even if you like music on only a discretionary level, you have to admit that the stronger the business is, the stronger the possibility exists that you’ll stumble across something you will ultimately enjoy listening to. Ultimately obsess over. Or ultimately fall in love with. That’s the beauty of music as an idea: the power of such a thing transcends most any other form of art or expression in a way that is more accessible than its peers. There is a certain connection people make with music that is widely indescribable, regardless of its immense level of palpability that most listeners tend to gravitate toward.

It should be with a sense of logic, then, that we as a culture might want to root for a resurgence in boy band mania, even if we can’t stand the idea of a completely manufactured group singing completely manufactured songs that allow them to rule the charts or sell out stadiums across the world. That doesn’t mean we have to rush out to buy the latest One Direction album or even buy tickets to see the Wanted the next time they tour — there will forever be enough teenagers and young adults to make sure that part of the equation is being tended to on a fairly consistent basis. What it does mean, however, is that maybe we could consider toning down the level of cynicism we instinctively feel the next time we hear a Big Time Rush song pop up on our radios. 

These are just kids, after all. As the old adage goes, without them, there would be no future. Just ask a few record company executives. There’s a pretty good possibility that many of them know that now more than ever.