Styles & Forms | Boy Bands | Pop

Groups of fresh-faced young men singing catchy tunes have been one of the mainstays of commercial pop since The Beatles. In the last two decades, manufactured boy bands such as New Kids On The Block and Take That have ruled the roost. Although their musical legacy bears no comparison to that of The Fab Four’s, the devotion they inspired was just as fervent.

Marketing is everything for the modern boy band. Members are selected for characteristics that maximize their appeal to a fanbase largely made up of adolescent girls. Being youthful, squeaky clean and unthreateningly attractive are just as important as being able to sing in tune and dance in time.

Few contemporary boy bands play instruments and most purvey lightweight pop, divided between uptempo numbers and slushy ballads. Due to the disposable nature of their music, and fickle young audiences with rapidly evolving tastes, boy bands rarely survive for more than five years, although artists such as Take That’s Robbie Williams and *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake have been catapulted on to successful solo careers.

From The Fab Four To The Fantastic Five

Although the boy band evolved into its familiar form in the late-1980s, its history stretches back to the early 1960s and is entwined in the origins of, arguably, pop’s greatest group. The Beatles wrote their own songs from the outset and their longevity, artistic scope and degree of control over their careers remain unmatched by any of today’s boy bands. But in the clean-cut appeal of their mop-top days, and in the bubblegum melodies of songs such as 1963’s ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, they foreshadowed their less-esteemed successors.

The boy-band concept took its next evolutionary leap in the late-1960s, when Joseph Jackson realized the commercial viability of putting his sons Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon, Tito and Michael on the stage. One of the few post-Beatle boy bands whose music stands up well when revisited, The Jackson Five combined pop, soul and disco to sublime effect. Their early sound was encapsulated by their breakthrough single, ‘I Want You Back’ (1970), a classic marriage of funky rhythms and sugary harmonies built around the sweet, expressive vocals of 12-year-old Michael.

The Jacksons’ disciplinarian father, along with the legendary boss of their Motown record label, Berry Gordy, exerted tight control over their activities: they were not allowed to perform their own material until the mid-1970s. Every boy band since has been masterminded by similarly formidable figures, well-versed in the cut-throat whims of the music industry.

The 1970s saw several copycat groups appear, including The Osmonds, another sibling quintet with the focus on a talented younger brother – in this case, the cherub-faced Donny. Solo artists (including a liberated Michael Jackson) dominated the middle-ground of pop for much of the 1980s, but the boy band would be back with a vengeance by the end of the decade. With the increasing prevalence of synthesized backing tracks, acts abandoned live instrumentation in favour of choreographed...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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