Oh My God, We’re Back Again: Comparing Boy Bands Then and Now
By Kevin Rutherford
The second coming of Radio Disney pop acts has come to a head with the rejuvenation of the boy band, a five-headed beast spawned in the fires of the ’90s with the us vs. them mentality of Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, as well as New Kids on the Block and the proto-boy band New Edition. Though the trend died in the mid- to late-2000s, two different acts — One Direction and The Wanted — burst onto the scene in 2011 with a renewed fanbase and a fresh crop of pouty, gorgeous faces. The comparisons were simple: one was Backstreet, the other ‘N Sync, and both were to incite the next boy band craze, with choices of allegiance tougher than Coke vs. Pepsi or Drake Bell vs. Josh Peck.
Now that’s it’s easier for new bands to find its footing and audience on social media, we take a look at the latest boy band update to find where their influences truly reside. Which group has the bad boy, a la AJ McLean? The rapping? The baby of the group? And which bands actually seem more like their own thing, defying callbacks to the past?
There’s certainly room for interpretation and there’s more boy (and girl!) groups out there the we omitted, but here are a few of the heavy hitters to start.
ONE DIRECTION IS… BACKSTREET BOYS
One Direction may seem like a freak combination of BSB and ‘N Sync, mixed with a little Dream Street, but the group’s closest cousin is the top-selling boy band of all time.
One of the primary distinctions between Backstreet and ‘N Sync during their prime was, quite simply, everybody in BSB got a piece of the pie. Admittedly, each had its figureheads (Justin Timberlake for ‘N Sync, a combo of either McLean, Carter or Littrell for BSB), but Timberlake and co.’s group didn’t exactly feature its secondary members much, if at all. Did Lance Bass even get a solo at all? Nope.
On the other hand, Backstreet’s members got their turns in the spotlight, with varying frequency. Kevin Richardson and Howie Dorough were often shunted off to the side, but at least they got some parts. In that way, BSB and 1D are kindred spirits; oftentimes, each singer gets a turn in a given single, which further defines each’s personality. Plus, though Harry Styles might arguably be the prevailing hero, the standing of most popular One Direction bandmate is ever-changing, something that falls more in line with BSB’s group-centric feel, rather than ‘N Sync, which often felt like the Justin Show through and through.
Take a listen to the music, too. 1D might find its softer moments occasionally (see: the Ed Sheeran-penned “Little Things”), but its best-known tunes are upbeat, fun and have certain rock undertones. The same could be true of both BSB and ‘N Sync, but the former often took the title of those-about-to-alt-rock, especially with the loud arena rock of “Larger Than Life.” Where The Wanted specializes in tighter, dancefloor pop, One Direction has an unabashedly fun side to the group, something you got with BSB’s first two albums especially.
Plus, if Nick Carter was 17 or 18 around this time, wouldn’t you expect him to be in 1D, too? They kind of seem like kindred spirits at the same age.
EMBLEM3 IS… LFO
Emblem3 is the new boy band on the block these days, rising up the pop radio charts with “Chloe (You’re the One I Want),” the first single from the band’s just-released Nothing to Lose, after finishing fourth on the second season of the U.S. version of the X Factor. The record certainly aligns with the group’s contemporaries, presenting a pop-rock attack that highlights three guys who just want to have a good time, with rap verses thrown in for good measure.
Three guys. Rap verses. Sound familiar?
Obviously the age difference is noticeable, but Emblem3 still recalls a younger Lyte Funky Ones, known in the states simply as LFO.
Let’s compare “Chloe” to LFO’s first big hit, 1999′s “Summer Girls.” Both are slices of breezy pop that seem to lean toward east- or west-coast sensibilities (LFO the former, E3 the latter). The rap parts are key ingredients of each, but the choruses are undeniably catchy and arguably the centerpieces of the songs.
“Summer Girls” was helped along by some so-bad-it’s-great lyricism –”New Kids on the Block had a bunch of hits / Chinese food makes me sick,” anyone? Though “Chloe” isn’t memorable in the same way, the album’s second song, “Spaghetti,” is an absolute frontrunner for that distinction. “Let’s ditch the party / ignore everybody / And we’ll make spaghetti and it’d be all heady.” Guys. GUYS.
LFO felt more organic, too. Rather than being formed by a record label, frontman Rich Cronin and Brian Gillis met in Massachusetts and decided to form the group, along with Brad Fischetti. Devin Lima may have joined the group through an open audition after Gillis departed, but the group’s lack of a polished, studio-spurned feel prevailed.
Finally, the feel of the group’s personalities. LFO seemed like nice guys, but one can’t deny that, looking back on the “Summer Girls” video, the trio seems a bit, well, meat-headed. The same bad boy attitude comes across with Emblem3. They’re not out to be the much cleaner Wanted or even 1D. Emblem3 is here to party and probably steal your girl. And make spaghetti with her.
JONAS BROTHERS ARE… HANSON
Jonas Brothers are back. Did you hear? After last releasing an album in 2009 — Lines, Vines and Trying Times — at the height of their popularity, the three-piece delved into a hiatus, with baby-faced Nick forming another band, Kevin getting married and Joe releasing a solo album, appearing in a Vampire Weekend video and generally looking devilishly sexy.
This year marks the band’s comeback, with V scheduled for sometime this fall. Too early to say whether or not the band’s return will be successful? For sure. Too soon to compare the boys with another America-conquering, instrument-playing pop rock group, which found its prominence in the ’90s? MMMno.
Hanson burst onto the scene in 1997 with the inescapable earworm/cultural flashpoint known as “MMMBop,” hitting No. 1 in a ton of countries and launching the careers of three Oklahoma boys with ages ranging from 12 to 17. Three years later, Hanson finally released its follow-up, 2000′s This Time Around, with the boys noticeably older, voices deeper and beginning the ascent to manhood. The title track may have found a little success (peaking at No. 20 on the Hot 100), but sales were tepid, and the band’s label, Island Def Jam, eventually pulled funding for that year’s tour altogether.
With the Jonases’ return, expectations aren’t exceedingly high; in this age, it’s even easier to lose relevance than ever before. One could easily see the band going the same way as Hanson, with diminished returns and general apathy leading to an indie career (and beer brewing, apparently). One thing’s for sure: the Jonas Brothers are older, wiser(?) and have nostalgia on their side, much like Hanson in the early 2000s. Stay tuned to see if the boys can break back onto American radio or if their success is a bit depleted this time around.
THE WANTED IS… ‘N SYNC(?)
The Wanted is possibly the most interesting of the new boy band wave in that they defy many comparisons, the least of which being that they can play their own instruments. They’ve mostly found success in the U.K. and Ireland but still only have one hit in America in “Glad You Came.” They’re a bit edgier than their goofier, younger colleagues.
If a comparison has to be made, it’s with ‘N Sync, but not in the spirit of trying to create a major rivalry with 1D a la the ’90s. Timberlake and the boys were the group that seemed the least bit more adult. Certain members of the group (Fatone, Kirkpatrick) were much less defined in terms of personality than their counterparts (see: Max George, Nathan Sykes). Some of the group’s music tended toward dance pop, including “Pop” itself.
Still, the band has shown either room for homage or total contempt for its contemporaries, skewering many ’90s acts in the video for “Walks Like Rihanna.”
So whether or not The Wanted is the successor to ‘N Sync is still undetermined, though the group’s lack of major American chart success is the main culprit. However, Word of Mouth, the group’s upcoming third album, will see a September release and could change how the group is perceived in America. If the album is full of major pop hits, all the while distancing itself from 1D’s sillier, poppier demeanor, a boy band war could actually be in place that recalls the ’90s battle that broke hearts and destroyed friendships.