Backstreet Boys to BTS: The Science Behind Why We Love Boy Bands


So today we’re going to be discussing a
topic that positively makes me want to scream and fall into crying fits of hysterics. That’s
right, we’re talking boy bands, bands of boys, groupings of young men…well you get
what I’m trying to say here. It’s boy band mania at Origin of Everything and I’ll
be telling you everything (or at least a lot) about the history of how these scream slash
dream machines got their start, a little bit of some of the markers that make up the classic
boy ensemble and some of the science behind what makes us lose our collective minds when
we see them grace the stage. Also this is a video with 10 plus minutes of b-roll of
boy bands. Come on, you know you wanna watch it! So before we start the incoherent screaming
and fan adoration, let’s get to the heart and soul of where these teenage dreams originated. According to NPR’s “All Things Considered”
some of the distinctive markers of the boy band (as opposed to the “man band”) are: Boy bands tend to be factory produced, meaning
that a record executive or talent manager assembles the band and is responsible for
casting a group of lads in their teens or twenties.
Second, they also tend to play more catchy, bubble gum pop music with simple messaging
and sounds (although the range of styles of music can vary widely from band to band).
Third, boy bands usually don’t play their own instruments or write their own songs.
And lastly, boy bands tend to have a fanbase that is heavily comprised of young girls and
young women. Now before you get ready to fight me in the
comments section, many folks including Billboard trace some of the earliest prototypes of the
boy band to a British crew that’s often not associated with the genre: that’s right
I’m talking about The Beatles. Early Beatlemania, more so than their later work, became the
blueprint for some of the distinctive markers of boy bands, namely a crew of clean cut looking
young boys playing pop music to hordes of screaming teenage girls. But John, Paul, Ringo
and George weren’t a factory product and they quickly moved on to other genres of music
and are now more heavily associated with rock n roll over anything else. Still, the blueprint
for boy bands did start to spring up in the 1960s and 1970s with groups like The Osmonds,
The Jackson 5, and TV sitcom sensation The Monkees. But the modern boy band seems to really kick
off in the early 1980s with groups like Menudo and New Edition. These singing, dancing, harmonizing
young heartthrobs encapsulated the signature style that other boy bands would follow for
decades, including the singing sensations we all know and love like the Backstreet Boys,
B2K, NSync, One Direction, New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men and 98 degrees. And don’t
be upset if I left your faves off the list. Because if we’re just going to list off all
of the acts that have risen to (and fallen from) glory in the past decades I’d be here
all day. And that’s because the boy band went from being a few well placed ensembles
to a veritable explosion in the late 1990s as teen fandom and teen culture (particularly
teen girl culture) dominated the airwaves. Music critic Jon Pareles even wrote for the
New York Times in 1999: “Applause is passe; the reaction most eagerly
sought by pop culture right now, from music to television to movies, is a high-pitched
squeal from a mob of young girls…The mass market has been voting with its dollars for
kiddie-friendly hits with pinup potential.” But the success and failure of certain acts
wasn’t entirely dependent on the sharpness of their attire or the beauty of their barbershop
harmonies. It was also dependent on the group’s ability to find success as crossover artists
in multiple genres of popular music, reaching audiences often times on the basis of race.
The harmonizing and vocal stylings of many boy bands from the early 1980s to the early
2000s trace their roots back to the vocalizations of black a cappella barbershop quartets from
the first half of the 20th century. And yet by the late 90s many of the most commercially
successful boy bands either had all white members or were coded as white (even with
the presence of members from other races). And that’s in part because these all white
ensembles found greater crossover success in the pop world. And in the 1980s and 90s
the proven crossover potential of artists like Whitney Houston, Prince and Michael Jackson
defined the era as one where racially coded performances of music that were previously
considered “niche” markets (like R&B and Soul music) were suddenly finding mainstream
success as pop infused sensations. But non-white boy bands (with exceptions for groups like
Boyz II Men) largely did not have the same mainstream success of their all white counterparts,
leading many to consider the boy band archetype to be groups like Backstreet Boys and New
Kids on the Block, even though they were proceed by acts like New Edition and Menudo. This may be changing though. In 2017, Korean
pop band BTS exploded in popularity in the United States with multiple milestones including
two songs on the Billboard Hot 100. K-Pop’s origins can be traced back to 1992 to a band
called Seo Taiji and Boys, then three music studios popped up in the mid- to late-90s
that created groups which continued the wave. Another big component of boy bands, heck some
could even argue that the biggest component of boy bands, is their hordes of screaming
(largely) female fans. Because without their consistent fandom, boy bands wouldn’t be
the cultural phenomenon we love to love and rag on in equal measure. But part of the consistent
consternation around teenybopper music could be derived from the way we view the culture
of teenage girls. Professor Gayle Wald notes in her article on boy bands and teen girl
culture that part of the friction in the way we narrate boy bands is that they’re often
gendered as specifically the interest of teenage girls. Even the members themselves are often
cast as “girlish” or sexually ambiguous in ways meant to make them read as sexual
but ultimately non threatening. Additionally Wald notes that boy bands, which are often
industry creations, don’t have the same “authenticating” origin stories of other
genres of music that are considered masculine or masculine centric. She notes that for rock
stars this “authenticating” origin story often focuses on the bands roots in dive bars
and small gigs whereas in hip hop the site of authenticity is rooted in concepts of “the
street” or urban life. But boy bands put together by scouts and talent managers often
lack this origin authenticity story, instead following a tightly crafted and honed music
industry image. And that’s not just exclusive to American
bands like the Backstreet Boys. The South Korean music studio system is another example
of having bands put together by scouts and talent managers. In the past, studios regulated
things like rehearsal hours, curfews, and even cell phone usage, in addition to typical
oversight of lyrical direction and PR training. But BTS is one of a few K-pop bands that has
helped break the mold. Culture writer Aja Romano notes that it makes sense BTS has become
globally popular given that they’ve been given more freedom to talk about things like mental
health, self-love, and cultural pressure. But although it may all seem glossy, sleek
and manufactured on the outside there’s actually a little bit of science behind how
and why these record company products become so irresistible to their teenaged fans. To figure out why we find ourselves so invested
in boy bands, we can look to some theories from psychology and sociology. Idolizing celebrities might help young people
develop into independent adults. This idolization is sometimes considered a type of “secondary
attachment.” Basically, an adolescent can become emotionally invested in a fantasy relationship
with someone they don’t know, like say AJ from the Backstreet Boys in my case. Just
an example. I definitely did not have a poster of AJ hanging in my childhood bedroom… Ugh,
anyway, in one study of around 150 adolescents with an average age of about 15, over 57%
of them idolized a celebrity in such a way that they considered it to be a relationship. And, the vast majority of the time, that’s
a good thing! By taking inspiration from others, like celebrity idols and peers, a child can
form their own personality and preferences. It’s sort of like a one-sided mentorship.
Secondary attachments allow children to move on from dependent family life, in which their
parents are their primary role models, and into an independent adult life. Secondary attachments can be formed with all
sorts of celebrities, including athletes, actors, and historical figures. Boy band members
just happen to be super popular! One study published in 2001 surveyed 75 people, between
the ages of 17 and 35, about their celebrity idols. 85% had male idols and about 34% chose
musicians or singers. Music itself is relevant to the transition
into adulthood, too. As psychologist Amiram Raviv and his team explained in their research,
adolescents often prefer to listen to music separately from their parents. So, similar
to secondary attachments, music can cause them to form their own preferences and identities.
That overlap between mostly male musician idol and enjoyable music gives many adolescents
the opportunity to grow as people. The relationship with a celebrity is known
as a “parasocial relationship.” And it isn’t just something that young people experience.
Researchers Donald Horton and Richard Wohl actually came up with this term in 1956 to
describe a new phenomenon they were noticing thanks to mass media: adults were feeling
a sense of intimacy with TV hosts and newscasters who they watched regularly. But as a reminder, we’re talking about psychological
theories here and there has been criticism of these concepts. Sometimes scholars who
use these terms imply that fans have trouble distinguishing between real relationships
and fandom, which isn’t fair. And as professor of Media Studies Dr. Joli Jensen has noted,
it seems imperfect to characterize celebrity fandom as a completely a more intense or potentially
unhealthy thing than sports fandom, or even a passion for fishing, gardening, academic
endeavors, and so on. There are also so many aspects to being a
fan besides just liking a celebrity (or group of celebrities in the case of boy bands).
Often some of the allure is the idea of being a part of something. We know that people who
feel as though they belong to a group tend to be more happy, connected, and secure. The
sense of belonging is so important that experts often consider it to be an intrinsic human
need. There’s a lot of research out there about how this pertains to sports team affiliation.
People who support local teams have been observed as more confident, less depressed, and less
alienated. They’re just generally better off. A good way to seek out this sense of belonging
is to gather with like-minded fans. French sociologist Émile Durkheim invented the term
“collective effervescence” to describe the feeling of excitement and connection that
comes out of being in enthusiastic groups at say football games, political rallies,
church, or One Direction concerts. Research has shown that people who regularly experience
collective effervescence have a higher sense of belonging and connection to others, which
presumably results in all the great side effects I just listed. So yay fandom! Concerts can also bring catharsis. Let’s
be honest, it’s nice to be able to let loose and scream every once in a while. Author Rachel
Simmons, whose research focuses on female leadership, has observed that women are typically
expected to behave a certain way: which is quiet, polite, and unassuming. But while attending
concerts, they’re allowed to do everything they’re discouraged from doing in regular
life: mainly scream, dance, and go wild. It makes total sense that this would feel freeing. Screaming isn’t just an aimless behavior
by the way. We evolved to scream as a method of communication. So according to Simmons,
we scream when J-Hope starts dancing to express something to the people around us. By verbalizing
this passion, we can connect with the other BTS fans. And hey maybe even get the attention
of J-Hope himself. . . which never hurts. So what do you think? Well it seems like the
ultimate story of the boy band is that they are both culturally and scientifically irresistible
to their masses of screaming fans. But part of the disproportionate disdain that boy bands
get over other pop sensations who sing, dance and don’t write their own music could be
their heavy focus on recruiting and maintaining a young female audience base. Because as much
as we all love to chastise these acts as musical frivolity, I can’t help but wonder if the
heat would be quite so hot if the bands had a mixed or primarily male audience base. And
let’s face it, there are equally frivolous things and kitschy music crazes associated
with teenage boy culture that don’t get nearly as much finger wagging. And as boy
bander extraordinaire Harry Styles once said: “How can you say young girls don’t get it?
They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of
keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there.
They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.” That’s probably the first and last time
I’ll get to quote Harry Styles in an Origin episode but something about it just felt…right,
you know? And as long as culture and science align to make these bands the apples of teenage
girls’ eyes, it looks like the boy band is likely here to stay, in one iteration or
another.