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Where Have All The Boybands Gone?

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Photo: Terence Patrick/CBS via Getty Images.
Right now, we are at a historically significant juncture. For the first time in possibly decades, there are no boybands at the top of our pop music charts. With One Direction on indefinite hiatus and its members dispersed, we are down one major pop phenomenon – and no group of four or five guys with terrific hair have stepped in to replace them yet.

We are, as a society, without a reigning boyband. But don’t despair; James Corden is on the case. The host of The Late Late Show has just launched a noble campaign to bring back the boyband. I, for one, applaud him. There is nothing greater than several young men harmonising, moving in a gentle synchronised sway-and-click motion to the beat of teenage hearts.

"I care about this maybe more than anything else on the planet, okay? I'm talking proper boy bands," Corden said. "I'm talking about five guys together: the cute one, the funny one, the nice one, the other one and the maverick who refused to play by the rules".

To prove just how seriously he takes this matter, Corden performed alongside The Backstreet Boys on his show. Technically, the now middle-aged men are still a band – they’ve been on tour around the world recently and they’re currently working on an album – but they’re several well-choreographed miles away from a #1 single. If you can’t guess which song they chose for this comeback, the erasure of boyband culture is far worse than first suspected.
Corden’s call for action on the boyband revival has given me an excuse to think about their unique joy. It’s an irresistible force, clearly. We may not have a preeminent boyband in power at the moment, but there is evidence, if you know where to look, that we haven’t entirely given up on the craze. Former Take That member Gary Barlow has signed on to do a boyband talent search show with the BBC. One Direction absconder Zayn Malik is executive producing a show about boybands for NBC. Fraternal trio Hanson have a Christmas album coming out. The signs are there: we do still care about the boyband cause. We’re just waiting for our next envoys.

The features editor of Pop Justice, Michael Cragg, assures me it won’t be long before we get them: “Pop works in cycles so I reckon there will be a new batch of them along soon – it will just be interesting to see what form they come in. The all-dancing, all-shiny suit-wearing ones from the 90s don’t really make sense anymore and there are definite signs the boybands-with-instruments phenomenon is dying out, too.” So, we will get our next boyband – it simply remains to be seen what the next incarnation will be. Disappointingly for Corden, matching 90s outfits are not guaranteed.
What is it, exactly, that sustains our interest in the boyband? Is it cuteness? Homoeroticism? Choreography?

Catharine Lumby, author and professor of media and gender studies at Macquarie University, says that it’s an economy run on female lust. It’s something she knows well, having spent many teenage hours screaming in the general direction of Tony from the Australian band, Sherbet.

“No one should underestimate the intensity of passion that young women dealing with their emerging sexuality in a world where young women are told to suppress it can and do feel for pop idols. It is the way out for them,” she says. “It’s an escape from an existence where you’re told to behave nicely and where you have the same emerging sexuality as young men but no one talks to you about how to manage it. The opportunity to scream and cry and have romantic and sexual fantasies about a man in tight pants is fabulous. It’s a very healthy, safe outlet. And you can play their songs over and over in your bedroom – what could be better than that? I’m 55 and I haven’t found anything better.”
Gayle Ward, English and American studies professor at the University of Washington, agrees that boyband fandom is about lust-from-a-safe-distance. But she says it’s also about friendship and belonging. “Liking a boyband is not just a matter of expressing individualised desire; it's also a way that girls bond with other girls. Boyband fandom is hugely social: it means sharing ideas about the band with others, often online, interacting through social media with the band and other fans, dressing up with friends to go to a concert, and so on. We tend to associate the "screams" of female fans of boybands with hysteria and dismiss the music girls love as "teenybopper." But girls are not just mindless consumers; they are also the producers of this culture.”
That’s what troubles and amuses me about the female fandom of boybands: women have been routinely dismissed as ‘hysterical’ since they started turning up at Beatles concerts in 1961. We are this mighty, unstoppable commercial force in the pop industry and yet we are mocked for the way we scream when young men sing. Typically, we are criticised for indulging our own sexualities and enjoying ourselves.

Craig Jennex, a PhD Candidate in gender studies at McMaster University, says “that boybands are primarily popular with young girls is also the reason they are so regularly dismissed by music critics and older audiences—in Western culture, we’re quick to write young female fandom off as hysterical and ridiculous, or even pathologize this fandom as a sickness of some sort – like “Bieber Fever” or “One Direction Infection”. For young women and gay male fans, boyband fandom can actually be quite radical. Cultural respectability politics say that girls aren’t supposed to act this way, so it’s pretty amazing and important when they do.”

So there you have it: our continued cultural obsession with boybands is to do with female lust, teenage curiosity and female bonding. The formula of several cute young men singing in harmony works because it has an empowered, adoring, mainly benevolent fan base. Loving boybands isn’t naff or lame; the way we engage with them is an act of feminine rebellion. Catch you at the next concert.

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