The cymbals on the drum set clatter as the bass thumps, but the sound of screaming drowns it out. The floor shakes beneath you and girls shriek while the guitarist wails away. Mic feedback transforms from an annoying screech into an exciting howl, and you hardly care that your feet ache from standing for too long in uncomfortable shoes. Energy radiates through you. Of course, the music contributes to this sensation, but what makes live music so thrilling is the environment surrounding you.
The same is true of musicians, specifically boy bands. While the music itself is important to their success, part of what makes these bands so popular is the environment in which their music is created and presented. In order to fully understand and appreciate these artists, it is crucial to look at the society and culture surrounding them during their time in the spotlight. For example, in the height of their popularity, the Beatles released some of the biggest hits of the 1960s, but you cannot attribute all of that success to their music alone. Although the Beatles were popular because of their music, the model that they used for the band along with the societal conditions at the time greatly contributed to their popularity, which helped pave the way for future boy bands. The Beatles were one of the first boy bands that were truly responsive to what society was looking for in an artist or band, which set a precedent, and became the model, for the boy bands that followed them, such as *NSYNC and One Direction.
Recently, fans celebrated the 10-year anniversary of One Direction. In the weeks leading up to it, millions were listening to the same melodies that they did in their youth, dancing to upbeat pop songs and singing along to the lyrics that they had grown up with. This anniversary made headlines, and there was an upsurge in the band’s popularity as they began to attract attention from outside their fandom as well. According to Billboard Magazine, “almost 25 million streams of the group’s songs were generated in the days leading to and following the July 23 anniversary date” (Brandle). This means that in a mere matter of days, the band had accumulated about 25 million streams, which proves just how relevant they still are. During this time frame, three of the band’s albums returned to the Top 40 of the Official U.K. Albums Chart, and the sales on their debut album, Up All Night, boosted 135% (Brandle).
This success reignited a flame that had dimmed since the band’s hiatus in 2015, adding fuel to the fire and making it almost explosive. It was as if someone invented a time machine and transported society back to 2013: everyone on social media talked about them, radio stations played their hit songs, and the band members posted about their time in the band. The conversation that took place during this time centered around One Direction, but many people were talking about boy bands in general, and looking at past bands that had the same effect. This infectious love for a popular boy band did not start with One Direction but had been created decades before the band had formed, starting with the Beatles.
She Loves You
There is much debate over whether or not the Beatles should actually be considered a boy band, as many fans are inclined to call them a rock band. This argument is rooted in the fact that the definition of a boy band, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a small ensemble of males in their teens or twenties who play pop songs geared especially to a young female audience,” and the Beatles are now perhaps most well-known for their later psychedelic rock music. On the other hand, some argue that while categorizing the Beatles as such, the type of music created should not be as important as the reaction that they received, which was similar to those generated by stereotypical boy bands today.
In the Billboard.com article “Are They a Boy Band or Not? Two Billboard Staffers Debate The Beatles, Brockhampton, 5 Seconds of Summer & More,” staff member Andrew Unterberger argues that the Beatles are either “the furthest thing from a boy band, or they’re the most important boy band there’s ever been. I dunno if there’s much room for an in-between interpretation.” Unterberger brings up a key factor in this conversation, which is that the debate seems to be very black and white: they were or they were not. Those who think of them as a boy band consider them to be the group that set the stage for others, and those who do not think of them as such argue that the musical superiority of the Beatles elevates them above the boy band label. What people fail to realize is that categorizing the Beatles as a boy band has a much greater impact than it may seem. If one decides to categorize them as such, it changes the way that boy bands are viewed as a whole. While this may seem like a mundane conversation, the outcome alters how people view boy bands and their place in the music industry, which impacts how individuals, and society as a whole, listen to and interpret music.
In an attempt to explore this debate further, I conducted an interview with Matthew Gelbart, a professor at Fordham University who teaches classes in rock and pop music. When asked whether or not he believed that the Beatles should be considered a boy band, Professor Gelbart responded:
Yes, how could you not, especially in their earlier days. The key to me is that the Beatles represented a bunch of different trends over the course of almost ten years, and if you look at their explosion into popularity in 1963 to 1964, then they were very much marketed in the mold of a boy band—there had been these girl groups and these solo teen-idol boy stars, right? And the Beatles really broke on the scene as this cute British boy band— something that was interesting though was that they wrote their own music.
Gelbart brings up the issue that causes such polarization in this debate. He explains that they were marketed as a boy band early on in their career and fit into what we now consider a typical boy band mold. Because they eventually shifted their genre of music from pop to rock, and because they played their own instruments, some fans are inclined to consider them more “serious musicians” than the stereotypical boy band. However, by ignoring the fact that they originated as a boy band and created pop music, people dismiss the songs that allowed them to reach their unprecedented success and recognition in the music industry.
In the book, Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four, Kenneth Womack and Todd Davis, professors at Penn State University, explore the Beatles’ rise to fame, and discuss the importance of their early music. The Beatles attracted attention with their first single, “Love Me Do.” Their following appearance on British television’s Thank Your Lucky Star on February 13, 1963, marked a pivotal moment for the band as they debuted their single “Please Please Me.” Hits like “From Me To You” and “She Loves You” followed, making the Beatles a household name and gaining traction in the media. After their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 (see fig. 1), their popularity in America skyrocketed and ultimately overshadowed their presence in Great Britain. According to Womack and Davis, “By April, they held an unprecedented top five spots on the Billboard Hot 100, and in Canada they boasted nine records in the Top Ten. They quickly spearheaded a new direction in popular music” (56-7). This means that in a mere matter of months, the Beatles had gone from a rag-tag gang of young boys from Liverpool, to the top of the charts in multiple countries. This sudden burst of recognition and fame secured the band’s future and success early on in their career. Since this rise to fame, the band has held unprecedented success on charts and, according to Guinness World Records, the band has continued to set records as recently as 2019 (Lloyd).
Some people may argue that this level of success had been achieved by artists that came before the band, but in reality, their successes are not comparable. According to Womack and Davis, this is because:
Unlike the first generation of rockers (such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Buddy Holly) who were already established performing musicians, the second generation of British pop idols had been chosen primarily for their looks and their ability to copy the rock ’n’ roll gestures—pouting lips, gyrating hips, surly gaze—that had characterized Presley’s performances. These new artists . . . drew on Presley’s two most notable contributions to the language of rock ’n’ roll. . . . The result was to commercialize what was originally a largely improvised and demandingly simple musical format and to bring to the fore the manufactured pop idol, single, boyish, white, good-looking, and replaceable. . . . To a certain extent, the Beatles reflected this emphasis on personality.
Kenneth Womack and Todd Davis, Reading the Beatles, 57
Womack and Davis acknowledge that the Beatles used similar gestures and musical stylizations to the rock n’ roll artists that came before them, and while that was an important factor in their success, it was not the defining factor. Womack and Davis allude to how their personalities contributed to their rise to fame, which is something Professor Gelbart addressed in our conversation:
What’s really important in marketing them as the first kind of boy band is that each of them had their own personality, but they also all dressed the same and had a group image…John was the clever one, Paul was the dreamy one, Ringo was the kind of goofy one, and George was the quiet one…they all had their image.
This was something that was new and exciting, especially to girls, because it allowed them to “pick a favorite” and “fall in love with them,” which helped contribute to their success (Gelbart). While some may make the argument that Elvis Presley and other rock n’ roll icons like him achieved the same success as the Beatles did, this is clearly not the case, as the Beatles had elements that contributed to their popularity that had not been used before. The Beatles were able to use what made these artists popular and add another layer on top of it, building a house on top of the foundation that had previously been laid for them.
In addition to the model they used in creating the band, the environment around the Beatles played a key role in their success as well. One significant element of that environment was the women’s liberation movement. According to the U.S. News & World Report, two of the most important factors of the women’s liberation movement were the upsurge of women in the workforce and an increased use of contraceptives, as these factors gave women more freedom in their lives (Walsh). As women joined the workforce, they were met with the opportunity to become more economically independent, and with access to birth control, they were able to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Because of this, women gained a newfound sense of control over their choices and personal lives. After years of sitting in the passenger seat, women were finally given the opportunity to sit behind the steering wheel, feeling more in charge of their decisions than ever before.
Though the Beatles were not explicitly political, their music was radical, and they were receptive to this newfound change in gender norms. In the article “Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Sixties Screamscape of Beatlemania,” ‘Beatlemania’ is not described as an interest, but rather as a lifestyle that people obeyed and lived by. The caliber of this hysteria surpassed all other previous celebrity-induced mania: it was “an encompassing, can’t-stop-thinking-about-you fandom that informed many if not most aspects of millions of young women’s lives” (Rohr 3). The Beatles were more than a band because they had impacted many aspects of their fans lives. Yes, fans themselves were individuals, but their connection to the band provided them with a community to belong to. This connection ran deep and allowed young women to express themselves in a way that they had not previously been able to.
While older women were greeted with freedom in the form of economic security and contraceptives, young women were given freedom of expression. At concerts, girls were able to express their excitement, jumping up and down during their favorite songs, screaming along to the melodies that they had grown to love, and wearing buttons adorned with the band member they declared their favorite (see fig. 2). The Beatles were receptive to what societal conditions were surrounding them, and because of that, they were able to create a “safe space” that was inclusive to young women seeking social change. At these concerts, one could forget about social constraints and give way to the temptations that had been begging to be let out for years. These usually well-behaved young women were finally allowed to give in and let loose (Rohr).
This newfound form of expression was not the only gateway that the Beatles had opened for these young women. In the book Hinduism and the 1960s : The Rise of a Counter-Culture, Paul Oliver explains that sexuality and sexual drive was something that was becoming more accepted during the Beatles’ rise to fame. In the 1950s, sex was not considered to be an appropriate topic of conversation, but by the 1960s this had begun to change, and suddenly there was a “liberalization of sexual matters” (97). The Beatles’ popularity coincided with this acceptance of sexuality, which meant that the band had been one of the first to be met with the discussion of sexuality during their fame. The band members were also marketed as ideal boyfriends, which meant that young girls perceived the band in a way that allowed this newfound sexuality to be fun, open, natural, and exhilarating (Womack and Davis). It was as if Pandora’s Box had been opened, releasing a slew of emotions and experiences that woman had not yet been able to outwardly express.
It’s Gonna Be Me
Although they differed from the Beatles in significant ways, the popular 1990s boy band *NSYNC followed the same model. Unlike the Beatles, however, *NSYNC attempted to gauge their audiences’ reactions prior to their breakout by looking at what their demographic wanted before breaking into the music scene. According to the Variety Magazine article “*NSYNC’S 6 Defining Career Moments: As the Boy Receives a Star, Its Members Recount Their Ascent to Success,” American radio remained in a post-grunge phase in the 1990s, which is why the band had decided to attempt popularity in Europe first. They hoped that Europe would be more responsive to the music that they produced, as they are typically more receptive to boy bands in general (Angermiller).
Unsurprisingly, this strategy worked. In 1996, the band moved from Orlando, Florida to Germany and, after a few months of intense rehearsal, became a sensation all over Europe. In the blink of an eye, *NSYNC could be seen on magazine covers and on top of the charts. Within a year, this success in Europe traveled over the Atlantic and crashed on America’s shores. The band went on to create hit songs like “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “I Want You Back” (Angermiller). According to the People Magazine article “Lance Bass Recalls the Exact Moment He Knew *NSYNC Had Made It,” the band sold more than 70 million records. In this interview, Lance Bass, a former *NSYNC member, looks back on his time in the band, and states that “it was a time in music history that [he doesn’t] think will ever happen again” (Quinn). However, this fame would not have been achieved had the band not attempted to break out in Europe before their debut in America. This is because the music that the band produced did not match the music that was thriving in America at the time. By attempting to gain traction and popularity in Europe first, the band was able to fill a niche in the market by consciously catering to a demographic that was craving the kinds of music that they made, proving that *NYSNC used societal conditions to their advantage as they rose to fame.
While they may have differed from the Beatles in this way, they used the same model in the way that each band member had his own personality. In an interview with Variety, Joey Fatone, one of the five members of *NSYNC, explained it this way:
It was literally, like: “Justin, oh my God! I love your voice. I think you’re amazing, I want to marry you…” Then you go to Lance and hear, “Oh my God, your eyes are so beautiful, I love your deep voice.” … “Oh my God, JC, you have one of the most amazing voices!” “Oh my God Chris, you’re crazy, I love how funny you are!”… “Joey, oh my God, my mom loves you and wants to cook you dinner.” For me, it was always “my mom loves you.”
Joey Fatone, qtd. in Michelle Amabile Angermiller, “NSYNC’s Joey Fatone Hilariously Breaks Down the Boy Band Dynamic.”
Fatone shares that they used a similar model as the Beatles, where each member had his own personality and the freedom to be an individual, while still being part of a larger group. Although they were all different people, they followed the same choreography and danced in unison, representing a unit (see fig. 3). The group was always seen adorned in similar outfits, whether that was at a performance, a photoshoot, or a red-carpet event, reiterating the point that they shared an image, despite their differences.
Live While We’re Young
More recently, One Direction has achieved worldwide fame while following a similar model as boy bands before them. The band was formed on the X Factor in 2010 when each of the five boys (Harry Styles, Niall Horan, Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, and Zayn Malik) had auditioned as solo artists. Although none of them made it onto the show individually, Simon Cowell asked them to compete as a group instead. Although they did not win the show that season, the band experienced such positive feedback from viewers that they decided to continue making music together (One Direction: This is Us).
Similar to the Beatles, the band exploded in popularity after their exposure on TV. They also used the Beatles’ boy band model––each of the boys had his own personality and quirks, while still being a group and having a group image. Liam was the clever one, Harry was the dreamy one, Niall was the goofy one, Louis was the prankster, and Zayn was the quiet one (see fig. 4).
What was unlike the bands that had come in the decades before them was the fact that One Direction lacked all synchronicity and choreography. Instead of dancing on stage, they preferred to run around, get into trouble, and have water fights. When asked why this was the case, Niall Horan says that they “just made the decision that they weren’t going to be that band” (Corden). However, he left one question unanswered: why?
In an interview with Zach Sang, Louis Tomlinson answers this question when he says that he “couldn’t be a part of ‘all wearing the same outfit’ . . . and as [the band] came around, Twitter was getting super massive as well at the time, which definitely helped [them] nicely, and also meant that you could bullshit less” (Sang). Tomlinson admits that their rise to fame as a band was greatly aided by the development of social media. This new form of instant communication between celebrities and their audiences created the desire for more honesty and authenticity from celebrities, as this had not been experienced by fans before. Tomlinson also said that the advantage to being in a band like this meant that they could “completely be [themselves], and that way if [they] made mistakes it was natural” (Sang). This proves that they did not feel pressured into acting like picture-perfect pop stars on stage, and instead could just be the rowdy nineteen-year-old boys that they were in real life.
This less curated dynamic was what people in the 2010s craved, especially after all the synchronized choreography that *NSYNC and other boy bands in the 1990s and early 2000s displayed. The chemistry between the boys felt more like a group of friends hanging out than a professional band, and in the words of Zach Sang, a popular radio host, the band was composed of “a group of guys that literally felt like they could sit with you in the school cafeteria” (Sang). This relatability helped the boys’ rise in popularity because as social media became more mainstream and popularized, fans wanted to see celebrities as real people who were similar to them. Instead of suits and ties, the group opted to wear striped shirts and letterman jackets, reflecting the stereotypical teenager. Fans wanted someone they could imagine themselves hanging out with, which is why the band’s dynamic was so successful during this time. The band was able to use new social media platforms to their advantage during their rise to fame. Synchronicity had become stale, and after so many years of it, having a band that broke this trend was a breath of fresh air. Following a period of time where ‘realness’ was not prioritized, One Direction’s ability to be unapologetically themselves reflected the values of their audience.
While the music of these three boy bands—the Beatles, *NSYNC, and One Direction—differs in sound and the bands themselves have changed over time, the idea behind the boy band has not changed drastically since the formation of the Beatles. All three of these bands were put into a similar mold when created, and all of them were able to use societal conditions to their advantage. The Beatles did this by allowing women to express themselves in previously unacceptable ways, while *NSYNC was able to do so by appealing to a demographic that they knew would lead them to success. One Direction did so by allowing their audience to feel more like friends than fans.
Back at the concert, the crowd jumps up and down as the clanging of the drums and the thumping of the bass echo throughout the arena. You gaze upon the stage and find the Beatles, clad in their suits and holding their guitars, singing to a crowd of thousands. When you blink, the band of four is transformed into a band of five, sporting denim on denim and frosted tips (the latest ‘90s fashion trend), dancing in unison while performing their hit song “Bye, Bye, Bye.” The crowd is singing the lyrics along with them, although to the untrained ear it sounds more like screaming than anything else. A spotlight shines in your direction, and the intense light is blinding. When you regain your composure, you notice that the band has once again shapeshifted, and the band you are watching now is not nearly as coordinated as the last two. The boys are dressed in skinny jeans and graphic tees, chasing each other around the stage and attempting to form a human pyramid in between songs, and although it sounds disastrous, their rambunctiousness radiates through the crowd.
Although these are three vastly different experiences, one thing remains the same: the energy of the crowd. In this moment, as much as the crowd is reacting to the band, the band is responding to them as well. Their wants, their needs, and their energy is influencing the band’s course of action, acting as if they were on stage beside them.