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by Rachel Devitt

February 22, 2013

Cheat Sheet: Boy Bands

by Rachel Devitt  |  February 22, 2013

The history of the boy band is as much a visual experience as an audio one: generations of screaming, sobbing fans dancing and swaying and keening in front of group after group of clean-cut, well-dressed, adorably choreographed, swooningly harmonizing young guys, stretching across the pop-music ages like an infinity loop. And it's partially because of this visual history -- this emphasis on boys with good looks and the girls who swoon for them -- that the auditory history of the boy band isn't often given its due.

But boy bands and pop music are, like, totally BFF, or maybe even TLF (that's True Love Forever, for those of you who didn't have a career writing notes to your friends in the '80s). And in each historical boy band moment (seven minutes in boy-band heaven?), the bands in question have not only crafted their own distinctive subgenres, but also often encapsulated many of the sounds and trends of the day, all in one little perfectly coiffed package.

For practically as long as there's been popular music (or more specifically, youth culture around popular music), there have been boy bands. Some of the earliest representatives of both youth culture and its commercial potential in the pop industry, for instance, were doo-wop groups. At least early on, these often involved teenage boys (and some girls) hanging out and harmonizing hooky R&B together over danceable, sugar-crusted beats. The trend continued through early R&B, Motown and early rock 'n' roll. One could make a pretty strong case for The Beatles -- cute boys with an infectious pop sound and trend-setting hairdos meet with hordes of screaming, fainting fans -- as an Official Boy Band. And there's no denying The Jackson 5, the standard to which all boy bands arguably aspire.

It was the 1980s, however, that marked the beginning of the current era of boy band-ery as we know it. Like a holy trinity of every tweenage girl's dreams, New Kids on the Block, New Edition and Menudo burst onto the scene to save us from our adolescent doldrums. With their crush-worthy mugs, mom-approved wholesomely sexy images and, especially, those sweet-talking falsettos and smooth dance moves, these princes among men gave us something to believe in, someone to pin our lovey-dovey hormonal daydreams to and, most importantly, something to write on our school notebooks (Rachel Devitt + Jordan Knight! TLF!). They also became some of the most massively successful pop artists of the '80s, thanks to a savvy combination of hooks, looks and a finger on the pulse of what the kids were listening to at the time -- and, of course, a hard-driving, Machiavellian impresario who typically put these bands together and then micromanaged their every (dance) move.

Since then, boy band moments have waned and waxed: There was the post-Mickey Mouse Club generation, which bestowed upon us the likes of 'NSYNC, Backstreet Boys and 98 Degrees (not to mention their British brethren, like Take That and Boyzone). There was the New Jack Swing era, wherein BBs like Boyz II Men, Bell Biv Devoe and 112 incorporated R&B balladry, hip-hop flava, an urban aesthetic and the occasional downright dirty bedroom talk into their tooth-aching sugar-pop. Then there was the "rock star" movement, featuring bands like the Jonas Brothers, Allstar Weekend and Big Time Rush as wholesomely adorable ax-wielders with a desire to (pop-)rawk. And there have been isolated moments in genres from bachata (Aventura) to light classical (Il Volo, the handkerchief-waving opera-diva branch of the boy band family tree).

And finally, there is our current era, in which boy bands from around the world have swept in to roost on the charts like a hostile takeover by preening, slumber-partying-all-night vultures. (OK, mostly that's One Direction and, to a lesser degree, The Wanted. But it feels like more.) All these incarnations share some DNA, or at least the ability to pair pinup looks with undeniable, unavoidable pop charisma.

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