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The history of boy bands

Boy band bonanza

Backstreet, 'N Sync latest incarnations in a long line of teen sensations

'N Sync followed quickly on the heels of Backstreet Boys, another brainchild from music entrepreneur Lou Pearlman. Both groups have since parted ways with Pearlman  

October 19, 2000
Web posted at: 4:59 PM EDT (2059 GMT)

In this story:

'Cookie-cutter assembly line'

Motown a major influence

A place in music history?


(CNNfyi) -- Screaming teenage girls greeted them every time they stepped on stage or ventured out in public.

There was the cute one, the serious one, the goofy one, the quiet one. These "boys" (even if they were all in their 20s) had style and good looks, not to mention catchy tunes. Their performances mesmerized thousands. Girls plastered their bedrooms with the boys' faces. Fans would faint, in excitement, at the very sight of them.

They were hot. They were cool. No, this wasn't 'N Sync on a recent tour.

O-Town, made famous by the ABC show "Making the Band," strives for respect in the music industry
Can you guess who? A who's who of young male musical acts

Nor the Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees or any of the other "boy bands" that have invaded America within the past two years. Actually, it was the Beatles circa 1964 -- if not the original boy band, then at least the standard by which all others are judged.

Justin, Howie, Lance, JC, AJ, Nick few can deny how big these names have become on the teen music scene. All you have to do is look at their record sales, watch one of their concerts (or watch people watching their concerts) or turn to Carson Daly's "Total Request Live" on MTV. But as big as they are, they are still a small part of music history.

"There has always been a boy band trend," said Jeremy Helligar, entertainment editor of Teen People, which is a subsidiary of Time Warner, parent company of "And there are always going to be boy bands. It's just a matter of how long a career they have, how long they can flourish."

'Cookie-cutter assembly line'

'N Sync and Backstreet Boys emerged from the same, nondescript building in an Orlando, Florida, office park. It may not look like much from the outside, but inside businessmen, marketers, choreographers, vocal coaches -- and, lest they be forgotten, musicians -- work on creating the latest sensation.

This business is the brainchild of Lou Pearlman, a former transportation tycoon and now head of Trans Continental Records. He dreamed up this company after chartering a plane to a baby-faced boy band from Boston, New Kids on the Block, in the 1980s.

While not always critically acclaimed, in other ways New Kids were among the most successful bands of that decade. The screaming girls, sold-out concerts, wildly popular merchandise, record sales -- all of it led Pearlman to think, as he recently told CNN Newsstand, "Gee, that's the type of business to be in."

The Backstreet Boys were the first Trans Continental act to become big in the United States, followed soon by 'N Sync. Both groups had a steady diet of vocal training, intensive dance lessons, media relations preparation, image molding and touring before breaking through -- a system that Pearlman is using with many of his new groups in Orlando. After often contentious legal battles, both 'N Sync and Backstreet have split with Trans Continental and signed with other record labels.

"He has got a whole little cookie-cutter assembly line going with happy teens," said Andrew Essex, a writer for Entertainment Weekly. "And that's what the kids love right now."

Pearlman is hardly unaware of the success that Trans Continental has had on the teen music scene. At the same time, he knows the current boy band hysteria is all part of something bigger.

"The cycle has been there before," Pearlman said. "We just brought it into the '90s and the year 2000."

Motown a major influence

With the hot album "Revelation," 98 Degrees is riding the boy band wave  

Teen People's Helligar agrees, saying that Pearlman's success has as much to do with timing as anything else.

"He noticed that there was a drought of this type of act," Helligar said. "He was the first person to put it out there."

But Pearlman and Trans Continental certainly did not invent boy bands, even if they did help spawn the genre's latest incarnations.

Pearlman cites Berry Gordy Jr. and the Motown music scene of the 1960s -- because of its family atmosphere, talented groups and financial success -- as one of his creative and business influences.

Motown's Temptations were among the most popular all-male acts of the '60s. (Other teen faves included the Beach Boys and Paul Revere and the Raiders.) In the tradition of earlier acts such as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Temps attracted and catered to young female fans.

But it was the Beatles who set the standard for pop bands when they arrived in the United States from Liverpool, England, in 1964. It wasn't just their music that enamored them to teenage fans (talents that would earn them critical acclaim over time), but their moppish hairstyles, sly grins and distinctive personalities did as well.

Particularly early in their career, the Beatles were marketed as few pop acts had been to that point, with merchandise such as Beatles wigs, dolls and lunch boxes and even a cartoon series. The group also appeared successfully in movies such as "A Hard Day's Night" (1964) and the animated "Yellow Submarine" (1968).

But the Beatles were more than a mere rock group. Not only did the band turn pop music on its ear, but it also set many of the cultural and social trends of the 1960s. Long after their breakup in 1970, the Beatles continue to fascinate new generations.

Indeed, career longevity may be the key to how more recent boy bands, such as Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, are perceived in the pop world. Regardless of being dismissed by critics early on, these groups and their place in music history will be determined by how long they last, Helligar said.

"In pop music, that can be unforeseeable," he said. "And there's always going to be other boy bands."

Jacob Underwood, a member of Trans Continental's new high-profile boy band O-Town, said boy bands can earn respect and have long, fertile careers only by constantly developing skills and adapting to the times.

"It seems like talent isn't necessary to be a success in this business, and that's a sad thing," he said. "There's more talent required than most people think. You have to be constantly learning new skills, always growing."

A place in music history?

As the Beatles matured (along with their message and audience) and eventually broke up, a number of new boy bands followed. These musical acts included families such as the Osmonds and the Jackson 5. Others, such as the Monkees in the '60s and the Partridge Family in the '70s, were manufactured and marketed on television for young, enthusiastic fans.

With the arrival of MTV in the '80s, a new generation of boy bands emerged, including New Kids on the Block, Menudo and New Edition. Boyz II Men also drew flocks of young fans in the early '90s.

But with grunge music dominating the '90s music scene, there was a void of hit boy bands by the middle of the decade. It was then that Pearlman and company made their move.

"The first boy bands all had their own style," said O-Town's Underwood, alluding to the Beatles and Jackson 5. "This is evolution -- this is where the boy band trend has ended right now. It's the young audiences, five-part harmonies, the new wave."

While admitting success has spawned imitations, Helligar said boy band frenzy is not as sweeping as some people think.

"You have the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, but who else is there?" he asked rhetorically. "As far as the teen pop thing, Backstreet and 'N Sync are in a class of their own."

Helligar said that teens want something specific in their musical favorites. "There are two things that teens are looking for: someone they can emulate and idolize -- someone that they see as being on this higher level -- and someone who is like them," he said.

Today's boy bands, Helligar theorizes, tend to fall in the former category, while some single (largely female) acts such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera fit the latter. Fans also feed off the bands' energy in live performances, Helligar said, adding that this characteristic particularly fits 'N Sync.

Pearlman has a less complicated take on why his music/marketing/engineering business will thrive -- why girls will always buy more CDs, tickets and merchandise for their favorite boy bands.

"There are always going to be girls looking for great-looking guys and people just getting into the music," he said.

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Backstreet Boys
MTV's O-Town site
'N Sync
Trans Continental
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

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