A New Book Traces The History Of Boy Bands, The Pop Phenomenon 'Larger Than Life' | WAMC

A New Book Traces The History Of Boy Bands, The Pop Phenomenon 'Larger Than Life'

Jul 28, 2020
Originally published on July 29, 2020 1:05 am

"If history is written by winners," author Maria Sherman says, "music history is written by rock critics, and they don't typically get along with boy bands."

For reasons that she explores in her new book, Larger Than Life: A History Of Boy Bands From NKOTB To BTS, Sherman says boy bands don't get the same respect as other music acts, especially their rock peers.

"I do think a lot of it is this internalized perception of what is "good," and that's the rock songwriter — and that's not what boy bands are," she says. "I tackle the idea of Beatlemania quite a bit in the book because one of the main characteristics of boy bands are that they have this frenzied — but I think really lovely — fanaticism about them. But if you call the Beatles a boy band, people get really dismissive about it. They really don't enjoy that, I've found."

Sherman was already a music critic when she fell in love with One Direction, and she says that the band's songs helped her appreciate new ways of thinking about music. NPR's Ari Shapiro talks to Maria Sherman about challenging preconceived notions of authenticity in music, how race affects the marketing of pop groups and giving into the joy and freedom of a boy band pop song. Listen in the audio player above and read on for highlights of their conversation.


Interview Highlights

On double standards about boy bands and authenticity

To think about boy bands critically, you can't really adhere to the same value systems where authenticity by songwriting is the best or the most interesting thing an artist can be. You have to place that value of authenticity elsewhere, and that would be the connection that listeners have with the music itself. You can make the same argument that Berry Gordy's Motown was based on "the factory system" that gets thrown around quite a bit when talking about boy bands. We value that music: I don't think you're going to hear anybody talk about how formulaic The Jackson 5 were. People really enjoy that music because it makes them happy. The same can and should be said about One Direction and New Kids on the Block and K-pop.

YouTube

On the way boy bands engage with Black music while excluding Black artists

Boy band music, like all popular music, is founded in Black music — it's sort of a throughline throughout all popular music history. There's a reason Backstreet Boys' "I'll Never Break Your Heart" sounds exactly like Boyz II Men's "End of the Road." It's pretty egregious. And yet for many people, myself included, I don't really see Boyz II Men as a boy band. There are a variety of reasons for that, but the obvious one is that it wasn't presented as a boy band and so much of what a boy band identity is is how it's marketed and sold to you. Boyz II Men are seen as a sexier R&B male vocal group and the Backstreet Boys are a little bit more innocent. There's something to that image of chastity, even if it is alluding to something PG-13. I also think that perhaps because Black and brown youth are typically sexualized at a younger age, they're not afforded the same privileges of a white boy band. And that's why you can have the Backstreet Boys, who are around the same age doing something similar, but sold to tweens, whereas Boyz II Men is for a more mature audience.

On the moment Maria Sherman fell in love with boy bands

I often say that One Direction ruined my life, and I mean that in the most wholesome way. I sort of wish there was a more theatrical, dramatic realization, but the reality is it was a late night and I turned on "What Makes You Beautiful," One Direction's first solo single in 2011. That first moment where you hear those crunchy guitars, it elicited a sense of joy in me that I immediately clocked as youthful. It felt like butterflies in my stomach, like I had a crush on a song — and not these boys, necessarily, but what this sort of symbolized: this pure serotonin release, absolute freedom from embarrassment, just fun. I think there's something really beautiful that happens when you find that boy band that really gets you into that appreciation. It feels like almost a political dismissal of pre-existing limitations of what's considered credible or cool. It's like "I can be free from pretension for two minutes and 43 seconds, or however long the average pop song is, and really just give in to joy.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to take a few minutes now to talk about boy bands and their fans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LARGER THAN LIFE")

BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) All you people, can't you see, can't you see how your love's affecting our reality?

SHAPIRO: Are your eyes rolling a little bit? Well, what if I told you this segment was about Elvis and his teenage fans or people who obsess over their favorite sports teams? Author Maria Sherman says boy band mania is just as legitimate as those obsessions. But for reasons that she explores in her new book, boy bands don't get the same respect.

MARIA SHERMAN: I often tell people, if history is written by winners, music history is written by rock critics, and they don't typically get along with boy bands.

SHAPIRO: So Maria Sherman wrote her own book. It's called "Larger Than Life: A History Of Boy Bands From NKOTB To BTS." She was already a music critic when she fell in love with One Direction. And she told me their songs helped her appreciate new ways of thinking about music.

SHERMAN: To think about boy bands critically, you can't really adhere to the same value systems where authenticity by songwriting is the best or the most interesting thing an artist can be. You have to place that value of authenticity elsewhere, and that would be the connection that listeners have with the music itself.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SHERMAN: You can make the same argument that Berry Gordy's Motown was based on the sort of factory system that gets thrown around quite a bit when talking about boy bands. We value that music. I don't think you're going to hear anybody talk about how formulaic The Jackson 5 were.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE THERE")

THE JACKSON 5: (Singing) I'll be there to comfort you, build my world of dreams around you. I'm so glad that I found you.

SHERMAN: People really enjoy that music because it makes them happy. The same can and should be said about One Direction and New Kids On The Block and K-pop.

SHAPIRO: So how much of the, like, critical community's dismissal of boy bands do you think is connected to the fact that their fans are often young women and young women are often dismissed?

SHERMAN: Almost entirely. I would have to talk to other critics who dismiss this music more frequently to get a more holistic image of it. But I do think a lot of it is this internalized perception of what is good, and that's the rock songwriter. And that's not what boy bands are. I tackle the idea of Beatlemania quite a bit in the book because one of the sort of main characteristics of boy bands are that they have this frenzied - but I think it's really lovely - fanaticism surrounding them. But if you call The Beatles a boy band, people get really dismissive about it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SHERMAN: They really don't enjoy that, I've found.

SHAPIRO: The book is a kind of delightful history of the genre. And there is a song by New Kids On The Block that you identify as accomplishing what this book hopes to do - a quick, hook-heavy chronology of modern boy band history. So should we just take a listen to this as a kind of table of contents?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS IN THE BAND (BOY BAND ANTHEM)")

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK: (Rapping) Then came BBD, BSB, B2K, 1D, 98 Degrees, "Come And Talk To Me" - Jodeci. From B Brown to Beantown to H-Town to O-Town came the sound Berry Gordy found all the way back in Motown.

SHAPIRO: I'm not sure anybody would argue that this is the musical pinnacle of boy band artistry, but it does the job, right?

SHERMAN: Yeah. I would not show this to the aliens as the best example of boy band excellence, but it does do a really wonderful job of establishing a chronology of boy bands, as you mentioned. And it also does a really wonderful job of including the boy bands, especially the Black boy bands, that kind of get written out of this history. Boy band music, like all popular music, is founded in Black music. It's sort of a throughline throughout all popular music history. There's a reason Backstreet Boys' "I'll Never Break Your Heart" sounds exactly like Boyz II Men's "End Of The Road." It's pretty egregious.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to those back to back, starting with Backstreet Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER BREAK YOUR HEART")

BACKSTREET BOYS: (Singing) I'll never break your heart. I'll never make you cry. I'd rather die...

SHAPIRO: And now here's Boyz II Men.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "END OF THE ROAD")

BOYZ II MEN: (Singing) Although we've come to the end of the road, still I can't let go.

SHAPIRO: Direct inheritance there, huh?

SHERMAN: And yet for many people, and myself included, I don't really see Boyz II Men as a boy band. And there are a variety of reasons for that. But sort of the obvious one is it wasn't presented as a boy band, and so much of what a boy band identity is is how it's sort of marketed and sold to you. Boyz II Men are kind of seen as, like, a sexier R&B male vocal group. And the Backstreet Boys are a little bit more innocent. There is something to that, like, image of chastity, even if it is sort of alluding to something PG-13.

I also think that perhaps because Black and brown youth are typically sexualized at a younger age, they're not sort of afforded the same privileges as a white boy band. And that's why you can have the Backstreet Boys, who were around the same age, doing something very similar but sold to tweens, whereas Boyz II Men is for, like, a more mature audience.

SHAPIRO: If somebody is not necessarily a fan of boy bands, can you suggest a gateway drug, something that might get them hooked?

SHERMAN: That would depend on what their interest or what sort of, like, genre of music that they're interested in 'cause I think if you're a real hip-hop head, then BTS is the way to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BTS CYPHER 4")

BTS: (Rapping in Korean).

SHERMAN: If you're more of a classic rock kind of listener, later One Direction sounds a lot like Fleetwood Mac. There are a lot of sort of rock 'n' roll reference points there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIREPROOF")

ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) 'Cause nobody knows you, baby, the way I do.

SHERMAN: It makes a lot of sense when you consider the sort of solo trajectory of Harry Styles. If you like Latin pop, of course, there's always Menudo...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A VOLAR")

MENUDO: (Singing in Spanish).

SHERMAN: ...Though it might be a little cheesy for an adult audience, but I still am delighted by it.

SHAPIRO: What was your gateway drug? What got you over your music critic snobbery and made you fall in love with this genre?

SHERMAN: I often say One Direction ruined my life, and I mean that in the most wholesome way. I sort of wish that there was a more theatrical, dramatic realization. But the reality is that it was just a late night. I turned on "What Makes You Beautiful." And that, like, first moment where you hear those crunchy guitars...

(SOUNDBITE OF ONE DIRECTION SONG "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL")

SHERMAN: ...It elicited a sense of joy in me that I immediately clocked as youthful. It felt like butterflies in my stomach, like I had a crush on a song and not these boys, necessarily, but what this sort of symbolized - this just pure serotonin release, just absolute freedom from embarrassment, just fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT MAKES YOU BEAUTIFUL")

ONE DIRECTION: (Singing) Baby, you light up my world like nobody else. The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed.

SHERMAN: And I think there's something really beautiful that happens when you find that boy band that, like, really gets you into that appreciation. It feels like almost a political dismissal of preexisting limitations of what's considered credible or cool. It was just like, wow, I can be free for pretension for two minutes and 43 seconds or however long the average pop song is and really just sort of give in to joy.

SHAPIRO: That's amazing. God, I wish we could all have that experience.

SHERMAN: I believe you can (laughter). You just have to find the right boy band for you.

SHAPIRO: All right. Maria Sherman, as we wrap up, what song do you think we should go out on?

SHERMAN: It's only appropriate to do NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye."

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE BYE BYE")

NSYNC: (Singing) Bye, bye, bye. Bye, bye.

SHAPIRO: Maria Sherman - her new book is "Larger Than Life: A History Of Boy Bands From NKOTB To BTS."

Thank you for talking with us.

SHERMAN: Thank you so much. This was so much fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BYE BYE BYE")

NSYNC: (Singing) I just want to tell you that I had enough. It might sound crazy, but it ain't no lie. Baby, bye, bye, bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.