Boy bands are back
Big Time Rush, Mindless Behavior, the Wanted and One Direction are all finding success. But can they reach the heights of earlier such groups?
Hundreds of glow sticks luminesced over the sold-out crowd at Gibson Amphitheatre on a recent Friday night. Prepubescent girls snapped cellphone pictures and out-screamed one another as younger kids were hoisted onto parents' shoulders for better views.
The cheers morphed into hysteria as Big Time Rush emerged.
The scene on stage is a familiar: five seemingly interchangeable young guys linked by one band name and an ability to dance with military precision, deliver harmonies and exude boy-next-door charm.
Big Time Rush is at the crest of a new boy band wave, yet the L.A.-made group hearkens to an era when Backstreet Boys, 'NSync and 98 Degrees ruled the charts.
Judging from recent sold-out L.A. shows for other young groups such as multi-cultural British heartthrobs the Wanted and R&B teen sensations Mindless Behavior, as well as the buzz surrounding reality show magnate Simon Cowell's creation One Direction, the re-emergence of the boy band has only just begun.
In what seems to be as predictably cyclical as the stock market, bubble gum bands are back and trying to fill a void left by the maturation of Justin Bieber and other precursors. And as always, they're working extra hard in competing with one another to stand out.
Mindless Behavior's Jacob "Princeton" Perez, who's from L.A., said he's aware their popularity could fade as fast as it arrived. "In this camp, they really believe in working hard. Our manager always told us to never get comfortable because it can all go away really fast," he said. "A lot of people think it came out of nowhere, but we've been at it for three years."
Though Mindless Behavior is geared more for the urban market, their music — like that of their dreamy boy peers — is loaded with enough sugary pop, dance and R&B melodies to charm tweens across America until at least the end of summer break.
Since Big Time Rush was assembled for the Nickelodean show of the same name in 2009 the band's TV series has become a hit and it's now behind two albums, blockbuster tours and a slew of made-for-TV films, including the Beatles-themed "Big Time Movie," which attracted 13 million total viewers when it aired this month, according to Nielsen. After dates on the group's current tour sold out in minutes, it announced an extensive summer trek.
Big Time Rush follows a mold, once perfected by the Monkees, in which a fictional artist-based sitcom extends to profitable tours, music and merchandise. Their current album, "Elevate," has debuted at No. 12 on the Billboard 200, they've sold more than 3 million digital tracks, and its self-titled TV show, now in its second season, averages a respectable 3.6 million viewers.
The Wanted, managed by the man behind Justin Bieber, Scott "Scooter" Braun, hit No. 1 on the iTunes pop chart with its U.S. single, "Glad You Came." The song (on the Def Jam label, just like Bieber) was bolstered in part when the cast of"Glee" covered it. It's now sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S. since its release in January.
BTR member Kendall Schmidt says its latest success proves it's more than a novelty. "We'd all be lying if we said the first thing we planned to do was sing in a boy band. We all knew we were signing up for an opportunity of a lifetime," Schmidt, 21, who's based in L.A., said. "We are trying our best to make it our band and not something we signed up for."
Not all the up-and-coming boy bands are Svengalied, but the majority are the product of industry masterminds looking to capitalize on the budding hormones of juveniles.
Mindless Behavior's co-manager, Keisha Gamble of Conjunction Entertainment, and the company's chief executive, Walter W. Millsap III, saw a void in the R&B market after B2K (a disciple of the 1980s sensation New Edition) fell out of fashion more than a decade ago. So along with Streamline Records head Vincent Herbert, they auditioned teens for the new group. "It had been 10 years since there had been a boy band that catered to the urban community," said Gamble. "Little girls want something to latch on to. There's only been Justin Bieber, so it was perfect timing for something like this to come along." Mindless Behavior, whose debut came out in September, is the only band of the bunch whose members are all African American.
Herbert said the goal was to calculate a "bulletproof" strategy for the band of 15-year-olds. Since he has a joint venture with Interscope and clout from signing Lady Gaga,he was able to fast-track them into a deal and secured plum opening slots on tours with the Backstreet Boys, Justin Bieber and Janet Jackson. The band's debut, "#1 Girl," bowed at No. 2 on Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop albums last fall.
Late last year the boys quickly amassed more than $100,000 in merchandise sales on Interscope's online store and were second in line behind Gaga in terms of sales. "We took our time thinking about the marketing," said Herbert. "I don't believe in losing. You look at their album and every song is about girls," he said. "Girls at 14 and 15 years old are excited about boys."
Not everyone is buying in. Carson Daly, who was host of MTV's "Total Request Live" during the boom of boy bands in the late 1990s, is skeptical that this new wave of cute groups won't rise to the heights of their predecessors. He said American listeners had matured past the syrupy sweet pop and toward more genre-blending sounds. "We moved further away from the produced pop bands. The Spice Girls, 'NSyncs and Backstreet Boys — that was an era that I think is over."
"How many pop groups are you hearing on the radio?" asked Daly, who hosts "The Voice"and co-anchors a morning radio show on KAMP-FM (97.1). "I play Top 40 every day. You just don't see these young boy bands or girl groups. It's not the thing that's working right now."
Unless, of course, you're one of the fans who posts about these band members' every move on blogs like Oh No They Didn't, where a blogger recently referred to One Direction as "flawfree angels." The group, like the Wanted and Mindless Behavior, include all the requisite boy band archetypes needed to attract starry-eyed fans (i.e. the rebellious one, the sensitive one, the shy one, and so on.)
As a result, the Wanted was forced to make an 11th-hour venue swap from the Roxy to El Rey to accommodate the demand for tickets, and this is before its stateside album release date of April 24. Also to broaden its reach, the group took cues from pop divas like Cher and Kylie Minogue and performed at a string of gay clubs, including Cherry Pop in West Hollywood.
"We got put in a house together to write music and see if we could form as a band. In a way, we didn't really know what we were jumping into," the Wanted's Max George recalls. "We could all play instruments and we got to write our own music, which a lot [of boy bands] don't normally do."
The quintet One Direction (ages 18 to 20) was pieced together by Cowell and former Pussycat Dolls front woman Nicole Scherzinger after its members auditioned as solo singers on theU.K. edition of"X Factor" in 2010 and then collectively placed third.
The group recently wrapped an opening slot for Big Time Rush — often receiving better reviews than the headliner. It is set to perform at the upcoming NickelodeonKids' Choice Awards and"Saturday Night Live." To add to the hype, it just announced its first U.S. headlining tour, and there is buzz that Nickelodeon is in talks to have the group anchor a show similar to Big Time Rush's,.
"We all know how hard it is to crack America," member Liam Payne, 18, said before its U.S. debut "Up All Night"interrupted Adele's chart-topping run by knocking her out of the No. 1 spot (it is only the second disc of 2012 to do so and the first time a British group has debuted at No. 1 in the U.S.). "When you come over here, you're one of four or five New Kids on the Block out there."
"We're entering an interesting phase of pop music," Cowell said of One Direction's breakneck U.S. success during a recent conference call. "I hope it inspires the next Backstreet Boys or 'NSync or Destiny's Child."
George is certain his band will ultimately come out on top. "I see [One Direction] as more a Jonas Brothers, they are very young, very TV-based sort of thing. With us people are buying into our music, more than they buy into us," he said. "People just like our music, which is what we want. We're much more into selling our music than we are posters."