Last week during a rant about the New Year’s holiday, I turned my invective on the musical guests featured on Fox’s broadcast. Two such musical guests are the resurging New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys, who I said belonged “in Las Vegas night shows.” Many readers called me out on this by pointing out that the two acts were hardly desperate, and that the Backstreet Boys had even been selling out shows. Feeling stupid, I listened to the NKOTB album “Hangin’ Tough,” the Backstreet Boys’ “Millenium,” and ‘N Sync’s “No Strings Attached” to serve as penance.
It had been a while since I had listened to a boy-band recording (probably the sixth grade) but my music taste has since expanded. I begrudgingly had to admit that these three were pretty good pop albums. New Kids’ “The Right Stuff” and the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life” still had it. As much as ‘N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye” doesn’t fit my taste, it’s easy to understand how it became huge.
So what happened? None of these groups was creatively struggling when it fell out of the public’s good graces.
For New Kids on the Block, it was a sudden collapse. The group released its third album, “Step by Step,” in 1990 and it went multi-platinum, as expected. By the release of the album’s third single, “Let’s Try It Again,” the group was old news. The single didn’t break the Billboard Top 40.
Not helping the New Kids’ cause were accusations of lip-synching on stage. Lip-synching is a tough charge for pop acts to shake. More recent history shows how the same accusation shook Britney Spears’ career while all-but destroying Ashlee Simpson’s. Groups that are entirely comprised of vocalists are already walking a thin line.
The benefit of playing one’s own instruments is that it merits a degree of sympathy from the audience. To the blue-collar or day-job maintaining listener, playing an instrument constitutes “work.” Vocals, despite the amount of practice put into them, don’t get the same credit. That’s why any country artist, even the “divas” like Carrie Underwood, can still strum a guitar. Kanye West can put months of work into crafting a beat for his song, but he will often only get credit for what he does on stage.
Aside from musical analysis, it seems that the listening public’s taste for boy bands travels in waves. The arguable first wave was during the New Kids era, beginning with New Edition in the ‘80s, a group that featured Bobby Brown. After New Edition split ways with its songwriter, Maurice Starr, he became the producer for New Kids. The era’s apex occurred with New Kid’s “Hangin’ Tough,” but then fans lost interest.
The next wave began in 1996 with the release of the Backstreet Boys’ self-titled debut. In the next year, both ‘N Sync and 98 Degrees would debut as well. But much like before, the public’s desire for boy bands was fickle. ‘N Sync’s “Celebrity” was the era’s outgoing shot. The group soon split, with Justin Timberlake going solo.
The Backstreet Boys continued releasing albums, but each album’s first-week sales have debuted lower on the charts than the last (not failures, but significantly less lustrous than the group’s previous sales).
The fall of boy bands wasn’t indicative of all pop music, however. Spears, who debuted around the same time as her boy-band counterparts, continued to be as relevant on the charts throughout the following decade, rehab and all.
But now, New Kids and the Backstreet Boys are back on the map. Why? It just seems that listeners are ready for a reemergence. Justin Bieber is a force to be reckoned with on the pop charts, and his formula is not far off that of boy bands. Will it last long? History says no, but for the time being, I must admit that boy bands never really die.