It’s been more than a hot minute since multi-platinum boy bands like *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys roamed the earth and ruled the charts. Now, after a decade-long dormancy, cute, heavily-styled guys who sing in harmony and don’t play instruments are suddenly back in fashion.
Once again, the UK is leading the charge onward and upward. While Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were born in the USA, they enjoyed their earliest success in the UK. This time, though, the new wave of blushing boy bands represents an authentic UK-born-and-bred British invasion.
The members of The Wanted, whose “Glad You Came” single has climbed into the Top 3 of Billboard’s Hot 100 (the quintet’s self-titled US debut album arrives April 24), and One Direction, whose first album, Up All Night, just outpaced Adele to enter Billboard’s Top 200 album chart at No. 1 (176,000 vs. 148,000 copies sold), all hail from Britain and Ireland.
In just a few months, both groups already have enjoyed more US success than Ireland’s Westlife, or Take That, perhaps the UK’s biggest boy band ever, who aside from one Top 10 single (1995’s “Back for Good”), never made it big in the States. (With the exception of Spice Girls and Bananarama, UK female vocal groups—including All Saints in the ‘90s and, more recently, Sugababes and Girls Aloud—haven’t fared much better in the US over the years.)
It might be all in the marketing and material. Rather than sticking to syrupy balladry (a la Westlife) and tasteful middle-of-the-road pop (Take That-style), The Wanted and One Direction are appealing to Stateside tastes by jumping on hot US musical trends. For The Wanted, that means an updated form of the Eurodance sound that *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys first rode to stardom. “Glad You Came” sounds like Coldplay remixed by David Guetta with a slight Latin twist. It’s so of the moment that it probably would be a hit whether one or five good-looking guys were singing it.
Meanwhile, the slightly younger One Direction (all but one member is still in his teens) found success the new-fashioned way, via reality TV. The five-man vocal group, whose debut single and US Top 20 hit “What Makes You Beautiful” is what a Katy Perry smash might sound like if she were five barely post-pubescent guys groomed by Simon Cowell on the UK X Factor.
The major difference between The Wanted/One Direction and Backstreet Boys/*NSYNC is the de-emphasis on cheesy precisioned choreography and R&B musical flourishes, and a slightly more sophisticated musical approach that caters to fans beyond the teen demo. In the case of The Wanted, who already have two gold albums and five Top 10 singles in the UK, and whose members are all in their early 20s, there’s more bad boy in the mix, which might heighten their appeal among young ladies who prefer their teen idols slightly more dangerous than Justin Bieber.
Will the two manufactured boy bands manage to sustain success past this first blush of US fame? It could go either way, but I’d put my money on one direction (pun intended)—up!—for now. Simon Cowell doesn’t have a great track record breaking boy bands in the States (where neither Westlife nor 5ive, both Cowell BMG signees, caught on for long), but the immediate success of Up All Night suggests that One Direction has already built a sturdy Stateside following based on its first single.
Meanwhile, The Wanted has the backing of Def Jam Records (label home of Rihanna and Jay-Z), the management clout of Scooter Braun (who guides the career of Justin Bieber, for whom the group has toiled as opening act in London and South America) and endorsements from New York City (where the guys already are playing sell-out gigs), Ellen DeGeneres and Glee, which featured “Glad You Came” in February.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the boy-band revival is that it’s taken so long to get here. In the modern pop age, girl power usually comes with five-star servings of testosterone. When Debbie Gibson and Tiffany were ruling the late ‘80s, their female fans were drooling over the five New Kids on the Block. When Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were pop’s queen bees, matching quintets Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were the heartthrob princes. And now, with Adele, Katy Perry and Rihanna still on top, The Wanted and One Direction have something their forerunners didn’t: cool accents. And the only thing better than one is five of them—times two!
Since there’s usually room on the US pop charts for only two or three major boy bands at a time, with the others relegated to one- or two-hit-wonder status, this might be as good as it gets for the British invasion of male pop stars singing in unison. But for the ladies in the house, a two-boy-band race is better than none. May the best men—er, boys—win.