Why We Need a New Boy Band

In June, Simon Cowell announced he would be holding open call auditions to find the next big boy band. In an attempt to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon that Cowell once did when he formed One Direction in 2010, the industry veteran encourages any boys ages 16 to 18 to show up and try out.

“Every generation deserves a megastar boy band and I don’t think there has been one to have the success of One Direction in over 14 years,” he says. “It usually takes someone from outside to put a group together.”

It’s true — the best boy bands don’t just appear out of thin air. Throughout pop history, the most zeitgeist-defining boy groups have been meticulously formed and trained like they’re being put through basic combat to serve teen girls (and boys and nonbinary people, of course) all across the country. But with the TikTok-ification of the music industry in the past few years, it seems that pop boot camp ideal has been traded for overnight viral sensations.

A boy band is an ephemeral thing. When that really special one pops up once every decade or so, everyone pretty much knows that they won’t last long. The boy band formula is almost designed so that there’s that initial honeymoon phase, a couple years of chart dominance and then one of the members will shine too bright and break out as a solo artist, leading to the group’s demise. But that’s what makes it so magical in the moment — the subconscious knowledge that it soon will end. It’s all about giving into the fantasy and savoring the boy band while it lasts.

Over here at PAPER, we’re all about submitting to delusional pop culture fantasies. Maybe relatability is over, and it’s time for some mass market pop consumerism again. Below, we’ve put together an anthology of our favorite boy band moments in history.

No. 5: Menudo’s Many Morphs

Menudo were like gay Puerto Rican Power Rangers. I mean, they weren’t even gay, but look at the costumes in this performance of “Cannonball” at a telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in 1984. The group was arguably one of the most popular acts in Latin America at the turn of the century and became known for shifting the idea of what a boy band could even be. Formed in the ’70s by music producer Edgardo Diaz, the five-piece group is an ever-evolving entity with new members rotating in and out throughout the decades. Menudo has gone through more iterations than you can count on one hand (a 13-year-old Ricky Martin even got his start with them in the ’80s), and they even relaunched just last year with a Gen Alpha version that hasn’t quite stuck, at least in the US. But that’s Latin American history right there.

No. 4: Backstreet Boys Pave The Way

Maybe it’s controversial that the Backstreet Boys aren’t higher up on this list, but I was always like, Why would I listen to Backstreet Boys when there’s *NSYNC? I do have to give credit where credit’s due, though. BSB came first and were under the same management and label as *NSYNC, sort of acting as their more experienced older brothers. They truly paved the way for the Max Martin-led bubblegum pop that would come to dominate the turn of the century, and that $2.1 million “Larger Than Life” music video is really something. The harmonies and hooks were there, but the natural charisma and raw chemistry wasn’t. Maybe my brain was too Disney Channel-pilled, but even as a kid, I remember feeling like the Backstreet Boys were for older people. The one with the mustache was always a little creepy to me. But respect. And shoutout to Charli XCX’s cover of “I Want It That Way.”

No. 3: The British Are Coming

I can’t just talk about One Direction. I could also talk about The Wanted and the entire early Obama-era context that made the US’s British pop invasion possible. 1D was surely the era’s most glistening stars, though, seemingly AI-generated twinks plucked from obscurity on The X-Factor and shipped off to Western shores to make teen girls quiver. For these five lads, it was less about the mass market and hyper-produced choreography and more about crafting relatable narratives surrounding each member that girls from Minnesota to Mumbai could feel through their computer screens and diligently write fan fics about. One Direction was for the Tumblr Girl generation and truly gave the world hope for the future of boy bands. There was also that one time Zayn did drag in the “Best Song Ever” music video. He was real for that.

No 2: The Jackson 5 Create The Blueprint

It’s safe to say that The Jackson 5 was the effervescent engine behind the modern-day entertainment industry and birthed (quite literally, in the form of Michael Jackson) what the Pop Star with a capital P even is. Joe Jackson also set the stage for the inevitable toxicity and unethical working conditions that unfortunately get tied to a lot of young boy bands working their way up the industry. Still, we’ll choose to look at the positives: The Jacksons were the American Dream. Coming up around the same time as The Beatles, the Jackson brothers were more homegrown and down to clown with full choreo and cheesy, in-your-face poptimism. They taught you how to spell. Literally the fundamentals of family and evergreen euphoria, as fresh as it comes. There will never be another one like it.

No. 1: *NSYNC Takes Us To The Moon

*NSYNC burst the boy band bubble. They really took it there. The discography is unmatched, and the whole package is undeniable from top to bottom. I could point to their performance of “Tearin’ Up My Heart” (one of the best pop songs of all time) at the 1999 MTV Spring Break with a simultaneous beach runway show. Or when they flew through the air like actual angels in the arena during “Sailing.” Maybe I could talk about the perfection that was the concept album No Strings Attached, where every music video carried the throughline symbol of the boys being puppets on a string, a nod to freedom after parting ways with their long-time management and label RCA. But I really wanna point to the music itself, the original ‘Hyperpop’ and a treasure chest of tracks that could, and did, go toe-to-toe with Britney Spears at the time. The songs aged really well and still sound fresh. Until Adele dropped 25 in 2015, *NSYNC held the record for the highest one-week album sales in the country, and it felt deserved. They were doing flips on stage, literal acrobatics, and making sure that they infiltrated every part of your eyes, ears and brain. It was a golden era. I remember running straight to Toys “R” Us and buying the Hit Clip with “Bye Bye Bye” on it. Having these pop gods as a physical cube in my hands was true bliss, and I wonder if we’ll ever have anything like *NSYNC in pop culture again. To be honest, I don’t know if these eBoys have it in them, but who knows? The Poptimist in me is hopeful.

Photography: Getty

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