It may have passed under your radar, but earlier this month, New Kids on the Block (or NKOTB as they sometimes prefer to be called) released their latest album: 10. Why is it called 10? I really don’t know. There are five members in the band, it’s only their seventh album, and they’ve certainly been around for much, much longer than a decade. Could it be because the album features ten songs? Gee, I hope not, as I’d like to give them more credit for originality than that. In any case, the Kids — can we still call them kids now that they’re all over 40? – are still trying to prove that they have “The Right Stuff.”
At their zenith in the late eighties and early nineties, New Kids were about the hottest thing in the pop music world, and a formidable money-making machine. Not only did they sell tens of millions of albums worldwide, they licensed just about anything you could imagine, from earrings to bed sheets. At one point, they were the highest paid entertainers in the world. Beyond all that, they are often credited with creating the boy band phenomenon.
OK, wait right there! I’m going to take issue with that last statement myself, at least for the most part. It’s true that New Kids’ success did pave the way for other similar groups in the nineties and beyond, but they were hardly the first. They can, however, be acknowledged as the one who most solidified the blueprint. A quick definition of a boy band would need to include the following traits: they generally have four or five members, sing close harmony pop tunes, are squeakily clean cut, incorporate synchronized dance moves in their live performances, and target the young, female demographic.
In the New Kids’ wake, we’ve had more boy bands surface than at any time in the rock era. Other nineties phenoms such as Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys, ‘N SYNC, 98 Degrees and Hanson all owe a debt of gratitude to the Kids, as do dozens of others who got a moment in the spotlight before being pushed aside by other contenders. In the new millennium, such boy bands as Westlife, O-Town, and The Jonas Brothers took up the mantle, though the trend seemed to be winding down. With the ascent of The Wanted, Big Time Rush, and One Direction, however, boy bands appear to be alive and well once again.
If New Kids weren’t the first, then who were? It may be impossible to know, but it was most likely a fifties-era doo-wop group, such as Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers. In the decades since, countless other groups would aptly fit the general definition. I’m now going to list half-a-dozen major acts that most helped to develop that definition, even if some aren’t necessarily thought of in those terms.
1) Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, most famous for the fifties’ classic “Why do Fools Fall in Love,” wouldn’t have been too out of place if they had been miraculously transported forty or fifty years into the future to the heyday of the boy bands. In updated duds (although Boyz II Men often rocked suits back in the day) and modern arrangements, they’d have been right at home on Total Request Live.
2) The Beach Boys had the well-groomed looks of modern-day boy bands and most of their early repertoire consisted of songs about love (like “Don’t Worry Baby”), good times (“Surfin’ U.S.A.”) or not-altogether believable attempts at posturing (“I Get Around”), which are all staples of the boy band repertoire. Incidentally, they covered “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” early in their career.
3) Although The Beatles caused a commotion with their “long” hair in 1964, their manager, Brian Epstein, made them presentable, even loveable, to all ages. Their multi-part harmonies and simple love songs made America embrace them to the point of coining the term “Beatlemania.” It wasn’t long, of course, before they threw off the pretense of innocence and really ruffled a few feathers.
4) The Jackson 5 seemed born to become pop superstars. The way that their father-manager-coach, Joe Jackson, pushed his children to excel in music, perhaps they were. Ultra-talented (and youngest brother) Michael was only eleven in January, 1970 when “I Want You Back” hit number one, the first of many to come.
5) To some, The Osmonds were just a white rip-off of The Jackson 5, but, in truth, they were entertainment veterans long before the Jackson clan cut their first record; The Osmond Brothers were regulars on Andy Williams’ network TV show from 1962-69 as a barbershop group. Like their so-called rivals, The Osmonds’ career lasted long after their initial boy band-type pop success of the early seventies.
6) If ever there was a blueprint for the nineties boy band phenomenon, it was New Edition. The group, whose fame peaked in the mid- to late-eighties, was in every sense a modern boy band. In fact, writer-producer Maurice Starr created New Kids on the Block after legal issues created a falling out between him and New Edition. Ronnie DeVoe, Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ralph Tresvant (also, Brown’s replacement, Johnny Gill) were each very capable performers, who either solo, or in combination, had significant chart success post-New Edition.
Boy bands have been with us for decades, though they may not have been labeled as such. Enjoy the crush-inducing, safe-sounding melodic pop of boy bands – past or present – by checking out music at the Des Moines Public Library, where CDs circulate for three weeks without charge.