Boy band blitz

- March 19, 2010

Craig Jennex checks out the selection at the local record store (Nick Pearce photo)

Quick: name the only album of the past 20 years to sell more than two million copies in a single week.

The answer: N’Sync’s No Strings Attached, released in 2000.

That the boy band craze could be simultaneously so massive and so divisive – splitting schoolyards between the pop kids and rock kids, not to mention between N’Sync and Backstreet Boys fans – speaks to its gigantic impact at the turn of the last century. Today though, with most of the groups relegated to the bargain bin of music history, it’s a trend that many would rather forget.

Craig Jennex doesn’t want us to.

That doesn’t mean the music and gender studies student wants us to all rush to Value Village to buy used O-Town and 98 Degrees CDs; he’s not exactly the biggest fan of boy bands himself. And admittedly, his honours research probably isn’t going to bring Backstreet back single-handedly. But he is making a case that these admittedly “fluffy” pop artists, by breaking down traditional constructs of masculinity, left a legacy that still resonates 10 years later.

“I think they really did some good for our society’s understanding of gender and sexuality, whether people like to accept it or not,” he says, connecting the boy band craze with the rise of the metrosexual movement in the past decade. “For example, it really wasn’t acceptable for guys to be seen dancing aside from hip hop, where it’s balanced out with other masculine crutches. Now you’ve got Zac Efron and High School Musical being held up as a new masculinity. I can’t help but feel that the boy bands were a part of that.”

Mr. Jennex argues groups like the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync achieved this by blurring lines of both gender and sexuality. On the one hand, they were working within a long tradition of black, masculine genre performances, enveloping influences in R&B, barbershop and hip hop. At the same time, they were performing dance routines and call-and-response vocal lines that not only recall feminine musical forms but also suggest an undercurrent of homoeroticism.

“There’s this one Backstreet Boys song, Anywhere for You, where Nick and Brian sing back-and-forth at each other in alternating lines, describing a relationship that could easily be understood as their own,” he says. “I was fascinated: if this was a male and female vocalist, it would be treated as the most romantic love song ever, but it’s two guys and because of that we don’t read it in that way.” When he defends his thesis later this month, he hopes to have a couple of friends perform the song to help prove the point. 

He’ll also be presenting his research at the 2010 Canadian conference for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music in June – a rare opportunity for an undergrad. And this fall he’ll be going to McMaster to start his MA in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory, researching how hate groups use music to promote their cause.

“I have to admit, it’s pretty awesome to get to tell people that I research things like boy bands,” he laughs. “It gets some funny looks, for sure.”

Pop goes the world

  • New Kids on the Block, brought together in Boston in 1984, have reunited and are touring again.
  • Hanson—brothers Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson—is best known for the 1997 hit song MMMBop. The Canadian version of the band was The Moffats, comprised of triplets Clint, Bob and Dave and elder brother Scott.
  • The Backstreet Boys—A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Brian Littrell, Nick Carter and Kevin Richardson—were brought together by Lou Pearlman in Orlando, Florida in 1993. They’ve been touring as a four-piece (minus Kevin Richardson) since 2007.
  • N’Sync was also formed in Orland, Florida by Lou Pearlman. N’Sync’s best known alum is Justin Timberlake.
  • 98 Degrees, with brothers Nick and Drew Lachey, Justin Jeffre and Jeff Timmons, was active from 1997 to 2002
  • Westlife is an Irish pop group created in 1998 and backed by Simon Cowell.
  • O-Town resulted out of the MTV reality series Making the Band in 2000.


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