BY MARK GUARINO Music Writer Chicago Sun-Times
July 11, 2013 2:50PM
Once upon a not-so-distant past, boy bands followed the natural order of life: birth, life, death — with the last factor often defined in this scenario as rehab, reality television, or both.
Not anymore. As evidenced by this summer’s tour schedule, the boy band phenomenon continues to be the concert industry’s most reliable draw — and one no longer designed exclusively for tween girls or even younger. Middle-aged women are bankrolling the renewed interest in boy bands that thrived decades ago on commercial radio. The result is a market that keeps bands on the road playing major venues with the same fever pitch as their glory years.
For Melanie Threatt, 41, of Chicago, it’s all about the music. She’s a fan of New Kids on the Block — now branded as NKOTB — and thinks the band’s latest single was impressive. “I know they’re sold as a good-looking group of guys who dance, but really, the appeal are the songs,” she says. “I like catchy pop songs.”
This month alone, boy bands of different generations are making tour stops within three weeks of each other: One Direction (Saturday and Sunday at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre), NKOTB with 98 Degrees and Boyz II Men (July 18-19 at Allstate Arena), OneRepublic (July 23 at Ravinia) and the Backstreet Boys (Aug. 2 at the FirstMerit Band Pavilion). Plus, the Jonas Brothers came through earlier this week.
That’s a lot of choreographed man candy. The teen idol phenomenon dates back to the bobby-soxers who flocked to Frank Sinatra, providing young people cultural ownership of something they felt was truly their own, and not handed to them from their parents. The post-war generation embraced emerging stars like Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Ricky Nelson, Bobby Rydell and others. These artists offered sanitized covers of R&B songs not heard on the radio from the original artists who performed them on the other side of the color line. Later, with celebrity culture becoming more entrenched in the media, and merchandising more sophisticated, teen idols became more of a niche exclusively marketed to young people, particularly girls. Apart from whatever value their music held, male singers ranging from Davy Jones to Justin Bieber have been primarily cherished as platforms for adolescent fantasies.
Like their forerunners from the 1950s, blue-eyed soul acts like ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and — cresting the pop world today — One Direction, once again borrow heavily from the choreography and vocal harmony singing of R&B groups like the Jackson 5, Kool and the Gang, and even earlier groups like the Dells.
But until One Direction, no boy band has been marketed with the exacting precision of digital media.
A quintet assembled in 2010 by producer Simon Cowell of “American Idol”/“X Factor” fame, One Direction has linked its success to a massive social-media marketing campaign. Launched in 2011 over 50 days, the interactive campaign was designed to interact with users through “challenges” that offered followers exclusive rewards. Website traffic focused on “1DCyberpunk,” a virtual character that playfully challenged fans about their allegiance to the group. The undercurrent of the campaign, which included user-generated videos, informal chats, virtual listening parties, was to make users feel like they had an informal relationship with One Direction long before the band performed globally. Not only was the band required to dedicate up to five hours a week on social media, a staff worked around-the-clock shifts to engage audiences.
Richard Coggin, creative director at London agency AIS, told Ad Age last year that Cowell’s record label “had a lot of great content — videos, merchandise, singles, albums, lyrics, running orders, signed photos, radio and TV appearances — and our brief was to glue it all together and engage the fans on a daily basis.”
The timing was also right: More than a decade had passed since the heyday of Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, creating the perfect opportunity for a new batch of clean-cut young men to transfix young audiences on a global scale.
“Everything kicked into high gear when One Direction came to America [in 2012] and got the ball rolling,” says Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts/retail at Billboard magazine in Los Angeles. “People were reminded of the power of that brand of pop music and pop sensibility.”
One Direction is already a concert industry powerhouse. It’s so popular that it sold out its concerts this weekend a year in advance. According to Forbes in late June, the group tops the list of the most expensive summer concert tickets, besting even the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. The average ticket price for the group’s “Take Me Home” tour: $674. Most shows are sold out.
Which suggests that adults also represent a target audience for the group. Indeed, unlike other contemporary pop acts like the Black-Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga, One Direction provides a more wholesome alternative. The group is also reaching out on its current tour to parents by performing covers they might recognize — “One Way or Another” by Blondie and “Teenage Kicks” by U.K. punk group the Undertones.
“The allure is that they are clean-cut, so parents will say, ‘Let’s go see this show’,” say David Fiorenza, an economics professor at Villanova University, who is also a consultant to Diverse, a boy band from New Jersey. “They don’t just drop kids off anymore. Parents will go in with them and pay admission. It’s a win-win situation: a built-in audience of older people and also their children.”
One Direction may dominate this summer’s boy-band circuit, but its many predecessors on the road are doing just fine. The Jonas Brothers, a family pop-rock band in the mold of Hanson, are at “a crossroads in their career,” according to Caulfield, because the band just formed its own independent label and will release a forthcoming fifth album designed for the adult market.
Similarly, the Backstreet Boys also went independent, releasing a hit single earlier this year and new album later this month on the band’s own label. The band also made a key appearance in the Seth Rogen comedy, “This Is the End.” NKOTB also released a hit song earlier this year; a new album, its first in five years, appeared in April, also on an independent label.
As much as pop music evolves, the currency that boy bands represent — vocal harmonies, pop hooks, lyrics steeped in yearning romance — remains indelible, especially as their original fans grow older and remain committed to music that continues to speak to them.
Taneisha Jordan, a 28-year-old advertising copywriter from Oak Park, says she’s still waiting for a reunion of ’N Sync, despite the skyrocketing solo career of former member Justin Timberlake. Boy bands still earn a place on her weekly iPod rotation because because the music still holds up. “I probably like it more now because that generation of music gives me a better start to my day. I get a little happier,” she says. “It’s one of those goofy things that the older you get, the more you hold on to it.”