At first, the New Kids on the Block show, circa-2015, seemed insignificant enough. It was all bombastic nostalgia, the onetime '90s boy-banders dressed in silver-and-black outfits that made them look like boxers from the future (or something), dancing on risers surrounded by relentless pyrotechnics. Soon, however, I got the first hint that this experience at Madison Square Garden would be different from the last time I saw NKOTB, which was the summer of 1990, when their third album, Step by Step, dropped.
Whereas the New Kids of the '80s and early '90s could send their prepubescent audiences straight into puberty with one pelvic-thrust dance move, this audience of 40-ish women had been around the block a few times since. The New Kids—now men in their 40s—knew that. They had a changing-room camera feeding live footage to the Jumbotrons as they slipped out of their robot-boxer gear and into some smooth tuxes. There was an impractically long stretch of shirtlessness and mugging for the camera in between the two outfits. The screams were deafening.
They proceeded to act out every possible conventionally held female fantasy of male sexuality throughout the rest of the night: They crooned love songs in those tuxes. They brought New Kid Joey McIntyre’s young son onstage to perform, and McIntyre gave a cute little speech about how much he loved his wife. (Awwww.) Then Jordan Knight and McIntyre each did solo sets that doubled as soft-core strip routines, complete with ample shirtlessness and floor-humping. I had just seen Magic Mike XXL weeks before, and the parallels were stunning.
What’s even more remarkable is how consistent this “boy band” formula has remained since New Kids’ heyday. For 25 years now, women young and old(er) have been screaming over beefcakes crooning disposable love songs to them. And there is one major reason, and a strangely feminist reason at that: Boy bands (and man bands) fill a void that society has so far refused to fill for women. They allow straight women, at least, to not just express their sexuality, but to commune and revel together in it, to shout it to the world … to scream it.
Every iteration of the phenomenon known as the boy band, since New Kids on the Block essentially pioneered the concept in its purest, modern form, has gotten slicker and more sophisticated in its pursuit of mass female ardor. Compare photos and video of One Direction—the boy band’s newest, slickest iteration—with photos and video of New Kids on the Block at the same stage in their career—that is, the ‘90s—and the difference goes beyond styles of the day. New Kids on the Block looked like dudes who could live down the street from any of us; only two of them sang remarkably well. Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync improved a little on the formula in the late '90s and early 2000s, but they still included several regular-type guys. 1-D looks like a collection of supermodels, and every one of them can sing like an angel. They’ve been styled perfectly since they emerged on the British talent show The X-Factor.
And yet the idea of the boy band, and the effect of the boy band, and the need for the boy band, remains unchanged since the New Kids sang their first “oh oh oh oh oh.” Scoff all you like at the disposable music these boys churn out. Dismiss them as manufactured guilty pleasures. But the reason we continue to need boy bands is simple: They are one of the few safe outlets (the other is called Twilight) for young women to express their budding sexuality. Explore real-life sex or even just experiment a little with the sexual power of tight pants or a miniskirt, and a teen girl risks slut-shaming. If she goes to a 1-D concert and screams her lungs out, then fantasizes later that night about Liam sneaking into her bedroom—well, girls will be girls.
A recent development in boy-band fandom even makes this literal, and literary: Anna Todd’s One Direction fan fiction, first published online on Wattpad and now distributed in print by Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint as the After series, has become the millennial version of 50 Shades of Grey. The latest installment, Before—out this month—directly mimics 50 Shades by narrating the perspective of the heroine’s difficult love interest, Hardin Scott—who happens to look exactly like Harry Styles. In short, this erotica series targets college-age girls with sexy, masturbation-worthy stories about a fantasy, college-student version of One Direction’s most famous heartthrob, a tattooed bad boy who accompanies a virginal good girl, Tessa, on her journey of sexual awakening. If this isn’t an allegory for boy-band fandom, I don’t know what is. It has also become an international bestseller and is being adapted into a movie.
Of course, all of this, as “art”—the songs, the books—can be seen as silly, trifling, the guiltiest of pleasures. On its face, it is. These are songs written solely to bring pleasure, not say something important or advance the form. These are books written to evoke fantasy, nothing more.
But some of the side effects of boy bands—including the After books—serve pretty feminist purposes, at least for the straight girls they target. (Of course boy bands have gay fans, too, but they’re dealing with a different set of issues. Boy bands’ audiences, and their lineups, are also predominantly White, with few exceptions from decades past like New Edition and Boys II Men. One Direction’s one non-white member, Zayn Malik—who is half-Pakistani and Muslim—quit the group in March.) Since the time of the Beatles, these groups of cute performing young men have given young women a rare chance to act on sexual desires publicly. Concerts give the fans a physical outlet for their simmering feelings—that is, a place to gather in large groups and scream their lungs out. Between concerts, girls can moon over photos of the group and pore over details of the guys’ favorite colors and foods as disclosed in fan magazines.
The time-honored ritual of choosing one’s favorite member allows a girl to start forming ideas of her own about what she wants (and doesn’t want) in a mate, what qualities turn her on. She can discuss her preferences with her friends without the social and emotional risks that might come with “trying” various boys in real life. She can even develop elaborate fantasies about her chosen one, using his image for her own purposes from masturbation to, yes, fan fiction. As a teenager, I wrote novels about a girl just like me falling in love with Jordan Knight from New Kids, and later with George Michael. I did not know what I was doing was fan fiction. I definitely did not know it could be profitable. (Oh, if only I had kept those files from my old Gateway computer!) But these activities allowed me two fundamental growth moments: exploring what I wanted in a man and practicing my future vocation, writing.
Young women have been freaking out over boy bands in all manner of ways, public and private, since the Beatles in the 1960s. The Fab Five’s reverberations through pop culture were countless, but one of the most notable strands of their effect was the advent of the group of cute, young boys who could make girls scream. We’ve rarely been without a reigning boy band since: The Monkees, the Bay City Rollers, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, and now One Direction. The lyrics never stop appealing to the most insecure of teen girls: “You don’t know you’re beautiful,” One Direction sang in their first hit. “That’s what makes you beautiful.” It’s hard to think of a more attractive idea to sell.
Of course, boy bands are hardly paragons of progressivism. They are the very definition of heteronormative. (In fact, two gay former boy-banders—‘N Sync’s Lance Bass and New Kids’ Jon Knight—have discussed the pressure to stay closeted during their groups’ heydays.) They only reinforce gender binaries and female stereotypes surrounding love and romance. They are oddly resistant to racial diversity. (Million-dollar idea: Multicultural boy group. How has this not happened yet?)
Much of their lyrics have historically tended to nearly meaningless combinations of “baby,” “girl,” “love,” “you,” and “forever.” (And just try parsing actual meaning out of the circular lyrics of the world’s greatest boy band song, the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.”) But, particularly through their videos as well as their lyrical harping on “beauty,” they subtly reinforce standards of attractiveness, an idea Amy Schumer parodied perfectly with her “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup” sketch. Next-level insight: Why can’t I be beautiful and know I’m beautiful? Why can’t I just not be beautiful?
In a perfect world, boy bands wouldn’t be such a big deal. They would just be groups of young men who happened to organically coalesce to make music together, and young women would be free to explore their sexuality any way they wanted. But for now, girl, we’ve got our boy bands. And you don’t need makeup to look beautiful listening to these slow jams … forever. Cue the screams.