Pitchfork Book Club highlights today’s best new music books.
The 19th-century composer Franz Lizst had sculpted cheekbones, stern eyebrows, and a grand forehead framed by a severe widow’s peak. He was, as one would say, a major hottie. Zealous fans brawled over his handkerchiefs and fashioned his broken piano strings into accessories; they clamored so often for locks of his shoulder-length hair that he began snipping his dog’s fur and sending it to them. Back then Liszt was “essentially Justin Bieber,” as music journalist and Jezebel senior writer Maria Sherman summarizes in her book Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS. She contends that Lisztomania, “one of the first modern, Western examples of pathologizing women’s ‘hysteria’ in relation to a musical artist,”could be the genesis of boy-band infatuation, of girls being spellbound by cute musicians only to be dismissed as dizzy, bra-flinging harpies.
In 2020, no cynic can ignore the power of boy bands or the savvy of their fans. Last month, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, K-Pop stans inundated a Dallas Police Department app with fancams and commandeered white supremacist hashtags on Twitter; they also helped foil Trump’s big Tulsa rally by swarming the ticket system. Which makes a book clarifying the mechanics, intrigue, and cultural dynamics of boy bands particularly timely. Larger Than Life champions the enduring legacy of these male vocal groups, from winsome 1930s barber shop quartets to fetching Disney Channel celebrities. It looks like an oversized edition of a teen gossip magazine, embellished with patterned yellow borders, pink and blue headings, and bubbly illustrations inspired by Tiger Beat. Throughout, Sherman’s chatty, colloquial writing is winkingly uncool, brimming with slang like “mic drop,” “zooted on ganja,” and “total moist beefcakes.” It gestures loudly as if to say, “How do you do, fellow kids?”
At the same time, Larger Than Life lightheartedly invokes Communist Manifesto authors Marx and Engels, is blurbed by veteran music critics like Ann Powers, and ends with a recommended reading list winnowed from a 50-page bibliography. It’s flip and entertaining, sure, but also well aware of its position within an academic history. Sherman begins with the basics: Her working definition of a “boy band” is a group of “attractive young men who dress similarly, dance without embarrassment, and sing well with one another.” Each band member can be shuffled into a designated trope—the heartthrob, the bad boy, the shy one—and is beholden to iron-clad commandments such as “honor thy love ballads” and “thou shalt not grow a beard.” Usually, a conniving businessman stalks behind the scenes. Lou Pearlman, disgraced manager to the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, swindled millions from the bands and was imprisoned for running one of the longest-running Ponzi schemes in history. After splitting with the R&B sextet New Edition, Maurice Starr assembled New Kids on the Block as the foundational Black act’s white copy. Appropriation “rears its ugly head in boy bands throughout the decades,” as Sherman notes at the book’s outset.
For superfans, there are fun pop-out features like “Style Watch,” which revisits such sartorial highlights as Justin and Britney’s 2001 denim-on-denim extravaganza, or “Tech Toch,” which explores how media and technology shifts, like the introduction of MTV’s TRL, have shaped fan engagement. Larger Than Life’s target audience really seems to be adult nostalgists—those who, as adolescents, probably sported tiny HitClips on their backpacks and wrote their fan mail by hand. (Less space is dedicated to how, say, a contemporary fan base like BTS ARMY mobilizes on Twitter.) If Tumblr was a little past your heyday, the short list of “absolutely crucial boy band lingo” clarifies what “ship” and “stan” means. Each chapter dives into the history of a prominent boy band, but Sherman also breezes through dozens upon dozens of lesser known ones in paragraph-length capsule summaries—Hanson, Westlife, even the Jack in the Box-created “Meaty Cheesy Boys”—indulging readers in a lively game of “Were They a One-Hit Wonder?” There are too many of them in rapid succession to derive meaningful insight, but there’s also a thrill in seeing your cherished, lesser-known boy band make the cut. (For me, it was Nickelodeon’s Big Time Rush.)
Larger Than Life’s real strength is its recognition that boy bands, like many cultural entities, exist at the intersection of multiple overlapping and conflicting forces. Sherman moves through a myriad of lenses: gender, race, labor, globalization. “Boy bands should unionize,” she jokes while discussing exploitative label/manager-artist agreements, a recurring theme. She credits Motown Records’ Berry Gordy for pioneering the streamlined, factory-style system upon which the boy-band industry was built, and explains how Boston’s Racial Imbalance Act—which mandated desegregation through busing—exposed the rapping, breakdancing white boys in New Kids on the Block to Black music. She also details how the squeaky-clean images of Disney Channel stars, like the purity ring-wearing Jonas Brothers, were shaped by a conservative, abstinence-only agenda. But sometimes the intensity of Sherman’s assertions—which match fans’ playfully hyperbolic diction—can obscure more the subtle dynamics that she’s teasing out.
Early on, she highlights how boy bands embody a softer, more innocent masculinity than fans are typically exposed to, enabling them to safely experiment with identity and desire, to swivel between romantic types. Boy bands are objectified, subject to the female gaze. Thus, it “goes without question” that they “subvert harmful, traditional images” of what a man should be. “They dare not to uphold straight cis men’s interest, but to celebrate marginalized people’s humanity,” Sherman lauds. But on a very literal level, boy bands do promote straight cis men’s interests; the primary beneficiaries of One Direction’s meticulous branding are jerks like Simon Cowell. In a later excerpt about queer boy band members, *NSYNC’s Lance Bass is quoted saying, “Screw the fact that you are going to come out as being gay. It ruins their whole business plan.”
It’s less the fearlessness of straight-presenting boy bands that should be championed than keen interpretations of their fans—the lesbians who see their own aesthetics reflected in Harry Styles, the drag kings who expose gender nonsense through campy parodies, the Tumblr users who dream up gay fan fiction. The rap collective BROCKHAMPTON’s decision to self-label as a “boy band” probes us to interrogate our outdated assumptions. Do mixed gender audiences, as opposed to primarily female ones, really preclude an act from being a “boy band”? Do members have to be white, thin, straight, cis, pop-singing, or even boys? Sherman does raise these questions, highlighting BROCKHAMPTON and groups like the all-trans No Daughter of Mine. But she could further excavate these dynamics, clarifying what it means for a boy band of trans boys to further “expressions of boy band masculinity, bringing it into unchartered territory” instead of stopping at the claim. At the end of the day, the “marginalized people” at the heart of Larger Than Life still largely seem to be straight women; even then, it’s up for debate whether a message like “you don’t know you’re beautiful” constitutes a true feminist win.
Boy bands are constructions: Their terms evolve based on the social and political conditions they inhabit. The best section in Larger Than Life, on BTS and the K-Pop explosion, fully grounds its analysis in these contexts, clarifying how pop expression in South Korea evolved as the country transitioned from military dictatorship to a more democratic regime. The book is worth reading for this section alone. Here, we learn about Seo Taiji and Boys, whose 1992 performance of the rap song “Nan Arayo” on a televised music competition show helped spawn the formidable K-Pop industry. We seehow K-Pop, while borrowing from Western genres like EDM, R&B, and hip-hop, still retains its own signatures—eight to 10 melodies versus five, more emphasis on the harmonies—and has developed into a formidable tool for cultural diplomacy. For obvious reasons, the K-Pop chapter is where Sherman’s book feels most directly relevant to how boy bands are now, not yesterday. It also strikes the best balance between cheerleading and objective evaluation. Boy bands are not just larger than life—they’re also a part of it.
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