Boys loved them then, sure. They made catchy music. They were on the radio. And many boys must have sung their songs and even bought their CDs, listening and singing along in secret. Some more daring and less caring boys undoubtedly were fans not-in-secret. But the “boy bands” of the late 1990s, the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync being the most popular, were marketed exclusively toward girls, and when you’re a child or young teen, there’s a lot of pressure to conform to proscribed gender roles. A lot of boys had to hide the fact that they too had “Bye Bye Bye” stuck in their head all through Social Studies class.
But if these bands were around today, Boys would be able to unabashedly make bad imitations of Justin Timberlake’s dance moves and sing along unashamedly to “Bye Bye Bye” and … because they wouldn’t be thought of as boy bands.
Like male Hannah Montanas
They would be thought of as aspirational branding opportunities. The aspirational brand – a product that many desire but few can afford, think Rolex watches – has been around for ages, and in the fashion and entertainment industries the term was familiar as a way to describe the unattainable beauty of fashion models. But in the mid 2000s, entertainment marketers, especially ones working for Disney began to use aspirational marketing to describe the multi-media children’s sensation “Hanna Montana.” Previous music groups marketed to “tweens” (a term also popularized by the Disney Hannah Montana marketers) had often been aware that their consumers wished to be like their favorite musical groups. Beginning with Hannah Montana, however, Disney began to aggressively market products designed to satiate fans’ needs to perform like their favorite singer/TV heroine.
Hannah Montana, the rockstar alterego of “regular teen” Miley Stewart, made it easy for girls to purchase products to make themselves feel like the star. They could keep their (pretend) lives as rockstars secret just as Miley kept hers a secret on TV. But show’s marketing success involves the creation of merchandise of all stripes – clothes, but also toys, school supplies and CDs – that aren’t merely branded with the Hannah Montana logo, but more-or-less subtly encourage girls to play as Hannah Montana, investing more and more into the brand.
Disney’s success with aspirational branding has provoked a lot of imitators. My brother suggests Glee as an example, which I’m not familiar enough with to comment upon. On a recent episode of the podcast Jordan, Jesse Go!, guest Chris Hardwick claims that “Californication is like Hannah Montana for middle aged men”. That is, it plays to the aspirations of middle aged men – fucking younger women. The marketing possibilities for aspirational entertainment are rich but elusive, but if Glee and Californication can do it, why not something for boys to emulate? The qualities we’d be looking for would be a “cool” factor, incorporating macho style and futuristic, wowing visuals.
Just like Michael Jackson
The image that the members of the bands projected was, at least at the time, hip and urban, and while Timberlake’s frosted tips look hopelessly goofy and juvenile to us now, the band would have looked incredibly macho and adult to boys at the time, had they been permitted to really look. Two of the Backstreet Boys sported manly facial hair, and all were fit and trim, showing off their muscles in their music videos.
Their dancing was also ripe for emulation by young boys. Timberlake’s dancing, in particular, was compared to Michael Jackson, and Jackson is a great comparison. MJ was a pop star that made the ladies swoon but was still cool and tough enough for dudes to like. His dancing was incredibly impressive, and was emulated by countless teens in the 1980s. But while Jackson’s dancing was elaborate, lightning-quick, and hard to pull off for the average dancer, the dance moves of the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, though clearly inspired by the King of Pop, were slow and simple enough to be easily replicated by youngsters. In addition, they incorporated hip hop elements that made them popular with boys at the time.
Just like Michael Jackson, the boy bands of the late 90s made elaborate and technology-heavy music videos that would also have appealed to boys. The music video for the Backstreet Boys’ “Larger than Life” was filled with tough robots and “Phantom Menace” era edgy space special effects. The music video for ‘N Sync’s “Digital Get Down” looked like the Matrix and referenced the high-tech video game culture that I and many other boys were engrossed in at the time of its release. The music video for the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” was a cross between Thriller and Scooby Doo. C’mon. What could be better than that?
As far as bands that are actually around today, it’s hard to see any comparison of what a boy-friendly boy band might look like. Male pop performers who appeal to youngsters – The Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber – are still predominantly marketed to girls. Maybe the thought that ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys might now be marketed to boys is wishful thinking, producers still being stuck in the decaying idea of the boy band, rotting on the shelf. But maybe they wouldn’t be able to pass up the next Michael Jackson.
I never really listened to the boy bands in question when I was a child – I was not interested in much music at all, really, and the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync were too serious for my tastes. When I did like a music group (the lighthearted attitude and bright, neo-glam design of the Spice Girls were appealing to me, as were their catchy songs I heard only in passing), I, an obedient nine-year-old boy desperate to be normal, ignored them. But maybe if they had been marketed to the more jock-ish boys in my class, I would have felt more comfortable in picking up a Backstreet Boys CD and listening to it – really listening to an album – a few years before I turned 13 and actually started listening to music.