The Social Implications of Dismissing “Boy Bands”

Heidi Samuelson

In the opening to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, season 5, episode 17, Jake Peralta asks a criminal line up to sing lines of the Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way” in order for the victim to identify them. It ends in all five of them, along with Jake, singing the chorus.

In a commercial for State Farm insurance, Oscar Nuñez plays an insurance agent who picks up Chris Paul, along with fellow NBA players James Harden and Trevor Ariza, and they end up singing “I Want It That Way” in the car. (Though Oscar’s character does offer to change the station.)

In these cases, I can’t tell if people are making fun of the Backstreet Boys. I can’t tell if people like “I Want It That Way” twenty years later ironically or nostalgically. The reason why I can’t is because there is a lot of stigma and judgment that comes along with two rather innocuous words: “boy band.”

There’s no set agreement on what counts as a boy band. Billboard just released a list of the “Greatest 100 Boy Band Songs of All Time” and the songs included span eras and musical genres. Sometimes people retroactively put the label on groups like the Monkees, the Beatles, and the Jackson 5. Some people trace boy bands back to barbershop quartets and doo-wop groups in the 1940s and ’50s. But the lines aren’t clear. Are the Temptations a boy band? What about every pop punk band in the 2000s? The Ramones?

The term “boy band” didn’t actually get used until the late 1980s. This is not a coincidence, but more on that later.

Today, the phrase “boy band” is pejoratively associated with a lack of musical integrity. Many boy bands don’t write their own songs and don’t play instruments, so (with the help of Auto-Tune) they are essentially performers more so than musicians and rely on their good looks more than their music, i.e., they aren’t really a “band.” But sometimes the terms extends to groups comprising young members who do write their music, play instruments, and happen to have a large following of young women — like the Bay City Rollers, or, more recently, 5SOS and The 1975.

Some of this criticism extends to all pop music. Some people think it is very important that a singer or group write all their own songs, which can partly be countered with the existence of cover songs. It’s hard to say that Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” doesn’t count as good music because he didn’t write it. Though I suppose you could argue that he earned the right to make that cover.

Pop music is also frequently chided for its kitschiness or lack of integrity or meaning, which is fair. Let’s be honest, a lot of pop songs are about a particular type of romantic love, sex, or having a good time. But that’s true of music across all genres. Music doesn’t have to be introspective or deep to be good or enjoyable. 95% of Led Zeppelin’s discography is probably about blow jobs and the other 5% is about Lord of the Rings, and I say that as someone who unapologetically loves Led Zeppelin. But we seem to judge pop music more for this.

As K-pop becomes increasingly popular in the West, the phrase “boy band” is being extended to idol groups as well. With their growing popularity, Western journalists refer to BTS as a “boy band,” and they often do so in a pejorative way.

BTS at the 2017 AMAs. Source: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images Entertainment

This is interesting in the particular case of BTS, because they write, perform, and produce their songs, which often aren’t bubble gummy at all (seriously, listen to J-Hope’s mixtape), and one of their members — Min Yoongi — was even recently added as a regular member of the Korean Copyright Association because his songwriting credits and royalties are that numerous.

While pop music is sometimes considered a genre, it’s pretty clear that “boy band” is not. So what is a boy band?

IT’S ALL IN THE MARKETING

One clue is found in the fact that people stop calling the Beatles a boy band after they started writing songs that were more musically complex, stopped touring in arenas full of screaming young women, and started being “cool” for men to listen to. But this is all a bit arbitrary, isn’t it? I’m sorry adult men who use liking the Beatles as some barometer of coolness, but it was the same four “boys” who recorded “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that recorded “Revolution 9.”

My point is that the label “boy band” isn’t a musical designation; rather, it’s a marketing term applying specifically to music that targets the teen girl demographic. Beatlemania was lead by teenage girls. New Kids on the Block, All-4-One, and Immature were on the covers of the Teen Beat magazines I bought in fifth grade. It was young women who went to the TRL studio in NYC to see the Backstreet Boys and N*Sync in the early 2000s.

Outside the TRL studio c. 2000. Source: Todd Plitt/Getty Images

It’s not a coincidence that the term “boy band” was invented in the 1980s, because that was the economic era when targeted marketing known as “hypersegmentation” exploded, as technological advances enabled companies to communicate with and target smaller demographics. In this marketing era, magazines, TV shows, and record labels were able to push trends onto teenagers — a critical demographic ever since the post-WWII economic boom when more teenagers started having disposable income. And “boy bands” were one of these marketing strategies.

Of course, gendered marketing goes back even further — even in the 1920s, Sears’ toys were advertised to particular genders. One could claim that this ultimately helps consumers navigate markets oversaturated with similar products, but it pretty clearly exists so consumers don’t reuse or share products between boys and girls so more purchases must be made. It also helps rigidify gender norms — erector sets for industrious boys, pink kitchen sets for homemaking girls. And it works. A lot of things we now associate with men and boys were actually invented by women — including computer software, the circular saw, and wing chun (yes, the Kung Fu style of Bruce Lee).

Why can’t boys also learn how to be gorgeous? Source: Pinterest

Targeted marketing exists because industries want to predict your spending habits so they can corner you as a consumer. It continues to evolve. Today the techniques for doing so even occur through psychological profiles built based on your electronic footprint (it’s weird to me that people get mad at the privacy part of all this and not the everyone-wants-to-fleece-you-out-of-money part — oh America, your priorities are crooked). But the gendered, aged aspects of marketing still persist.

It’s a common social phenomenon that things women like, thus the things that are marketed toward women, are considered frivolous and less socially important, because women are associated with passivity, deference, and irrational hysteria. Don’t believe me? This happens even in job sectors — when women take over a once male-dominated field, the pay drops.

And anything marketed to teenage girls specifically is coded as silly or bad by everyone else. Teenage girls are still used as the punchline of jokes, especially when they are portrayed as vapid, boy crazy, and shallow. Though of course there are other teen girl stereotypes in media, teenage boys are almost always taken seriously, except for the “dumb jock” (but he still wins football games, and is thus socially valuable).

That’s why we take it as a joke when grown men sing the Backstreet Boys. We can’t imagine men wanting to go to a concert to watch other men sing and dance because it is not within the bounds of heteronormative standards that most straight men are comfortable with. It’s often gay men (and straight men who are secure with themselves) that we allow to sing Backstreet Boys — even though it’s still a joke.

So what about the groups I suggested at the beginning? What about the Temptations, the Ramones, and Blink 182? Are they boy bands? No, probably not, because adults and boys listen to them, too.

Music is put into a marketing category because record companies and merchandisers want to make as much as possible off of targeting, and so producers and record labels of “boy bands” have decided to go for the teen girl demographic. They also make merchandise like jewelry, stationery, and accessories designed for girls. If you ever go to Graceland, pay close attention to the merchandise section of the exhibit — Elvis was clearly being marketed to teenage girls, too.

And so when you scoff at a boy band, you’re doing exactly what the capitalists want you to do. In consumer capitalism, consumers are manipulated and exploited just as much as workers. Maybe it’s good that teenage girls have spaces just for them — even though they are mocked for it. But it still makes you wonder, as targeted marketing adapts to being more trend-driven and less demographic-driven, and as it’s clear that adult women (and maybe some men) also listen to boy bands, why we cling readily to the idea that boy bands are for teenage girls.

THE STIGMA OF TASTE

Judging people’s musical taste is always insulting, because music can be a both fun, innocuous thing you enjoy, and at times a very emotional thing. Maybe you only listen to music to get you through your workout or when you’re stuck in traffic because you’re bored. Sometimes that’s how I listen to music. If Rancid gets me through the last mile of a jog, then I’m going to listen to Rancid.

But music is also the only thing keeping me alive some days. You telling me that Wilco sucks isn’t gaining you anything, because (1) I really only have a vested interest in my own musical taste, not yours, and (2) Wilco is the reason why I’m alive today, so I don’t really care what you think.

Teasing me for listening to Justin Bieber is the surest way for you to tell me that you are insecure about yourself in some way. We live in a world where people construct their taste in popular culture (or their opposition to popular culture) as some kind of litmus test that other people are going to judge them for — because, well, other people do judge them for it. In addition to “coolness,” taste is often used a measure of elitism.

If you think I should be ashamed for liking something that a marketing executive decided to market to teenagers because of segmentary marketing practices, then let me remind you that pink and blue weren’t always gendered colors and video games were initially designed to appeal to everyone just like board games. Your “taste” has in many ways been determined for you by capitalistic marketing practices and your socio-economic status — not by you.

And it’s all very strange to me, especially in the case of music. Someone’s musical taste might indicate that I don’t have other things in common with them, but it generally doesn’t indicate much else about them as a person. If you only listen to, say, Toby Keith, then I can guess you and I have absolutely nothing in common. The same is probably true if you only listen to opera. Paul Ryan shares some of my musical taste, which is unfortunate for me because I think Paul Ryan is a morally corrupt human being whom I don’t want to be associated with on any level, but we both liked Rage Against the Machine in 1996, and I have to live with that.

The point is that whatever music you enjoy isn’t frivolous or silly — for the simple fact that you enjoy it. If you really like Raffi’s voice, then listen to Raffi. If you only want to listen to free form jazz, then listen to free form jazz. If you don’t like corny pop songs, then don’t listen to corny pop songs. But whatever it is you listen to or don’t listen to doesn’t make you a cool or uncool person, it doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else, except maybe in your own mind’s eye. Taste isn’t a matter of pride. Taste is usually constructed for you.

The fact that there’s a stigma attached to the music or performance style of boy bands is snobbery, plain and simple, and music snobbery sometimes seems even more pointless than other forms of snobbery. I’ve had to unlearn my own music snobbery, and I’m a better person for it.

Not to mention, it’s all very weird that we do this for what amounts to a bunch of vibrations in the air.

THE QUIET INFANTILIZATION OF MEN

So far I’ve reiterated some common arguments, but another reason why the phrase “boy band” bothers me is because the members of boy bands usually aren’t boys, usually they’re adult men. Menudo is one exception (they cycled through members so they would always remain young), and it is true that some members of some boy bands were minors when they started. Harry Styles was 16 when One Direction formed. The members of Immature were all 16 when their last album under that band name was released. But New Kids on the Block are still touring and still a boy band, and Jonathan Knight turns 50 this year.

The 1970s Menudo lineup. Source: LaBotana

And you might think this is a silly point that doesn’t matter much, but it bothers me because it’s symptomatic of a larger patriarchal phenomenon of infantilizing men.

In the United States, we frequently and publicly infantilize white men specifically, including recently Donald Trump Jr., Mark Zuckerberg, and any number of white domestic terrorists. They are referred to as “kids” by the media, by pundits, and by people who know them. Meanwhile we call black boys “men” (and black girls “women”) in order to somehow make it seem like they are responsible for the crime of being black after they get shot in cold blood or beaten by the police simply for existing.

If you read feminist writings from other cultures, you see that treating men like overgrown children is actually somewhat culturally ubiquitous. In patriarchal cultures broadly, still in 2018, women are expected to “take care of” the home and their family, which in practice means that men who marry trade in their mother for their wife. In cultures where it’s common for parents to live with adult children even after adult children marry, the mother is often still a caretaker. We’ve given this role of “providing for his family” to men, but what this means is that men are deemed incapable of or are unwilling to do the “domestic work” that a woman will perform for him his whole life — the same type of domestic work women perform for children.

Patriarchy means that men may never have to take care of themselves in the mundane, day-to-day sense like doing laundry and cooking, but also doing any sort of emotional labor. This aspect of infantilizing men is used for comedic effect in the “insensitive lazy slob husband” sitcom cliché. But patriarchy also means that men all over the world enjoy a lack of consequences and accountability. This lack of accountability gets coded as “power” when applied to grown men, but as “disrespectful” when applied to children, a result of bad home training or because “they don’t know better.” Meanwhile, some men get to live their whole lives without ever “knowing better” or having to take care of themselves.

So we take men seriously and as authoritative but also as hapless idiots who are kind of mean and would get nothing done without a woman behind them cleaning up after them. And we often treat children the same way, but without the taking them seriously part. Of course, children do actually need more of this care especially in their earliest years. The trouble is that we all need care even as adults, especially in old age, and how this should work is that we care for each other, but the burden of providing domestic work and emotional work (both usually unpaid and not considered work under capitalism) is always put on women.

Growing up is a process. There’s not one day where you suddenly hit a paradigm of maturity. But we have very arbitrary ways of designating adulthood (applied differently for different groups of people), such that it seems likely that it’s a fabricated social distinction based originally on some seemingly common but not strictly divided biological factors (just like we do with gender).

And so there’s the weird implication that we don’t have to take a boy band’s music or their performances seriously, because they’re doing something we don’t like but it’s still okay because they’re just “boys.” And because we’re so used to infantilizing men that we don’t even realize we do it (or, worse, we treat it as a joke when men are slovenly idiots), and no one bats an eye.

I haven’t even mentioned the phrase “girl group” yet, because that term has been used longer and with less stigma. But the only reason girl groups have less stigma is because we never really let women grow up, even after we sexualize them (which in the U.S. we do disproportionately to black women, and to other women of color to the point of fetishization) or motherize them and expect them to care for us. We never take women seriously — whether they write their own songs, play their own instruments or not. And I have 35 years worth of anecdotal evidence of this and, well, *gestures vaguely at everything*.

DISRESPECTING THE YOUTH

I want to take this point a step further because there’s a stigma toward adult women who enjoy boy bands (or anything deemed “youthful”), and that stigma is even perpetuated by teenage girls.

Like I said above, we see a line between childhood and adulthood that simply isn’t there. The arbitrary marker of adulthood in the US is 18 years old, though there are still age limits on what you can and cannot legally do throughout adulthood. Sometimes this is probably a good standard when it comes to things like sexual consent, but sometimes it makes no sense. It’s absurd that you have to be 35 to run for president.

Adult and child, and the further divisions of preteen/tween and teen, are also employed as marketing terms, and these are lines we have readily adopted. There’s some biological basis for some of this, but “adolescence” is actually a long process and the truth is you change throughout your whole life. You have the body of a biological adult long before you legally are one, and your brain continues to develop long after you legally are one.

But my real point is that you don’t stop liking things as you age.

You stop getting recess and access to a playground when you go to junior high, but you don’t stop liking swings or playing kickball. I was in the Tate Modern this winter, and there was an installation of swing sets for grownups. There are adult kickball and dodgeball leagues. Because you don’t stop enjoying play.

The swings in Turbine Hall. Source: Yui Mok/PA

But we restrict when this is okay and when it’s not. It’s okay when you play with your children. It’s okay when adults (men) enjoy video games. It’s okay for adults to play board games. There are bars and truck stops with video games in them. As comic cons and comic book movies become mainstream, those are increasingly okay, too. But these are all things that it’s socially acceptable for men to enjoy. We still stigmatize adults (often women) who collect dolls to the point where we pathologize it. We stigmatize adults (often women) who read YA fiction. We stigmatize adults (usually women) who like boy bands.

You may gain maturity and wisdom as you age, but it was Plautus who said, “Not by age but by capacity is wisdom acquired.” I used to teach college students and was impressed by the number of them who were even more cynical than me. Today you see teenagers leading protests for gun control to the extent that some of them are on the cover of Time magazine. What’s childish isn’t liking dolls or video games as an adult. What’s childish is having a narrow worldview, because it comes from being sheltered and ignorant. Parents want to “protect their children,” but the truth is that children often experience horrible things — targeted racial violence, war, natural disasters — that they have very little control over. Plenty of children in the world, in the U.S., never really get this mythical innocent childhood.

And it says more about us that we contrast the unpleasant truths about the world with things like play and wonder — why do we think we can’t all have both of these aspects of human life?

Children have always been a problem for philosophical theories about human beings. We mostly don’t take children seriously. Recently, writer Saladin Ahmed tweeted that his 8-year-old daughter told him that “adults don’t understand what respect is,” and her take was that adults mean obedience when they ask for respect. But she’s right, isn’t it she?

I understand respect to mean treating someone like a person, but that’s not what it means to everyone, and many people don’t extend that personhood to children (many people over the age of 35 don’t even extend that to “Millennials”). Age is an important thing in a lot of cultures, where obedience and deference to elders is expected. Maybe that works in a place where experiences are similar enough, more communal, that you can trust that being old means being wise (like Plato’s guardians), but it doesn’t work in a world where experiences are so different that some children experience life-altering trauma early or are simply wiser about the world than many sheltered, privileged adults.

Not to mention, children are also largely more open learners than adults, and stifling them rigidifies their thinking and turns them into compartmentalizing, prejudice-bearing adults. The lack of mutual respect between children and adults is to the detriment of all of us.

We have to take care of children and to raise them not to be the assholes we’ve become, but we can learn from them and not belittle them in the process, too.

SO WHAT?

“Boy band” is a loose term that’s helpful in identifying some general traits that a musical group might have. But it’s also a loaded term used by the music industry to manipulate markets and, perhaps inadvertently, used to maintain certain features of patriarchal societies like the infantilization of men, the disrespect to children, and to shame women and girls of all ages for their interests.

When you tell me or imply to me that I’m too old to listen to a boy band or too old to be in a fandom because it’s childish to like things? There’s a lot loaded into that claim.

I used BTS as an example because they’re currently my musical obsession of choice. Their fan base is only partly young women. It’s also women in their 30s and 40s, as well as former male professional wrestlers (John Cena and maybe The Rock) and internationally acclaimed DJs (Steve Aoki, Zedd, and the Chainsmokers). But I have plenty of friends who would dismiss BTS out of hand simply because they see “boy band” and think I’m silly.

(These are probably the same people who thought I was silly for liking One Direction and Justin Bieber — or, worse, that I was joking. But Take Me Home and Believe are really good albums, and you can all fight me.)

I don’t have a personal issue saying that I like boy bands. It’s not something I’m even remotely ashamed of, nor should it be. I don’t like every band or every song that comes under the term “boy band,” but I absolutely love some of them, which is something I can say for all the types of music I listen to.

But I’m still uncomfortable with the term.

I don’t like the marketing implications, because I don’t like being manipulated by someone trying to tell me what I can like or dislike because they want to predict my spending habits so they can target their marketing toward me in terms of my demographic categories to make more money off me that will ultimately line the pockets of the 1%.

I don’t like the fact that things teenage girls like are automatically coded as “bad” by everyone else, and I don’t like that children aren’t taken seriously as rights-bearing humans in general.

I don’t like that “boys” aren’t taken seriously as musicians, singers, and performers because of the label “boy band,” or that “boys” are easily dismissed and not held accountable for themselves in so many of our social institutions.

I don’t like that little scoff that people give you when you tell them you like Harry Styles.

If you don’t like Harry Styles you’re a cop. Source: StudyBreaks

So what? Even if you are able to throw off marketing techniques by spending money on something outside of your demographic, marketing techniques morph. Emerdata (formerly Cambridge Analytica of election-tampering fame) will still mine your psychology and sell it to politicians and advertisers. And patriarchal structures that are dismissive of women and children are hopelessly intertwined with capitalism, and so the boy band is probably forever trapped in the middle of both.

I’m an absurdist at heart. I don’t really believe there’s anything we can do to dismantle these structures and we are stuck in a Kafkaesque trap of our own making, but I still think we have to try. And if validating music marketed toward teenage girls helps remove the aforementioned social stigmas in any way, then I’m going to do it. After all, it’s music I genuinely like, too.

So I guess what I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, the way to overthrow the patriarchy is to listen to boy bands.

Heidi Samuelson

Written by

PhD in philosophy | Feminist | Anarchist | Pop culture junkie

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