In this week's Pop Is Not A Dirty Word, Douglas Greenwood looks back on pop's tumultuous relationship with the 'boyband' label, and how 2018's most talked-about acts are redefining its meaning.
Every decade, we usher in a new gaggle of boybands and pit them against each other until one reigns supreme – then we watch said winners part ways a couple of years later. It’s a cycle we’ve been stuck in since the mid 20th century when the first wave of so-called “boy bands” like The Jackson 5 and The Osmonds paved the way for some promising (if forgettable) reality TV show successors. One Direction aside, it’s been dire for the last decade: name me one JLS song off the top of your head. I fucking dare you.
The template for causing teen-fuelled hysteria has barely changed. As a kid, I missed N*SYNC by a few years, so came of age when Take That were having their second go at things and 1D were ruling the world. Neither, at the time, really tickled my fancy enough to make me hand over my after-school job pay packet to go and see them. And these ensemble successes, as we’ve seen, fade. The boyband formula is fundamentally flawed, and evergreen group efforts are becoming increasingly more difficult to come by.
Times are changing, though. The ‘boyband’ is no longer a word used to describe a flash-in-the-pan label cash-in. It’s had a 2018 re-up, and it’s high time we all got on board with it.
“While labels waste their time treating teenage music listeners like undiscerning idiots, Brockhampton and BTS are appreciating Gen Z’s intelligence and good taste”
We can thank two talents in particular for this: the Texas-born, LA-based art-rap collective Brockhampton, and their poppier, South Korean brothers, the mega-group BTS. While labels waste their time treating teenage music listeners like undiscerning idiots, these two troupes of guys are appreciating Gen Z’s intelligence and good taste, winning massive fanbases in the process.
When Brockhampton burst out on to stage at Koko for their first ever headline UK show on Monday night, a sea of a thousand teenagers – some girls, some guys, some gay and some straight – swarmed to the front as the opening notes to their latest track, ‘1998 TRUMAN’ played. The group, who’ve actively adopted the taboo tag (“the best boyband since One Direction,” Kevin Abstract, their openly gay frontman shouts on ‘Boogie’) are playing a huge part in changing people’s perception of what a traditional boyband looks like. Bound together by their love of Kanye West (they all met on a Yeezy fan forum a few years back), the group have the peculiar, mashed-up DNA of A$AP Mob and Backstreet Boys.
There’s a playfulness to what they do; a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour so strong you can feel hip-hop’s ultra-serious facade cracking with each passing track. If the boyband of yesteryear was squeaky clean – coy at a push – Brockhampton are the ones making the term current, slightly more salacious, and their talent unambiguous. Even if they’re using that label ironically (though we get the impression it’s 100 percent legit), the mass crowds they’re pulling in are proof that they’re the leaders of the boyband renaissance.
BTS, on the other hand, are diversifying the contemporary pop landscape in a different way. The one constant in Western boyband culture is the expectation for artists to sing in English. But this South Korean seven-piece just managed to sell out The O2 in London – twice – while performing almost entirely in their mother tongue.
The K-Pop group drop their first big UK release on Friday, a gigantic, two-disc compilation album titled ‘Love Yourself: Answer’, and its already doing crazy number in pre-orders in their home country. When it drops, just a week after Ariana Grande‘s pop behemoth Sweetener, we’ll be able to see if the K-Pop wheel has well and truly been set in motion.
Our pop scene is blessed by their presence: tracks like ‘Mic Drop’ with Steve Aoki showcase their quite frankly insane choreographed dance skills and obsessive hooks. Sure, the way they were formed might seem like a Simon Cowell move (K-Pop loves a lengthy audition process), but the way BTS get involved in the production and songwriting side of things shows this is no mundane pop product to be spoon-fed to the masses. Again, let that earlier statistic sink in a little: a South Korean boy band sold out one of the world’s biggest and busiest arenas in a matter of minutes. Twice. I can hear the manic shrieks already.
With groups like BTS and Brockhampton tearing shit up on a wider cultural level, maybe it’s time to get rid of the boyband stigma. After years of giving us too many forgettable pop has-beens (I’m still trying to think of a JLS song), we’ve reached a new age for the usually toxic and boring all-male line-up. Now, it’s more diverse, accepting and creative than ever.