The Week In Pop

The Boy Band Is Changing, But The Old Model Persists For Now

As long as there has been pop music, there have been boy bands. But ask any American about the “boy band era” and they’ll probably assume you’re talking about the turn of the millennium, when Backstreet Boys and NSYNC led an insurgent army of meticulously styled hormone-activating ensembles. These dreamboat teams were the predominant unit in pop for a few years there, with the likes of 98 Degrees, O-Town, Westlife, and LFO saturating pop radio rotation and gunning for votes on TRL. Pop was so overrun by this archetype that it became easy parody material in Blink-182 videos, SNL sketches, and the like.

But frankly, without the assistance of Google most of us would have to stroke our chins and squint severely to remember more than one song by most of those groups. What powered the hysteria were the dual superstar units NSYNC and BSB, each of whom stacked up a pile of massive hits in their quest for boy-band supremacy. Both groups were titanic forces who made a real cultural impact, and the sense that they were competing against each other on a Coke vs. Pepsi scale helped to fuel that impact — never mind that BSB and NSYNC were managed by the same slimeball, the late Lou Pearlman, so their rivalry was more like Diet Coke vs. Coke Zero.

Such world-conquering popularity is intrinsic to my understanding of boy bands. As I put it last year, “It’s hard to take a boy band seriously as a cultural entity if they can safely travel from point A to point B without being accosted by a deafening mob of enthusiastic fans.” They’re also supposed to have actual hits well-known to people outside their fan bubble. Put simply, these groups should be living an existence comparable to the moptop-era Beatles: inescapable and frequently in need of escape. That’s a high bar, but if you don’t clear it, you’ve underachieved as a boy band.

What to make, then, of a group that consistently releases songs good enough to thrive on top-40 radio, and has the necessary corporate backing to be shoved down all of our throats, yet remains hitless and able to peacefully cross the street? So it goes for Why Don’t We, the best of the upstart groups vying to bring back the TRL era for generation Z. They’re way ahead of Simon Cowell-backed contemporaries PRETTYMUCH in terms of both quality and quantity (Why Don’t We boasts four times as many subscribers on YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram), but as with the rebooted TRL, it’s hard to tell whether this operation is a failure, a work in progress, or a success not adequately measured by traditional metrics.

The concept of the boy band is evolving. One Direction, this decade’s definitive boy band, forewent choreography and dance-pop production, prioritizing easy listening pop-rock with stadium-sized gang vocals. BTS, the South Korean sensations who just broke Taylor Swift’s record for most YouTube streams in 24 hours, are among the many Asian acts exploding the conventional look and sound. Their producers gleefully collide genres, and the members themselves carry themselves like a hip-hop crew. Brockhampton, an actual hip-hop crew commanding a fervent underground following, pointedly call themselves a “boy band” at every opportunity while releasing versatile art-damaged rap music and stunning low-budget videos. In this context, old-school boy bands like Why Don’t We — with their sculpted haircuts and overzealous outfits and Hollywood high-school romance anthems — feel like the last of a dying breed.

And given the group’s lack of notoriety on the eve of their debut album 8 Letters, that BSB/NSYNC model may really may be passing away. In the two years since five aspiring teenage solo performers joined forces to become Why Don’t We, they have released five EPs. Only one of them charted on the Billboard 200, 2017’s Invitation, peaking at #113. They’ve yet to land a single on the Hot 100, and they’ve gone no higher than #30 on the pop radio charts — with “Trust Fund Baby,” a song penned by one of their idols, Ed Sheeran. Unless you are squarely in the target audience for their music, you likely have not encountered it.

However, all the EPs have charted in the top 10 on the Heatseekers chart, which tracks sales gains by artists who haven’t yet cracked the top 100 on the real albums chart. (To give you a sense of scale, Oh Sees’ Smote Reverser is currently #1.) Why Don’t We also recently got “Talk,” a brisk highway cruiser from their imminent debut album, to #18 on the digital sales chart. A proper hit would linger near the top of the chart for weeks or even months, buoyed by more than just a core fan base, but having the 18th most purchased single of a given week is not nothing.

Furthermore, all the group’s members had budding social media presences when they teamed up. According to the esteemed FamousBirthdays.com, Corbyn Besson amassed more than 100,000 followers on the livestreaming platform YouNow. Jack Avery was part of the IMPACT social media influencer tour. Jonah Marais, who recently became the first Why Don’t We member to enter his twenties, also came up via YouNow and IMPACT. Zach Herron went viral singing a Shawn Mendes song at his high school talent show. More conventionally, Daniel Seavey was the ninth place finisher on American Idol’s 14th season. Since linking up they’ve collaborated with superstar YouTuber Logan Paul, appearing in his vlogs and releasing a single together, “Help Me Help You.” So there’s a good chance Why Don’t We fandom is proliferating in venues no one beyond high school dares venture.

Weighing all this out, these kids seem more like rising stars whose groundswell will propel them into the adult mainstream eventually. An album like 8 Letters will help. Its eight tracks of shiny assembly line pop are sometimes painfully adolescent in terms of subject matter — the vaguely Latin tropical jam “Friends” is about throwing a weekend-long rager “’cause your friend’s daddy got a real big house” (“and I swear we won’t break a thing”) — but most of them could work as singles. And because the album is largely informed by the range of stars Why Don’t We aspire to call peers, such as Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Drake, and Jon Bellion, it boasts a good deal of variety. As on their EPs, they clothe their standard boy-band maneuvers with sharp songwriting and production that keeps them from feeling like a relic.

The title track, a power ballad about the struggle to say “I love you,” leads things off. Ghostly distorted vocals haunt piano chords and programmed drums, lending dark drama to the chorus, “If all it is is eight letters, why is it so hard to say?” It’s a textbook tearjerker, but the production is engaging and modern. The next song, “Talk,” is far less melodramatic. It’s also the best tune on the album, its crisp backbeat and ever-ascending chord progression soundtracking a clever narrative about failed communication: “We go breaking up like cellphones when I speak/ ‘Cause you don’t listen when I talk/ Dial tone, nothing but that high note when you speak/ ‘Cause I don’t listen when you talk.” In that case only the notion that teenagers talk on the phone seems outmoded.

Up next are the trap-pop number “Choose” and “In Too Deep,” an ode to attraction that sounds like one of Sheeran’s slow jams. Neither one is a standout. “Friends,” the aforementioned ditty about the teenage house party at somebody’s parents’ house, piles hooks on hooks but is pretty embarrassing to listen to if you’re old enough to own your own home. It’s followed by the also deeply teenage “Hard,” one of those songs about how you should let him out of the friend zone so he can save you from your asshole boyfriend, girl. “Hooked,” a One Direction-esque single about getting addicted to the local bad girl’s love, is as catchy as it is corny. It all ends with “Falling,” one of the less memorable doe-eyed love songs on an album full of them.

Maybe one of these tunes will launch Why Don’t We to ubiquity. Or maybe they’re going to need even stronger hooks and more impeccable production to push back against the cultural currents. It seems telling that four out of five One Direction members are embarking on promising solo careers rather than being written off as former members of One Direction. (Sorry, Louis Tomlinson.) The media through which connection is established between fan and audience these days doesn’t play well with the “boy band” construction. In the past, youngsters got to know NKOTB through Tiger Beat pinup pages; they saw BSB on TRL doing synchronized choreo. It helped that these guys were in a gang of sorts. But magazines and MTV have long since wilted. Today, influencers are individuals. An environment that prizes cults of personality doesn’t know what to do with a cult of personalities. You can’t fit five guys in a Snapchat story; it works best when it’s one on one.

The members of Why Don’t We emerged from that environment and decided it was in their best interest to team up. I can see the logic — a social media influencer Avengers situation, leveraging the reach of five miniature empires — but I also question whether their alignment will continue to be lucrative in the long run. For a 21st century digital boy band to achieve success that’s at least equal to the sum of its parts, it will likely require songs that transcend those media. Songs that are five times better than those of Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes or Yodel Boy. Songs that somehow make the “band” element seem essential to the music’s appeal, if not the music itself. Boy bands have always needed a gimmick to get across. As gimmicks go, a group seeking to become the next dominant boy band could do a lot worse than “the band with the best fucking songs.”

CREDIT: Dave Meyers

CHART WATCH

Ariana Grande’s Sweetener is one of the best albums of the year. It’s also one of the biggest. The album debuts at #1 on the Billboard 200 this week, becoming her third straight chart-topping LP, with 231,000 equivalent album units and 127,000 in traditional sales. Per Billboard, it’s Grande’s most total units for a week and the second biggest for a woman this year following the 255,000 for Cardi B’s debut frame with Invasion Of Privacy.

Ari’s arrival bumps Travis Scott’s Astroworld down to #2, Nicki Minaj’s Queen to #3, and Drake’s Scorpion to #4. Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys remains at #5, while the late Aretha Franklin’s 30 Greatest Hits rises one spot to #6 with 52,000 units — her highest charting album since Aretha Now hit #4 in 1968. Cole Swindell’s All Of It enters at #7 with 50,000. Up next is the #8 debut of Young Thug’s compilation project Slime Language on 41,000 units, 38,000 of them via streaming. Juice WRLD and Cardi B round out the top 10.

Drake’s “In My Feelings” continues to lead the Hot 100 for a seventh straight week. According to Billboard, that gives him 26 weeks at #1 this year between this song, “Nice For What,” and “God’s Plan,” tying the Black Eyed Peas’ blockbuster 2009 for the second most weeks at #1 in a calendar year. (That run included 12 weeks for “Boom Boom Pow” and 14 weeks for “I Gotta Feeling,” in case you were wondering.) Drake is thus closing in on Usher’s record 28 weeks on top in 2004 courtesy of 12 weeks with “Yeah!,” eight with “Burn,” two with “Confessions Part II,” and six with “My Boo.”

Numbers 2-6 hold steady: Maroon 5 and Cardi B’s “Girls Like You,” Cardi/Bad Bunny/J Balvin’s “I Like It,” 6ix9ine and Nicki Minaj’s “Fefe,” Post Malone’s “Better Now,” and Juice WRLD’s “Lucid Dreams.” Back up to #7 thanks to all that Sweetener streaming is Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left To Cry,” followed by Grande’s “God Is A Woman,” up from #30 to a new #8 peak. The latter becomes Grande’s 10th top 10 hit. Closing out the top 10 are Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” (which includes lots of Drake rapping but technically does not feature Drake) at #9 and Tyga and Offset’s “Taste” at #10.

POP FIVE

BTS – “Idol”
The confidence! The color! The audacity! This group is truly enjoying their stint as pop royalty.

Twenty One Pilots – “My Blood”
As often happens on Twenty One Pilots songs, there are so many interesting things happening here. Most of them are very good things. My favorite is that falsetto “Stay with me!” hook that comes in at the 1:49 mark.

Jason Derulo & David Guetta – “Goodbye” (Feat. Nicki Minaj & Willy William)
In which Andrea Bocelli’s “Time To Say Goodbye” is blown out into neon sensory overload. They’ve crammed a lot in here — a Nicki Minaj hook, a beat out of the “Mi Gente” playbook, verses in multiple languages — but unlike the above Twenty One Pilots track, it sounds like a mess.

The Chainsmokers & NGHTMRE – “Save Yourself”
The Chainsmokers haven’t had a hit in a while, so I guess it’s back to clattering Electric Daisy Carnival drops.

Nick Jonas & Robin Schulz – “Right Now”
Remember when Nick Jonas was making fake Miguel songs instead of generic dance-pop tripe? Those were good times.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • In a deposition unsealed as part of Dr. Luke’s defamation suit against Kesha, Katy Perry denied the producer raped her. [Variety]
  • Ed Sheeran appears to have secretly married fianceé Cherry Seaborn. [Spin]
  • DJ Snake’s new single “Taki Taki” featuring Cardi B, Selena Gomez, and Ozuna is coming soon. [Rap-Up]
  • Cardi B plays Coretta Scott King in a not-very-funny comedy sketch called “The Real Housewives Of The Civil Rights Movement.” [TMZ]
  • Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee received stitches after being hit with a phone onstage. [Pitchfork]
  • The hospitalized 11-year-old that Drake visited last week received a heart transplant. [Rolling Stone]
  • The mother of Gucci Mane’s child wants him to increase his child support from 2K per month to 20K. [HipHopDX]
  • Rihanna will return to New York Fashion Week with a Savage x Fenty lingerie presentation in Brooklyn (9/12) and a pop-up in NYC. [Harpers]
  • Chris Stapleton leads the 2018 CMA Awards nominations. [Tennesseean]
  • Marshmello is Shawn Mendes. [Instagram]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME