by Ian Foo
The boy band phenomenon burst onto the music scene in the 90s with the emergence of bands like Westlife, NSYNC, Take That, and Backstreet Boys. The far east too saw the inexorable rise of the boy band movement in the 90s with Japanese boy bands like SMAP, Tokio, and Arashi, and Korean groups like Seo Taiji and Shinhwa.
Crucial to their success was a well-worked formula which combined their ability to sing, their manifest good looks, boyish charm, and their expertly synchronised dance sequences. It was the start of a new decade, heralding a change in musical influence and artistry.
A new type of musical influence
Bands like Westlife, NSYNC, Take That, and Backstreet Boys were to the 90s what The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and Cream were to the 60s. They dominated the 90s with a combination of catchy pop songs and romantic R&B ballads, producing memorable songs like “Bye Bye Bye” (NSYNC), “I Want It That Way” (Backstreet Boys), and “Back for Good” (Take That) which elevated the status of boy bands worldwide and cementing their place in musical folklore.
Their emergence saw a shift from the masculine rock genre of their musical antecedents from the 70s and 80s, whose themes surrounded a controversial culture of sex and drugs. Conversely, boy bands were instantly accepted by society because lyrics to their songs, like ‘I swear by the moon and the stars in the sky’ (from “I Swear” by Boyz II Men) and ‘That makes you larger than life’ (from “Larger Than Life” by Backstreet Boys), focused on love, life, and dedication.
The adulation garnered worldwide had a significant impact on not only girls, but guys as well – their adoption of a more mellow and romantic musical vibe allowed guys to set aside their machismo and explore their more sensitive side. Battle of the bands no longer involved guys sporting green mohawks rocking their electric guitars, screaming lyrics to rock anthems. Instead, they had to come up with a synchronised dance and collectively serenade the audience with romantic ballads.
The advent of music videos (MVs) gave boy bands greater publicity and appeal as they were able to market themselves on television by combining their catchy songs with dance. At the height of MVs, Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life” music video cost over US$2 million to produce in 1999.
Boy bands were not only about the music and dance, but also about their collective image, brand, and marketing value. Each member of the group possessed a unique trait or style which appealed to fans, mainly girls, creating hotly debated topics by enthusing over who was the best looking, the shyest, the most talented, or the most eligible of the group. The group dynamics gave them identity, and their love songs endeared them to millions, emulating familiar signs of musical fanaticism seen previously in 60s, especially with Beatlemania.
Asian Boy Band Fever
The Asian boy bands of the 90s enjoyed unbridled success as well, and are musical influences to today’s mega groups like BTS and SHINee. Matching the upbeat tempo of their music with bright and colour-coordinated outfits, Asian boy bands – or ‘idols’ – enjoyed huge success in the 90s, especially in their respective countries, since they also appeared on radio, television (mainly variety shows), and film.
Japanese boy band SMAP was the first in Asia to hit mega fame, whose success formula was emulated by other Japanese acts like Arashi and Tokio, as well as by their Korean counterparts like H.O.T. and Shinhwa. In terms of music, Japanese groups focused on radio-friendly sing-along karaoke tunes, while Korean groups like H.O.T. embraced hip-hop.
Regarded as Japan’s national treasure in the entertainment industry, SMAP went on to become the best-selling group in Asia, paving way to a wave mega K-pop groups we all know today.
Boy bands and their influence
Boy bands may have sung their way into the hearts of girls around the world, but they also paved the way for guys to explore their sensitive side. Although the golden age of the western boy band is over, their legacy has left an indelible mark that defined the sound of the 90s.