Boy bands have always seemed to ebb and flow out of the cultural consciousness in the matter of five years or fewer. Five years ago, it was One Direction and now, it’s BTS. It’s a conundrum: one year, it seems like there are too many boy bands out at one time and then, suddenly, they seem to have disappeared overnight.
Despite the erratic nature of boy band popularity, one thing that is constant is that there will always be boy band fans and there will always be boy bands. But why? Maria Sherman’s Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS sets out to answer that burning question and then some.
In its introduction, Larger Than Life states its thesis statement by issuing a disclaimer stating that its focus is not to make the most definitive history of boy bands, but a comprehensive one that helps build the foundation of what exactly makes a boy band tick and what other facets of stardom and fandom comes along with it. Sherman succeeds in her thesis statement by using major boy bands such as The Beatles (yes, they count, don’t boo me), New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, and more as establishing eras. With The Beatles, Sherman provides a heady etymology on where the “boy band” monkier came from, and with One Direction, she establishes how fandom looks in an era of social media, instant access to celebrities, and standom.
Each chapter is more or less a dissection of the band itself, but also their contemporaries as well. Sherman does her best to list and summarize the stories of the boy bands gone too soon, boy band parodies, and boy bands who were created to promote the latest chicken sandwich at a fast food joint. Truthfully, I found myself excitedly exclaiming when she mentions bands that I feel like time forgot (e.g. Mindless Behavior and Big Time Rush) and bands who could have been big but got outshined by a bigger group (hello, The Wanted!)
Even in the midst of feminist and gender theory analyses regarding the dynamics of masculine performance in boy bands, Sherman’s authorial voice shines through with its snappy, sarcastic and fannish nature. When recognizing boy bands who were one hit wonders or simply mismanaged to the point of disbanding, Sherman almost seems apologetic that she can’t get in the weeds on what went wrong with a particular band, but even with clipped histories, she tries to give as equal gravitas as the chapter’s focus band. With every turn of the page, she guides you down a nostalgic memory lane that not only affirms your past self’s boy band obsession, but your adult self and your new found obsession with BTS and NCT 127.
Larger Than Life does not only serve as a meaningful piece of pop music criticism, but it strives to be a celebration of a fandom that was built from the love of young women despite boy band fandom being written off as a hormonal mob letting out guttural screams for mediocre singers. While most authors would dwell on the naysayers and negativity surrounding being a part of a boy band fandom, Sherman makes sure that negativity does not take up the space made for examining why women are so attracted to boy bands outside an aesthetic level. As a child of the 1990s – 2000s era of boy bands to a casual listener of K-pop, Larger Than Life is for every pop music devotee and it encourages you to love what you love, but look closer at the “why” you love it.