The story of boy bands isn’t just about cute fellas and chipper pop music. It’s a truly dynamic, cross-cultural phenomenon, a case study in art, history, race, culture, and politics (and also really slick haircuts). It’s a deeply massive story, one that’s never been fully told in any immersive and truly thoughtful way. Until now, that is.
This week, music journalist Maris Sherman unveils Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS. The book serves as an almost definitive text on the boy band phenomenon and how groups of singing and dancing boys reflect larger society norms. Providing meaningful and insightful commentary about the rise-fall-rise of the boy band phenomenon of the past 40 years, Larger Than Life asks you to dig out those old Backstreet Boys and NSYNC t-shirts out and fall in love with boy bands all over again or renew that love if you’re still a practicing boy band devotee.
In a humorous and enlightening conversation with AIPT, Maria explains her research process, writing about fandom, and her love of One Direction.
Larger Than Life hit shelves July 21 via Black Dog & Leventhal. The AIPT review is available here.
AIPT: Alright, first off, introduce yourself to the people!
Maria Sherman: Hi, my name is Maria Sherman, I’m the author of Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS. That’s New Kids on The Block to BTS. Some people get tripped up with all the letters, but I’ve said it so many times in the last year or two half years, really, that it kind of rolls off the tongue! I’ve been a music journalist for a little over a decode now and currently when, I’m not doing book stuff, I work as a senior writer at the feminist website, Jezebel, where I cover culture more broadly and internet stuff.
AIPT: Actually, that’s one of the interesting things [about you]. I got introduced to you by [New York Times’] Popcast by Jon Caramanica because I saw the thing about boy bands! I click, I’m a simple person! What got you into pop music as a whole?
MS: I think pop music was kind of my first obsession ever, which I think is true for a lot of people and maybe they find other things to be nerdy about, but I kind of found my lane. In childhood, I was obsessed with Britney Spears, the Spice Girls–really female vocalists in the beginning. And then, sort of flirting a little bit with the boy band world, but my real fascination with this specific topic didn’t happen until One Direction, which I mentioned a little bit in the introduction.
It kind of tends to surprise people because they associate boy band obsession with youth or childhood and I don’t think it has to be this thing that’s just like specifically for young women like school aged women. It’s for everybody so it’s just this happy, fun thing to enjoy. I’ve always just enjoyed pop music. As much as I like weird, obscure stuff, I don’t think you have to pick one or the other!
MS: [laughs] I was basically in college and I was working at the college radio station. I think college radio stations sort of historically are a place for people who like really weird, discordant sounds and things that are pretty obscure and I love that. I love the hunt of music discovery, but I don’t know, once I got into One Direction, I felt like I was still using those impulses where I would just wanted to learn everything about them.
In the same way that I used to just want to learn everything about a weird noise band from Scandinavia or whatever it was prior to loving One Direction. I get so emotional! I can’t talk about One Direction yet! I really have to learn how because they make me smile and I feel so giddy!
AIPT: While you were writing Larger than Life, did you gain a new appreciation for certain groups or just certain songs?
MS: Both, I think. Because of my age, I was born in the early ‘90s so everything prior to Chapter Four [of Larger than Life] and other than the analytical feminist, gender studies tangents I take was fairly new to me. I didn’t grow up with New Kids on the Block or New Edition. I knew the hits just by being a person in the world and they have a certain ubiquity, but it was really fascinating to backtrack, discover those artists and read old teen magazines I ordered off eBay as research. [laughs] That’s really fun. It’s a great way to spend a lot of money that you don’t need to be doing, but it’s really fun!
So I think that was the main thing and also, in learning about New Edition and going back to learn more about Motown besides the songs that I would listen to because my mom loved the Jackson Five as a child and that [music] always playing in our house. That was all really new to me and then having to learn about how that music created the form of the boy band, which is seen as this very white fascination, and of course, we know that they didn’t create it! That was the biggest learning process, but also just familiarizing myself with that music more.
AIPT: I really appreciated that you went back [in history] and went like, “Hey, boy bands were not exclusively a white teen fascination.” They literally were by Motown and you can go back further with doo-wop, which still goes back to Black people. Why do you think that a lot of people don’t want to trace blackness back to boy bands?
MS: I think there’s a variety of reasons for that and I’m still finding out different ways in which systemic racism, both in the world and the music industry, have totally painted the boy band formula. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Black kids and brown kids are sexualized at a younger age and so much of the boy band identity is appearing not necessarily virginal, but sort of pure and chaste where you have a crush on them but it’s not a sexual thing where it’s always in this sort of butterfly zone where it doesn’t become physical.
When young Black kids sing those songs, there is this association where it’s like much more sexual and mature than it is if white boys sing that song and I think in my youth, I thought it was that groups like Boyz II Men or Jodeci were just considerably older than the Backstreet Boys, but the Backstreet Boys are like kind of old? Nowadays, it would definitely be seen as inappropriate, but back in the day when colorblindness, that idiotic theory, ruled, [black boy bands] were kind of scapegoatted.
There are a couple other theories I have about that. One of which is that we don’t start using the word “boy band” until the late 80s and early 90s and that’s when white boy bands have already come into vogue. At that point, they’re already divorcing boy bands from the black music that created it. It’s something I’m definitely interested in exploring and I hope somebody decides a boy band history that traces the racial history more than I had the space to because this [book] is supposed to act as a primer and I hope other people take what they want from the story and follow it.
AIPT: Piggybacking off of what you just went over, I grew up in the South and I’m from West Tennessee, so I’m from the place where Justin Timberlake is from. For me, as someone who grew up with Black music, we don’t really ascribe “boy band” to Boyz II Men, Jodeci or Mint Condition. Those groups were just groups, they weren’t commercialized like a New Kids on the Block or a Backstreet Boys. Definitely not like the Jonas Brother with the Disney machine behind them. They were just black musicians who were in a group.
MS: I have a question for you then: I wrote a little bit about B2K, and I think somebody’s got to do a documentary on B2K, but did you consider them a boy band or were they still kind of separate?
AIPT: My sister sure did because you can go in her room and still see all the little thumbtacks on her wall from all the B2K posters she used to have!
MS I love that! [laughs] I would love to see that!
AIPT: B2K and Immature are definitely boy bands, but like you said, Black children are very much sexualized at a young age, but B2K were a huge pop rap crossover and they had their own movie! My personal viewpoint is a lot of people only like to use the word “pop star” for Black people sparingly.
MS: Yeah, I agree. I hope people really do explore that more because I think it’s only something [the book] kind of scratched the surface. I’m Puerto Rican. My mom was born and raised there, so Menudo was my first familiarization with any sort of boy band and their music. If you listen to it now, it’s so childish! It doesn’t even register really as being like a modern boy band to me because it just sounds for little kids. Like Chuckee E. Cheese soundtrack sort of stuff. [laughs] And I feel like it had to play that young to also free themselves from any sort of sexualization as the sort of Latin romantic trope that we’ve seen time and time again in pop culture.
AIPT: Going back a little bit, you said you really the definitive boy band book because Lord knows, that’d be long. As an aging weeaboo, I did find it interesting that there were no mentions of Japanese boy bands because I know the answer to that: Japan has been afraid of YouTube and streaming services so those bands are not as accessible. If it was more accessible, would you have included a Japanese boy band like Arashi?
MS: I would have loved too. I think there are so many spaces where I go back and I read this [Larger Than Life]. I’m very proud of this book, but I also wish I had time to expand on this a bit more. Then I also hope it comes clear that a lot of the biases that are inherent in the book is that this is largely a book written from a North American perspective. So that’s how I trace — in my mind — this linear boy band history of what has been the most impactful in America and I would loosely say in Canada as well because there’s a lot of stuff that deserves space and consideration.
There are a lot more Latin American groups that I don’t have much familiarity with, but deserve a lot more space in consideration. Yeah, I think a lot of it is just I had to pick and choose. I really wished that this was an encyclopedia series instead of one text. [laughs]
AIPT: Teen girls are arguably considered the tastemakers for pop culture, but their taste and fanaticism are looked down upon. However, with older women, the stigma feels heavier despite that they are arguably the ones who can afford these concerts, high priced fan packages, and fan cruises. Why is the stigma higher for older women?
MS: That’s also something that I’ve been unpacking and I think it just boils down to a lack of value for the interests of women in general. It’s seen as this self infantilizing thing like, “You’re an older woman who likes boy bands. There’s something wrong with you.” It’s pathologized in a certain way that is kind of beyond the Beatlemania hysteria of it all, but the idea that you’re holding onto something. You can’t grow up like this Peter Pan idea.
I have my own theories about why the interests of women are diminished and its basically internalized and institutionalized misogyny, but I also think it is kind of threatening to patriarchal interests. When you’re an older woman, the expectations for you to have joys are limited.
The fact that boy bands are something that is so specifically feminized is a space that intimidates a lot of people. I’m still working my way through it because, in my mind, I’m like, “That’s just unfair.” Why does this even need to be a conversation? Other than the fact that it’s BS that we need to move through it, it is worth trying to figure out why it’s seen as an embarrassing interest because it’s obviously a lot deeper than just other people thinking it’s uncool to be interested in. You know, there’s something a bit sinister in why people are so dismissive of it.
AIPT: I have my own personal theory and it’s that women are expected to let go of “childish” interests” at a certain age, but men can still have interests in comic books, action figures, and anime and it’s considered fine because those are traditionally masculine spaces. But for women, you’re supposed to be having a family! You’re not supposed to be doing these [childish] things like showing your kids Sailor Moon or introducing them to music like boy bands!
MS: That idea sort of threatens the existing status quo and I think it just comes down to this idea that having your own interests and your own space for those obsessions and hobbies takes time away from the traditional structures. It’s very strange that people won’t just let us have this! I’ve always compared it to sports fanaticism but a lot gentler and less intimidating. I mean, a boy band concert full of tens of thousands of women strikes me as a lot safer than a sports bar with a few dozen drunk patrons. That is not to discredit people who like sports, only to illustrate where there might be lines drawn in what’s accepted, or whatever.
AIPT: I very much loved when you started to piece together things like online fandom, TRL, Hit Clips and just these things of millennial childhood imagination that were built upon during that era. Another question I would like to ask you is about the Jonas Brothers. I completely forgot that the Jonas Brothers came out during the rise of emo bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy and Panic! At the Disco, but I never got into them because I had grew out of Disney Channel.
MS: For a lot of people, that was a shared experience: groups like Backstreet Boys and NSYNC ) are growing up and you are too. Before BTS’ explosion, I would say you could almost track [this experience] — “Okay, it’s been five years, here’s our groups in five years.” We’ll have another group just because of what group of kids are very in this sort of stuff.and they grow up.
The Jonas Brothers thing is really interesting to me because I thought it would be a little contentious because, to me, they’re very obviously a boy band but because they play instruments and do other stuff that isn’t really seen as traditionally “boy band.” If you listen to their earlier stuff, it’s very clearly just straight up pop punk and eventually, it gets a little bit more like the Disney interpretation of what pop punk is. […] And also, in their conservative sort of abstinence only way.
AIPT: Oh yes, the purity rings. How was it to go back to the purity ring era? [laughs]
MS: Oh my gosh, actually, a blast because I definitely spent days just trying to hunt down my own purity ring or the ones the Jonas Brothers had! Then I found this website that looked like it hadn’t been updated in 10 years and it’s like, “Oh, you could buy a purity ring. They’re only in a size 5,” and I’m like, “My chunky fingers? No way!” I ordered it and thinking someone’s scamming me and then I got the purity ring! The one that says “PONED” and I was I’m like, oh my God, what a 2006 term!
It was really fun to parse through because it just felt so dramatic and it also feels like it backfired so quickly because I feel like shoving down this abstinence thing down everyone’s throat, it just made everybody sexualize these people so much more and so quickly.
AIPT: That [sexualization] definitely helped when Nick Jonas had his queer community thirst trapping days where he was just everywhere.
MS: I think someone on his team must have been like, “The gays love ya. Go talk to them.” And he just went “okay.” [laughs] And no one inquired about it being obvious pandering.
AIPT: My final question for you is: would you ever consider doing a book on girl bands?
MS: I’ve gotten this question twice now! I would love to. I kind of know the formula of book of that style now and I think that book would probably focus more heavily on the sexualization of young women.