Boy bands. You either love them or you hate them.
Growing up in the 2010s, it was fairly common to see young girls' walls splattered with One Direction posters or hear them listening to 5 Seconds of Summer songs on repeat. Something about the craze is intoxicating: car rides spent debating with your friend who the best band member is, or watching interviews and trying to guess when the next album would be released. But behind the thrilling fandom lies harsh realities about the life these young men lived off the stage.
The term “boy band” is flexible. Most of the time, boy band members don’t play instruments; they sing and dance, with the occasional strumming of a guitar. Some coin the term as groups made up of “industry plants”—artists who are signed into a record label at a young age and overseen by a dominating CEO. But most often, boy bands are known as a group of young, attractive male singers whose music targets a young female audience.
As one of the fastest growing artists of all the time, many argue that The Beatles were the original boy band, due to the highly enthusiastic response they received from their female audience. The Beatles were the first to incite the level of fan frenzy that is commonly seen today—a hysteria then officially labeled “Beatlemania.” Though still heavily debated, most critics agree that The Beatles laid the groundwork for the future of boy bands.
A second wave of boy bands emerged around the 1990s with *NSYNC, New Kids on the Block, and the Backstreet Boys. Known for their charming personalities and upbeat lyrics, many experts consider the 90s the true era of boy band popularity. We recently saw the rise of boy bands again in the 2010s with Big Time Rush, Jonas Brothers, 5 Seconds of Summer, and most notably, One Direction. The most intense fan frenzy of all relevant eras, fangirls camped outside concert venues and hotels just to get a glimpse of the band members. Meet and greets were sold out in seconds, and fan fiction stories scattered across the internet.
Boy bands are typically seen as “factory–produced” with a record label CEO or talent manager bringing them together and overseeing the artistry of the band. Simon Cowell, for example, orchestrated the creation of One Direction on X–Factor, signed them onto his label, and acted as manager until their dissolution.
This “big man” mentality is actually extremely dangerous, with several money–related scandals emerging during these artists’ rise to fame. In 1998, the Backstreet Boys were shocked to find their beloved manager, Lou Pearlman, had been withholding money from them for years. Though Pearlman had acquired $10 million in revenue, the band members only received a cumulative $300,000, with one of them revealing that another member could barely afford their rent. Pearlman proceeded to do the same thing to *NSYNC, cheating them out of money for years. These rich CEOs deceive their clients by playing the role of a father figure, preying on these young men’s naiveté and then exploiting them for personal gain.
Additionally, band members are pushed to the edge with extremely long tours, concerts on back–to–back nights, and their personal life constantly being invaded by fans and paparazzi. This type of career can be exhausting and quite damaging to their mental and physical health. Several bigtime boy band members have admitted to feeling pressure to portray perfection and live up to the expectation their fanbase and bosses have for them. In a Vulture focus piece, Joe Jonas says, "We didn't want to disappoint anyone—our parents, our fans, our employers—so we put incredible pressure on ourselves, the kind of pressure that no teenager should be under."
This immense pressure has been parroted by other boy band members, with Zayn Malik of One Direction admitting that being on tour caused him great anxiety and triggered his eating disorder. "The workload and the pace of life on the road, put together with the pressures and strains of everything going on within the band had badly affected my eating habits … I didn't feel like I had control over anything else in my life, but food was something I could control," he says. Zayn departed from the band in 2015, a huge shock to fans who had no idea that he was suffering.
Pushed to his breaking point by his crime–ridden boss, Brian Littrell of the Backstreet Boys sacrificed his physical health for the upkeep of the band. In 1998 he was told he needed open–heart surgery. Brian tells Rolling Stone that “[he] delayed surgery twice because of the tours … it was like nobody really cared or felt that it was important, because the career was moving on." Just eight weeks after this surgery, Brian was back onstage performing, though he has admitted that he didn’t feel at all ready to return. Oxygen tanks were even kept near the stage at all times for Brian to use throughout the show.
The fan hysteria that surrounded these bands led to internal strain as well. The intensity of the “Directioner” fandom affected the friendship between band members Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles. Fans were convinced that the two were in a secret relationship, ship–named “Larry.” The two boys felt as if they couldn’t be themselves without every move they made being micro–analyzed and misread. The two were forced to distance themselves from each other to dodge these false accusations.
The Jonas Brothers infamously wore purity rings, asserting that they were waiting until marriage to have sex for religious reasons. But before it was known what these rings meant, fans went crazy with speculation that the boys were married or in a cult. The brothers have said that they never felt comfortable with the media attention surrounding their rings and that it caused strain between them. The Jonas Brothers split up in 2013, partially due to this controversy.
So while music critics can continue to call boy bands “shallow,” we must be sensitive to the hardships these young men endured in order to create a fantasy for their fans. The idolization of these stars shaped many teenagers' childhoods, but it seems like sometimes people forget that these stars are just kids, too. While we listened to their songs, they were the ones spending hours in the studio instead of going to high school or college. While we attended a few of their concerts, they were the ones spending months on end away from family for worldwide tours.
Boy bands. You either love them or you hate them, but no matter what, you should respect them. Laugh at your middle school obsessions, cringe at old songs you used to love, but always remember to thank them for bringing us along on the craziest ride of our lives.