Last month, Backstreet Boys sang on Good Morning America. It was, not unpredictably, a bleak affair. In ABC's Times Square studios, in a room bearing strong resemblance to the MTV TRL set of the late 1990s, the quintet — now ranging in age from 33 to 41 — stalked the carpeted stage, bordered by what couldn't have been more than 200 politely cheering fans, all in their 20s and 30s. Before BSB launched into an off-key rendition of "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" — the hit that's been revived as the theme song to their recent "comeback" — A.J. McLean used the word "hashtag" in the gawky, deliberate way adults who are proud to have just discovered Twitter tend to use the word "hashtag." There were no cutaway shots of a screaming crowd gathered on the street below, likely because there was no screaming crowd gathered on the street below.
That empty street was where One Direction — the fresh-faced U.K. boy band formed from X Factor contestants in 2010 — broke Today show records one morning last fall by attracting more than 15,000 frenzied teenagers to a giant candy-striped stage. Their "rivals," The Wanted, did the same a few months prior in Central Park, performing amid earsplitting shrieks and in front of thousands of bodies on Good Morning America's summer concert stage.
Backstreet Boys aren't the only boy band to reboot their careers, of course. New Kids on the Block, Boyz II Men and 98 Degrees are all taking another swing at success, reuniting to plan tours, cruises, even new albums. They're not doing poorly, either: 2011's NKOTBSB tour, the 51-date super-group jaunt, raked in $40 million, making it one of the most profitable tours that year.
But the elder boy-band statesmen — the man bands — now tend to have to join forces to see the same kind of success that came so easily in 1999. One Direction, by comparison, has grossed nearly $16 million in just 18 shows across Australia and New Zealand this year, and won't stop touring until October. The Wanted gets their own E! reality show this fall. The success of the Backstreet Boys' solo 20-year anniversary tour this August remains to be seen, though their modest Good Morning America gig bodes awkwardly.
The Aging Pop Star Kickstarting a Comeback Career script has been around since Fat Elvis. It's a tried-and-true professional move that opens the wallets of now-grown fans giddy with nostalgia. Sometimes the revival even works, moving beyond self-imitation and into the realm of rebirth (see: Justin Timberlake). What's more, the "Boy Bands, Then and Now" discussion has become an exhausting conversation, largely because fan bases are separated by nearly an entire generation. Earlier this month, Slate's Amanda Hess celebrated the evolution of boy-band machismo — the way 1D and The Wanted have abandoned the constipated expressions of their '90s forebears for actual smiles. The videos have changed: more fun, 100 percent fewer half-buttoned, rain-drenched outfits. The music has changed: more major keys, more positive outlooks, less time spent affecting cool. And the boys? Of course the boys have changed: They don't dance anymore, but they're younger, and at least a little less tone-deaf, because sometimes they're handpicked on national television.
But counting the differences in before-and-after snapshots does little more than identify the symptoms. The forging of the boy band — far more business model than genre — is a decades-old craft, happened upon by the Jackson 5, established by New Edition, and perfected by BSB/'N Sync puppet-master (and noted Ponzi schemer) Lou Pearlman. One Direction creator Simon Cowell and Wanted casting director Jayne Collins came into the craft in 2009 and 2010 with the Boy Bands for Dummies manual practically bought, highlighted and placed open on their desks. Since New Edition, there hasn't been a boy band that has assembled sui generis and reached anywhere close to the success seen by impresario-designed groups of the 1990s and now (not counting, of course, sibling ensembles like Hanson and the Jonas Brothers). Consider K-pop and J-pop, both centered on the Korean/Japanese pop factories that have replicated Pearlman's formula a thousand times and come to define entire marketplaces with their international success. The format works, and you know what they say about what ain't broke.
So if the model hasn't adapted, where does the teen-heartthrob diagnosis truly lie? What changed?
It's taken a few years for the industry to revive its model, but that revival was only possible by catering to new demands of a new era's fans: If the songs are different, it's because the public needed a cheerier distraction in the post-Recession times. If the videos are different, it's because YouTube changed the way we watch videos, catering to our short attention spans.
And if the boys are different? As Hess noted at Slate, new bands like One Direction and The Wanted — and to a lesser extent, younger groups like Mindless Behavior — share a special knowingness with their fans; a wink here, a pose there, all signifying that everyone knows their lines in the script. "One Direction is closer to its audience than previous bands were," Hess writes, but that closeness, in the end, is all in service of a less-hoodwinkable fan base.
The success of reborn boy bands in this era hinges entirely upon fans' desires as well — at NKOTB2M98, we take joy in remembering who we were, not obsessing over who they are. Of course the millions who will pour into arenas across the country this summer will get what they came for. They'll scream just as loudly as they did at age 12. But the consumption is part of a known script, too: The motions are so much less about New Kids now, and so much more about how our love for them defines us.
And it's a somewhat tiresome point, but the evolution of the Internet — in particular, micromedia platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram — has created a world light-years beyond mail-in fan clubs and AOL chat rooms. It's a world in which teen fans know how a boy band is formed, how they live, even what they eat, more fully than any label exec. Of course, that fan authority can be harnessed anyway, as it has been with One Direction & Co., but the industry's grip on its market is more reactive than proactive now, because fandom in the 21st century is wholly about ownership, not consumption at the feet of gatekeepers.
Naturally, the way we love our artists has changed. One Direction isn't as statistically successful as Backstreet Boys (yet), but it's not because we love 1D with any less apoplectic fervor; it's that there's so much more to know, so much more to love: A Directioner's Twitter handle may be @MrsStyles, but her avatar is a photo of Lady Gaga, and her bio includes the all-important #Belieber and #Navi stamps. That's the face with which she meets the world: a world of friends who actively engage a boy band marketplace, but create a vivid culture around it, decipher conspiracy theories together, send hourly, identical "follow me" tweets, and rally against their idols' "enemies" in droves. It's all done together, and most of it is very, very public. All the better to be commercially exploited, surely, but isn't having a focus-group voice better than having none at all?