When I was in junior high back in the ’90s, I was a little too cool to express interest in boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. I might not have known to call them commodities, but I did sense that they were scooped from Orlando shopping malls and sculpted in Lou Pearlman’s grubby little hands to appeal to girls like me. I’m 27 now, and I’m finally just uncool enough to fall for the next generation of manufactured boy band: One Direction, a group of five British boys assembled through reality competition The X Factor to exhaust the vocal chords of girls around the world.
The music is essentially the same: One Direction songwriter Carl Falk straight-up admits he cribbed 1D’s sound from bands like BSB. (He claims the new generation of fans is too young to remember, but I’ll never forget, Carl.) The racial dynamics also persist. In an important contribution to 1D critical theory, Racialicious describes how the group’s Muslim member, Zayn Malik, is dogged by the same “ethnic bad boy” trope promoted by pop music pigeonholers since A.J. McLean first rubbed down his Latino-German chest on MTV. And the video for One Direction’s hit single, “One Thing,” mirrors the plot of the seminal Backstreet video “I Want It That Way”: The boys take a form of transportation, then appear in public. The crowd goes wild.
But the boy band industry has made one notable improvement in its new model: Rarely do members of One Direction appear constipated. This is a recent development. When the Backstreet Boys hit the charts in 1997 with “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” they targeted young women with their choreographed, pelvic dance moves, lubricated abdominals, and a pained look that appeared to originate in the lower intestine. “Girl,” the look says, “My love for you is so strong, it is beginning to affect my digestive tract.” If you’re not familiar with the facial expression to which I am referring, grab a mirror. Curl your upper lip, flare your nostrils, furrow your brow. Imagine that you are confused, offended, and oddly aroused. Remove your shirt. That is the look.
Here are Backstreet Boys Nick Carter and Brian Littrell, assuming the position:
Even *NSYNC, the more-fun of the two bands—the two Pearlman-run groups drummed up a faux rivalry to line Pearlman’s pockets—adopted these anguished expressions in elaborate joke videos. Check out Justin Timberlake’s chafed look in the band’s offensive mental institution spoof, “I Drive Myself Crazy”:
But no group of men grimaced like English boy band 5ive, whose big international hit, “When the Lights Go Out,” introduced us to facial contortions previously confined to the privacy of men’s restrooms, or else porn theaters:
Compare that to the expressions that dominate One Direction videos:
One Direction looks … happy. These boys smile. They joke around. They jump on trampolines with inflatable bananas lodged between their legs. Yes, sometimes, deep in a hook, they can appear slightly inflamed. For the most part, though, they seem to be having a good time being international sex symbols. The lyrics of One Direction songs may be peppered with serious “girls,” but the boys’ performances tell a different story.
Do they know what they’re doing? Sometimes I think Harry Styles, the band’s junior member, does—he’ll occasionally adopt a mock-serious face, generally employed whenever the boys make some sort of half-hearted attempt at coordinated dancing. He seems to be making fun of his genre forefathers, or doing something to at least assure himself that he’s not quite as corny. In “One Thing,” Harry jokingly frames his chin with his thumb and pointer finger, a sarcastic callback to a typical boy band move:
Fifteen years ago, appealing to young women was Serious Business. Young men had to work very hard to perfect Suitably Feminine Dance Moves to Win Girls’ Hearts. Things got pretty ridiculous. *NSYNC members were marionettes at the whim of an evil, hot female puppeteer. Backstreet got reanimated in space in the year 3000. Rewatching “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)”—and I cannot recommend this exercise enough—is unsettling. You will find five grown men lounging on an abandoned playground, unbuttoning their shirts but not removing them, writhing independently, together, in the rain. This looks absurd now, but back then, all of these erotic theatrics seemed like the hetero thing to do.
The boys of One Direction are still impossibly pretty, but they don’t have to emote so hard to get girls to like them. In their first video, the boys get wet, but not because the sky spontaneously erupts in rain and they’re nonsensically moored on a basketball court—it’s because they’re playing around on the beach, and the waves eventually rise to lubricate their chests. They do not remove their shirts. Harry Styles often seems to be saying: “Can you believe we’re actually doing these weird boy band dances? Neither can I.” Even when Styles is required to appear serious—like when he’s standing face-to-face with a girl and telling her that she’s beautiful, in “What Makes You Beautiful”—he looks like he’s barely holding in laughter. But after rewatching a dozen Backstreet Boys videos, this is the closest I get to catching Brian Littrell in a smile:
And remember, it took four years post-*NSYNC for Justin Timberlake to step back from his constipated face to mock it in “Dick in a Box.”
So is this shift from serious to joking heartthrob absolutely deliberate? I think so. One Direction is more manufactured than even its predecessors were. Several members of *NSYNC and BSB were friends before Pearlman captured them in his grasp, but the boys of 1D were total strangers when they auditioned on the British X Factor: When they were each eliminated from the contest as solo acts, Simon Cowell assembled them into group formation. But unlike the obviously manufactured boy bands of the ’90s, today’s reality TV puts such a premium on projecting authenticity in the face of industry engineering that the boys of 1D were required to appear more natural. The result? Though *NSYNC and Backstreet eventually sued Pearlman for defrauding them (he is now in prison), fans never seemed to mind. But One Direction fans, who call themselves Directioners, are the ones incessantly recasting their favorite band members as authentic boys fighting to be themselves in defiance of their management’s control. No solid evidence of management wrongdoing exists, but conspiracy theories abound.
Their reality origins actually mean that One Direction is closer to its audience than previous bands were, which might be why young girls fight so hard to “preserve” the band’s authenticity, and why the band itself does the same. In the ’90s, boy bands were first forced to prove their marketability by touring Europe. Both *NSYNC and BSB toiled there for several years—the Germans loved Timberlake—before they became stars back home. By the time the Backstreet Boys had their first U.S. hit in 1997, the band’s eldest member, Kevin Richardson, was 26. *NSYNC’s Chris Kirkpatrick—whose pineapple cornrows remain an unexplained mystery to me to this day—was 27 when his band made it stateside (that’s how old I am now). But because One Direction came up under the lens of reality TV—a world that many kids today see as a more-honest starmaking machine than the Orlando boy band one—we were introduced to them before they even “made it.” When they competed on X Factor, they were 16 to 18 years old. Now, they’re phenoms on the U.S. Billboard charts and still too young to buy a drink in the states.
One more thing: One Direction’s “look” may seem less explicitly sexual than Nick Carter writhing in the rain. But maybe that’s because today’s young women are freed to see sex and love and friendship as more interconnected than they were before. Post “hook-up culture,” young women’s relationships with men are more fun and casual and equitable. One Direction’s approach to heartthrob-ism reflects this.
Songwriter Carl Falk may think that young women are so clueless that he can regurgitate all the old boy band tropes for them, but they’re apparently smart enough to recognize an outdated marketing gimmick when they see it. One Direction’s fans are repelled by any suggestion that the band is making a plea for female attention—many Directioners are so dedicated to the idea that Louis Tomlinson’s traditional romance with his girlfriend Eleanor is staged by the powers above, that they pick apart all of the couples’ awkward photos on their various fan blogs. In pop music as in real life, trying too hard is a major turn-off these days.