Twenty years ago this weekend, Backstreet Boys released their self-titled American debut, unleashing a brand-new wave of boy band fervor. We thought it’d be fun to look back and see if the trend was actually as bad as we remember. Surprisingly, we found some songs we didn’t totally mind hearing again.
Boy bands. The scourge of the rock world. The leech of R&B culture. The one thing bro-country and aggro-metal feel comfortable sneering at. It’s been 17 years since Eminem famously took homophobic shots at the music style in “Marshall Mathers”, and though the homophobic insults are cringe-worthy today, there are still millions of music fans who take pleasure in seeing the cookie-cutter genre slammed so viciously.
But maybe society has grown up enough to be able to admit that not all boy band songs suck. In fact, some of them might be good, or great even. Blasphemous words to some, but it’s true. If you can overlook the cheesy music videos, throngs of screaming tweens, horrid fashion, formulaic lyrics, arguments over who was the cute one versus the heartthrob, MTV dominance, those ridiculous Tiger Beat posters… um, what was I defending? Oh right, if you can get over all of that, you might realize that these groups actually had some talent, and you might even find a song or two you could actually praise.
Okay, maybe that’s asking too much, but there has to be some songs that we can come together on and agree don’t suck. With that in mind, we combed through the genre to find 10 songs that actually show boy bands in a better light than what the public perception is. There are certainly more songs that you could use in this argument, though to be fair, probably dozens more that could undo this whole point. We’ll save that list for next time, and in the meantime, let’s be optimistic for a moment and find the good in the bad of boy band music.
Take a deep breath because here we go…
Hanson – “Where’s the Love”
It feels right to start this list off with Hanson. Before “You’re Beautiful” and “Hey Soul Sister” annoyed any radio listener, there was their debut single, “MMMBop”, dominating the late-‘90s airwaves and making jokes about boy bands easy to write. Now, unlike other boy bands, the Hanson brothers actually performed their own music and wrote some of it, too… but that didn’t matter. “MMMBop” pretty much summed up everybody’s worst fears about boy bands. But what about their second single? There is a good amount of cheesiness as well, but the song is also just a fun mix of sunshine pop and power pop, making it slide well onto ‘90s mixes between bands like New Radicals and Deep Blue Something. The lyrics aren’t exactly stellar, but they are a significant step up from “ba du bop, ba duba dop” and don’t really do much to dampen the lively pop sound the trio is clearly having a blast performing. The brothers were always adept musicians, something that became patently clear later on in their career, but maybe if this had been their debut single, it would have been easier to admit 20 years ago.
Jonas Brothers – “Hold On”
The mid-2000s version of Hanson, Jonas Brothers were another band perhaps undeserving of the boy band hate. But when you partner with Disney so willingly and frequently, what do you expect people to think? Like Hanson, we’d surely view them in a different light had their beginnings been altered slightly. If you’re unconvinced, then listen to “Hold On”, a track that rocks harder than a boy band song has any right to. Sure, pop rock and boy bands aren’t that far apart, but there’s also hints of pop-punk that would make Yellowcard and New Found Glory proud of this song, not to mention the lyrics that seem to strive for a bit more than the usual boy band fare. Sure, it might still be a song you skipped on the radio back then, but it wouldn’t seem completely out of place next to other rock hits from that year like “Thanks Fr the Mmrs” and “Face Down”, even if it was 100 times more polished. No wonder Alan Garner prioritized a Jonas Brothers concert over a Las Vegas trip.
98 Degrees – “She’s Out Of My Life”
The distant third boy band of the late ‘90s snuck in this Michael Jackson cover at the end of their second record, and it might just be the most remarkable display of their talent. There’s no arguing which version is better, but Nick Lachey and company truly hold up their own on this piece, replacing MJ’s vibrato sadness with an ornate a capella arrangement that has voices flowing from harmony to counter-melody. This type of music isn’t for anyone, but it’s hard to ridicule something this lush and wistful. Sure, Lachey may be more known for being part of one of the dumbest reality TV moments in history, but the man is definitely a capable singer and also has a well-trained ear, as evident by the harmonies and arrangements of this song. And the other three are no joke either, deftly ebbing and flowing just like the backing instruments in MJ’s original. Again, there’s no doubt which one’s better, but when you can re-work a classic and deliver something memorable, that’s definitely cause for celebration.
BBMak – “Out Of My Heart”
BBMak was always a band that leaned more towards pop rock than boy band, with a sound more comparable to a band like Train than Backstreet Boys. But with smooth voices, longing lyrics, and an army of young teen fans, it was hard to think of them as anything except boy band. Their signature song, “Back Here”, seems like a good addition to any boy band canon, too, though it’s not the type of song that will ever win over a non-fan. On the other hand, a song like “Out of My Heart” seems to add fire to their pop rock status, with a much more driving sound and a country-tinged alt-rock guitar part. Lyrically, it covers the same thought as “Back Here”, but in a much more articulate way, eschewing the half-phrases and “baby” utterances for lyrics that actually draw you in a bit. The result is a solid song that would have fit in comfortably on any 3 Doors Down record of the 2000s, which is not a glowing testament but at least a small step up.
Backstreet Boys – “Incomplete”
By 2005, the world had pretty much moved on from the boy band fever of the late ‘90s. It seemed the only real person to make it out alive was Justin Timberlake, after the world let it be known they had little time for the solo careers of Nick Carter or JC Chasez. But here came Backstreet Boys, roaring back to life with perhaps the best group performances of their career. Dramatically stunning, thanks to the sheer power of their voices, “Incomplete” showed that boy bands offered more than just love songs and dance hits, even if that’s all we remember them for. “I Want It That Way” may be catchier, but this type of vocal performance stays with you. “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” may make you want to dance, but this can really move you if you let it. In the case of who was better, Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, a song like “Incomplete” pretty much seals the deal. BSB may not have had a singular voice better than JC or JT, but as a group, they couldn’t be touched by anyone in the boy band canon, past or present, and they proved just that in a song that isn’t even supposed to be a hit for a boy band. A song like this proves why boy bands are no joke. Now if we could only get them to deliver songs like this more often…
LFO – “Every Other Time”
Oh, LFO. The Lyte Funky Ones. Few things are more representative of white culture in the ‘90s than “Summer Girls,” where a guy in a designer t-shirt and khakis raps in the most fundamental way about loving girls that shop at Abercombie & Fitch and the greatness of a white basketball player. But hey, it makes you remember TRL, so let’s not be too hasty, right? In fact, it’s not fair to condemn LFO because of their first hit. “Girl on TV” was an enjoyable pop song that cleverly worked in Cronin’s form of “rap,” while “Every Other Time” pushed the “rap” to the side and replaced it with pop’s version of the DJ scratch that was in pretty much every Sugar Ray single. Somehow it works here, fitting more into a song where the trio embraces the cheesiness of their music. They’re just having fun here, writing a summer hit you’re going to love in August and forget in September, and that seems to be okay. The music video even has moments of Rich Cronin hamming it up, too, showing the dude had a sense of humor about his music after all. Sadly, Cronin never got to share more of that self-awareness as LFO disbanded shortly after this record and he ultimately passed away in 2010 before we got a chance to re-visit LFO in the wave of boy band nostalgia. I have a feeling he would have definitely made it interesting.
New Kids On The Block – “Baby, I Believe In You”
Of all the boy bands, NKOTB’s music has surprisingly aged the worst. They had the group formula down pat, but the sound never seemed to coalesce, despite multiple hit songs. Early on, it was the way the bubblegum pop rubbed up against R&B rhythms that didn’t fit, while later, their “tough” persona seemed misguided. I mean, imagine a *NSYNC music video where Joey Fatone drove in on a motorcycle and then started pumping iron like Donnie Walhberg did in “Step by Step”. It’s ridiculous. There were times when they got the R&B and pop styles to mesh, though, and “Baby, I Believe in You” was not only one of them, but perhaps the greatest. Here, Jordan Knight expertly croons over a gorgeous and funky melody that fits more in line with what Maurice Starr must have imagined for the group when they first started. Too bad they couldn’t all be like this one. Also, quick note to avoid the music video the band released in 1991, which is just a video of Jordan Knight performing live semi-topless mid-concert. Watching that video will definitely not make you want to praise this song.
One Direction – “Same Mistakes”
Do you ever think O Town watches the success of One Direction and throws the remote at the TV? I mean, they both got formed off of reality shows, with one becoming the butt of the joke and one being catapulted to the top of the charts. One Direction never released a single like “Liquid Dreams”, though, so I guess you have to blame O Town a little. The charm of 1D was always in their ability to keep it somewhat simple. They never veered far from the boy band formula, even though the genre landscape of the 2010s afforded them much more musical freedom than their predecessors. “Same Mistakes” isn’t a song that sees them trying anything fresh or new — it’s a simple song showcasing strong vocals against a somber piano line and boisterous percussion. But they knock it out of the park, performing with enough gusto that it becomes a late treat in their 2011 debut record. What really bolsters this is the faceless lyrics, which are ambiguous enough to be applied to any real situation, allowing their premier vocal performance the chance to give you closure for any situation. 1D may be over for the time being, but at least we have this song to show that even simple boy band songs can rise above the pack. Oh, and they also gave us a song that was the inspiration to this great sketch from Inside Amy Schumer.
Take That – “Patience”
Okay, this one is cheating a bit. Take That’s glorious return single in 2006 heralded a new era for the band, not just because of Robbie Williams’ absence, but also because they seemed to step out of the boy band label and into a bold, new direction. But then again, you could make an argument that once a boy band, always a boy band. Obviously, we’re going with that by including this on our list, but also because you can’t mention a great Take That song without bringing up this one or “Shine”. We’ll give the nod to “Patience” on this list, mostly for coming back in such a strong fashion, similar to “Incomplete” by Backstreet Boys. The dramatic flair is there, but this one also rides the wave of post-Britpop rock that made songs like “Counting Cars” so inescapable. This one definitely pushes the boundaries of what a “boy band” song is, showing that there’s more than overly choreographed dance moves, expensive music videos, and catchy choruses. But then again, there’s nothing wrong with that as our last pick will show…
*NSYNC – “Bye Bye Bye”
It feels inherently wrong to say “Bye Bye Bye” sucks, even if it is the most prototypical boy band song ever released. Easy to remember lyrics, a catchy chorus that will never leave your mind, a gentle bridge that’s the complete opposite to the rest of the song, plenty of sing-overs from the group’s more powerful singers, and an expensive music video that you can’t stop watching. Oh, and a dance! Don’t act like you haven’t done that dance. You’ve done it. In fact, you want to do it right now just thinking about it. You even want to see Christopher Walken do it in that new drink commercial.
Though it didn’t hit No. 1, this is *NSYNC and the boy band craze at its absolute peak. The song may very well showcase every single thing people hate about boy bands, but it also shows that those qualities aren’t inherently bad and can actually be fun when fully fleshed out like this. The way JC and JT trade off vocals is perfect, giving each a chance to shine: innocent JT on that flighty bridge and powerful JC on that dynamic sing-over at the climax. The other three members hold their own in the background, too, masking the lead vocals enough in the chorus and peppering in some nice backing vocals near the end. Everything comes together here, including that music video, even if it is hokey at times and steals from Jamiroquai. Top to bottom, though, it’s just a great pop song that you may not be able to admit you enjoy, but you certainly can’t say is terrible. There are plenty of other boy band songs to use that word on, so just turn your blinders off and enjoy this pop masterpiece. We won’t tell anyone.