Remember when boybands ruled the world. Where have they all gone?

Finn McRedmond: It is hard to see the likes of Westlife and One Direction ever happening again

‘Images of Westlife perched daintily on the edges of their stools are burned into the retinas of the popular consciousness.’

‘Images of Westlife perched daintily on the edges of their stools are burned into the retinas of the popular consciousness.’

 

In a memorable episode of Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls, the four teenage girls and their male sidekick are forbidden to travel to Belfast to see Take That. Aghast and outraged at the injustice – Take That never come to places like Northern Ireland, they are keen to remind everyone – the group makes treacherous arrangements to subvert their parents. The idea they might miss out on this cultural moment is so unthinkable they will brave anything to get to the city – including a possible errant polar bear.

There are many reasons why we couldn’t have a modern incarnation of Derry Girls. We needn’t dwell on the obvious factors. But one of the minor ones struck me recently, explaining why that particular plot point could never work now: boy bands like Take That no longer inspire such teenage fanaticism. Why is that?

There was a time when my friends and I might have traipsed across hazardous terrain to see One Direction, despite our parents’ consternation. The first band I ever went to see was JLS (one of The X Factor’s bigger commercial successes). And who among us is not catapulted into another dimension by the dizzying majesty of Backstreet Boys’ I Want It That Way. (No need to dwell on the lyrics: a close reading of the song reveals it makes not much sense at all.)

Was there an Irish teenager who didn’t have the words of Boyzone’s Picture of You memorised? It was Louis Walsh’s world back then, and we were just living in it

Boy bands elude easy definition. But there are common qualities: they consist of unthreateningly good-looking men; their sound is organised to appeal to teenage girls; they possess a veneer of professionalism, as if they want us to know they have been carefully manufactured by an industry professional.

Although they had existed since the 1960s, it was in the 1990s and 2000s when the boy band really dominated pop. Images of Westlife perched daintily on the edges of their stools are burned into the retinas of the popular consciousness. Was there an Irish teenager who didn’t have the words of Boyzone’s Picture of You memorised? It was Louis Walsh’s world back then, and we were just living in it. This was all mirrored in the charts: Backstreet Boys have sold more than 100 million records, while One Direction were the world’s top selling artists in the early 2010s.

What happened?

A cursory glance at the charts reveals the overwhelming predominance of solo acts. Bands are falling off festival-headliner lists. And it is hard to imagine a world in which Westlife or Boyzone would have any kind of impact on popular taste.

Musicians only sell records if they have a market, of course. And the core component – the only relevant component, really – of the boy band’s fanbase was the teenage girl. They were the ones who first saw the brilliance of The Beatles. An infamous New Statesman article in 1963 called these so-called Beatlemaniac teens “the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures”. As always, everyone eventually caught up with the ahead-of-the-trend teenage girls. They have long been the kingmakers. And they haven’t gone away, so who are they listening to?

Avenues opened up for young listeners to explore their own tastes and seek out their own idols, rather than have such things fed to them by industry executives and crafty marketing stratagems

The obvious answers come in the form of chart-topping solo artists, a huge amount of them women (Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, more recently the heartbreak ingenue Olivia Rodrigo). But there is more to it than that. The year 2006 was a pretty formative one for the direction of popular music. Top of the Pops was cancelled, YouTube was on the rise, and Twitter was founded. Avenues opened up for young listeners to explore their own tastes and seek out their own idols, rather than have such things fed to them by industry executives and crafty marketing stratagems. The advent of streaming services bolstered this, and it seems taste profiles have diversified. Perhaps there is no longer an appetite to be spoonfed the sterilised product of a huge industry operation.

Individual artists could find their own popularity across social-media platforms without needing to be planted by a kindly Simon Cowell figure. The online attention economy became a crafty vehicle for young stars to seek fame from their bedrooms, and seem more authentic than their prim and preened boy-band counterparts ever could.

The X Factor, the last bastion of boy-band formation, was axed recently, after spluttering to a painful halt over the past few years. Its greatest legacy may be the launching of One Direction, for a time one of the world’s biggest acts (replete with its requisite Irish member, in Louis Walsh’s greatest foreign-policy coup). It is hard now to see where a boy band might ever emerge from, let alone whether there would be an appetite for them.

As with all cultural trends, the question is whether this is a flash-in-the-pan moment or whether what we are witnessing is a permanent change. Perhaps the right group will come along and capture the zeitgeist, ushering in a new golden era of boy bands. Until then, the beleaguered boy-band fan can plumb the many depths of Westlife’s back catalogue.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.