Whole lot of makin' going on


Want to build your own teen band? You'd better read these instructions first, writes Brian Boyd, as Ireland's newest group release their debut single. 'You can write drivel for boy bands, because teenage girls are in love with them. They say love is blind. It's also deaf.

Percentage of unique words in lyrics. Average word length. Frequency of "love", "heart" and "baby". These were the criteria used by a US study of boy, girl and teen bands. The researchers picked albums by four of the biggest pop acts around - Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and 'N Sync - and pitted them against an album by Pink Floyd, their musical opposite.

"The percentage of unique words indicates how repetitive an artist is; the higher the number, the more likely the artist has something to say. A low number forces the artist to use the same words over and over and over and over again," they wrote. Backstreet Boys were the runaway winners of this category, using the fewest unique words, closely followed by 'N Sync, Britney and Christina. Pink Floyd barely repeated themselves once.

"Extending oneself beyond monosyllabic utterances is usually an indication one is more educated and learned," said the researchers about analysing the average length of the words in each artist's lyrics. Pink Floyd were the class swots again, using some very long words indeed.

On the frequency of "love" ("a word that has lost all meaning, having become a staple in many pop ballads," according to the team), "heart" ("another word used too often by horrible musicians wishing to instil a bit more meaning into their otherwise empty lyrics") and "baby" ("there is a scientifically proven relationship between how bad a band is and the number of times they sing the word 'baby' "), the researchers found that Christina used the first word 32 times, Backstreet Boys 48, Britney 62, 'N Sync 77 and Pink Floyd 0. The results were similar for "heart" and "baby".

Conclusion: 'N Sync are most in touch with their emotions and obviously the nicest - and therefore the best - of the artists. What, though, is this thing they call 'N Sync? Back to our friends in the white coats:

  • Most of the songs will be about love, relationships, breaking up and similar topics, in order to attract a loyal following among the opposite sex.
  • As the band is being marketed as a complete package, the record company is careful not to let any member outshine another - for the time being. All bets are off when they enter phase two, a.k.a. "I'm going solo".
  • Given the restrictions of the previous point, it is still incumbent on band members to adopt different characters, so as not to alienate any demographic. The band will, for example, have a strong-but-silent type, a friendly heart-throb and a goofy-but-appealing joker.
  • As most fans will want to start a relationship - or just have sex - with the band's members, the band will be extremely friendly to all their fans, letting them think they can have that relationship - or sex. This is especially true if the fans are loyal enough to buy all of the band's merchandise.
  • If the artist has to be a girl, ensure she qualifies both as a sex object to males and as a wholesome-best-friend type, to appeal to female fans. This is why Britney swings her alleged breast implants around on MTV while protesting that she's still a virgin.

In The Ultimate Boy Band Book, Frederick Levy is sympathetic to this most maligned of musical styles. Even he has to reach for the word "generic", however, when he includes eight pages of photographs of various bands. The bleached hair, the tinted yellow sunglasses . . . He even includes a helpful key, so confused readers can tell them apart.

You should, though, be able to recognise this boy band halfway through the description: screaming teenagers greeted them every time they stepped on stage or ventured out in public. There was the cute one, the serious one, the goofy one and the quiet one. These boys had style and good looks, and girls screamed themselves hoarse at their shows, fainted if they came close to them and plastered their bedroom walls with their faces. Yes, it's The Beatles.

A few puffs of marijuana and a trip to the Maharishi later and it was The Monkees, the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds. There were problems here, though. The Monkees had artistic ideas above their station, the Jackson 5 were a bit bonkers and the Osmonds grew up to be a normal dysfunctional family. Back to the record-company drawing board - and this time no extraneous variables, please.

Popenstein's first monster was New Kids on the Block. Lovely boys, did what they were told, sold loads of records. Result. Just as Marathon turned into Snickers, New Kids on the Block turned into Menudo, then New Edition, then Boyz II Men. Over this side, with apologies to the Bay City Rollers and Duran Duran, Take That bought the kit and assembled it. There's been a lot of loves, hearts and babies since then.

"If you want to be a singer and you don't play an instrument, you join a boy band," according to Simon Cowell, the British artist-and-repertoire consultant behind many of the bands. "A lot of people are doing it just to be famous. There's nothing more nauseating than seeing a boy with a ghastly haircut and fake smile singing an insincere song." We know, Simon, we know.

Such has been the level of ram-raiding on the charts by boy and girl bands over the past few years that even sniffy theatrical types have condescended to examine the phenomenon. Boyband, a musical by Peter Quilter, was a wryly intelligent look at the fictitious boy group Freedom. Instead of positing that boy or girl bands are populated by hysterical stage-school graduates willing to do anything for fame, Quilter treated them as poignant, lonely people.

"A lot of these guys are young and naive, with very little to say, and they do come across as plastic cut-outs," he says. "They can be like rabbits caught in the headlights; you ask them a question and they just sit there and look pretty, and say: "I haven't been told what to say." But I extensively interviewed some, on the condition that I wouldn't say I had, and they were quite interesting. Because of the plastic prettiness, it's easy to forget that these are real guys with their own agendas."

The agenda doesn't stretch to songwriting, because it doesn't need to. Behind these all-singing, all-dancing wonders is a bizarre collection of previously well-known musicians who have their own "poignant and lonely" tales. Max Martin, who writes for Britney, Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, used to be in a Swedish heavy metal band; Rob Davis, who wrote Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out Of My Head, was the guitarist in Mud, the 1970s glam-rock band; Alison Clarkson, who writes for Hear'Say, used to be the hip-hop star Betty Boo; and the man who writes Atomic Kitten's songs is Andy McCluskey, of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.

Once a label mate of Joy Division on the indier-than-thou Factory Records, McCluskey went on the pop game because, although he was still writing some great songs - "my best ever stuff" - in the 1990s, nobody was interested in the "guy from that 1980s synth band".

"I just thought, sod it, The Supremes were great and they were manufactured, The Monkees were great and they were manufactured," he says. "I don't have a problem with something being kitsch and disposable as long as it's good kitsch and disposable and not the generic crap that's been clogging up the charts for the last five years. But I would say that."

Far from finding it easier, McCluskey says writing for a girl band is fraught with problems. "Girl bands have to survive on instinct, wit, talent and quality of song. It's a piece of piss in a boy band. You can write the most contrived drivel for a boy band and sell millions, because teenage girls are in love with the members. They say love is blind. It's also deaf."

Ireland's newest teen band, Six, from the RTÉ series Popstars, join the ranks today, with the release of their debut single, a cover of the Guys 'n' Dolls hit There's A Whole Lot Of Lovin' Going On.