The Jonas Brothers. https://www.mamamia.com.au/jonas-brothers-reunion/.
As someone born in the last year of the millennium, boy bands are as intrinsic to my youth as peas to a pod. From Disney Channel music groups to posses manufactured by talent shows, boy bands dominated every single one of the playlists that cluttered my bright green, cord-tangled iPod Shuffle as a tween.
Although consisting exclusively of male singers, these groups of starry-eyed, pitch-perfect young men have been vehicles of feminine pleasure and desire for decades. From The Beatles to NSYNC, the Jonas Brothers to One Direction, boy bands have been popularised by a fanbase who are so adoring in their affection, so passionate in their devotion, that neither age nor distance can sever that unique bond between some (mostly straight) young girls and their favourite boy group. Despite the eyerolls and sniggers of pretentious, most often older and male music lovers, it is the (predominantly) young girls of the world that have not only kept the concept of the boy band alive and well, but allowed it to thrive.
The Beatles. https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/the-beatles-notebook-handwritten-lyrics-intl-scli/index.html.
While on the surface the typical boy band may seem to garner appeal through catchy bops and cliché lyrics, boy bands have the potential to, and quite often do, mean more than this to young girls. In a world that so often condemns young women for experimenting with feminine desire and sexual agency, these bands of sweet-singing, smooth-skinned young men can be accessed as a vehicle into a world of emotion and feeling typically denied to girls who are growing up and coming of age.
Young girls the world over have derived pure pleasure from screaming sugary lyrics, hairbrush in hand, into the blank stares of the boys on the posters that pepper their bedroom walls. This is a kind of pleasure that can be obtained by few other socially acceptable activities as a teenage girl. While pop culture is littered with stories of young boys on journeys into their sexual awakenings (The Graduate (1967), Superbad (2007), and Mid 90s (2018) being some examples), much of the awakening young girls are allowed to do is expected to happen in private. Boy bands, however, seem to be an exception to this rule: there’s little that’s less private than a chorus of tens of thousands of young girls screaming along to the same lyrics in football arenas and major concert venues.
One Direction fans. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2017/02/julie-burchill-female-desire-maenads-one-direction-fans.
The intimacy that listeners can find in the songs of their favourite boy bands is an avenue for articulating desire, repositioning the gaze so often aimed at young women. Young female pop stars are constantly sexualised by the male-dominated music industry under the guise of female empowerment. Take Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus for example, two child stars turned pop princesses manufactured by the Disney machine. When these kids were no longer marketable through their cuteness, their sexual appeal became the sellable product. And while women, nor anyone else should never be shamed for expressing and exploring their sexual agency, the commodification of Britney and Miley, and other female pop stars like them, makes their ‘sexual empowerment’ seem more like exploitation, all intended for the male gaze.
Britney Spears in the video for “I’m a Slave 4 U.” https://www.billboard.com/music/pop/britney-spears-best-music-videos-7271745/.
Alternatively, boy bands are a category of pop stars predominantly for the gaze of young girls. These boy groups don’t escape the male gaze completely, with lingering notes of patriarchal double standards evident in their presentation. While Britney and Miley have been made to show more skin than clothes since they were kids, members of boy bands can easily get away with being heavily clad, top-to-toe, while bopping around singing tunes. The Beatles, widely claimed to be the original boy band, weren’t exactly gyrating as they sung I Want To Hold Your Hand, and there was only a single shot of bare chests in the breakout music video of What Makes You Beautiful that sent One Direction into worldwide fame, despite the video taking place exclusively on a beach.
This isn’t to say that these boys aren’t sexualised, or even objectified, although the two are different. Objectification of these pop stars feels bound to happen in a system in which the sellable product is the person themselves, and these boys unfortunately are no exception. But the sexualisation of these young men isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially when it gives their (mostly) female fans an avenue of exploration when it comes to sexual agency. The boys, even dressed conservatively in full pants and t-shirts, can act as a blank canvas for their fans to project whatever desires and fantasies they wish onto them.
One Direction. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2021/06/08/liam-payne-struggled-addiction-suicidal-ideation-during-one-direction-fame/7606844002/.
Generic lyrics and choreographed videos may be snubbed by music lovers when it comes to every other genre of music, but it’s the significant blandness of these music groups that allow young girls to use them as a jumping off point into their imagination of their own sexual desires. Anna Todd’s After series—a fanfiction work then published as a novel, only to be later turned into a film series—encapsulates the vividly imagined world that can come from boy band fandom.
Something in the safety of the lyrics and the accessibility of the tunes allows for young girls everywhere to see their own reflections of desire in these generic, albeit beautiful, young boys. And when these young girls can share and revel in this expression of pleasure with each other, who cares what those music snobs and pretentious critics think of these beloved boy bands.
Juliette Salom (she/her) is a writer from Naarm/Melbourne currently studying Creative Writing at RMIT University. Her writing has been published in Ramona Magazine and Catalyst, and she is also a frequent contributor to She’s Eco.