ZEITGEIST

BTS is say­ing bye, bye, bye to what it means to be a typ­i­cal boy band.

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - By Sarah Laing

EV­ERY GEN­ER­A­TION has them. Come of age in the ’80s? You prob­a­bly slow danced at prom to New Kids on the Block’s “I’ll Be Lov­ing You (Forever).” Were you a tween in the ’90s? For you, there were only two types of peo­ple: NSYNC fans and Back­street Boys fans. Were you any­where near a ra­dio circa 2011? One Di­rec­tion told us what makes us beau­ti­ful, and Gucci cam­paigns were never the same again.

Yep, a bunch of at­trac­tive dudes mak­ing sweet har­mony has been a mu­si­cal trope since groups like the Bea­tles and the Jack­son 5 hit the charts. The lat­est to set hearts aquiver? BTS. Made up of seven un­der-26 heart­throbs, the South Korean group has gone global faster than you used to drop your al­lowance in HMV back in the day. It’s the first K-pop (a mu­sic genre char­ac­ter­ized by a blend­ing of R&B, hip hop and pop, sung mostly in Korean with the oc­ca­sional English lyric thrown in) band to win a Bill­board Award, per­form at the Amer­i­can Mu­sic Awards, go gold and have an al­bum de­but at number one. The video for the sin­gle “Fake Love” net­ted 35.9 mil­lion YouTube views in 24 hours,

and the group’s third al­bum, Love Your­self: Tear, was number one on the iTunes chart in 73 coun­tries when it was re­leased this past May. The band is also get­ting a ton of press—they were on the cover of Time mag­a­zine’s “Next Gen­er­a­tion Lead­ers” is­sue and have ap­peared on U.S. talk shows like Good Morn­ing Amer­ica and The Tonight Show.

How has BTS sin­gle-hand­edly ush­ered in the fourth wave of the mod­ern boy band? The short an­swer is: the in­ter­net. As Ge­orgina Gre­gory, pop-cul­ture ex­pert and auth­or of A Mil­lion Love Songs: Boy Bands and the Per­for­mance of Pop Mas­culin­ity, ex­plains, the suc­cess of boy bands—and the way they’re mar­keted—tends to re­flect the times in which they are formed. “Be­fore vo­cal pro­cess­ing and mu­sic videos, young men were re­cruited for their abil­ity to sing well,” she says. “Since the ap­pear­ance of mu­sic tele­vi­sion, there is more em­pha­sis on look­ing good and be­ing able to dance. [Think Beach Boys ver­sus BSB.] Where boy bands like Back­street Boys pri­mar­ily used teen mag­a­zines, ra­dio, TV and live ap­pear­ances to con­nect with fans, boy bands to­day use shar­ing plat­forms and so­cial me­dia to pro­mote their vis­ual iden­tity and distribute their mu­sic.” Con­sider the Amer­i­can boy band Why Don’t We, which part­nered with YouTube star Lo­gan Paul to cre­ate vi­ral videos that by­passed tra­di­tional mu­si­cal chan­nels. Or the band­mates of the Si­mon Cow­ellTM cre­ation Pret­tyMuch, who seem to spend as much time on In­sta sto­ries as they do mak­ing ac­tual mu­sic.

BTS in par­tic­u­lar has turned so­cial me­dia into an art form. It was the first K-pop band to join Twit­ter in 2012 and in do­ing so tapped into a world­wide fan base and pas­sion­ate fol­low­ing known col­lec­tively as the “BTS Army.” It even got a Guin­ness World Record for most retweets of a mu­si­cal group (152,112, if you’re won­der­ing) and is con­stantly up­dat­ing fans on this medium and oth­ers. It’s a life­line for fans—and a bril­liant tool for build­ing up the “brand.” Be­cause, let’s be real, boy bands have al­ways been a boom­ing busi­ness, both for the stars and the wizard-be­hind-the-cur­tain types who essen­tially cu­rate tal­ented and at­trac­tive young men to then hawk them as a mu­si­cal prod­uct. See: 1D, formed on The X-Fac­tor; NSYNC and BSB, both brought to­gether by the prob­lem­atic pop-Sven­gali Lou Pearl­man; and NKOTB and New Edi­tion, the brain­chil­dren of mu­sic mas­ter­mind Mau­rice Starr.

BTS is no ex­cep­tion: It’s a prod­uct of one of the smaller “idol pop” com­pa­nies—essen­tially tal­ent agen­cies for would-be pop stars—and, yes, is a “man­u­fac­tured” group in the sense that the boys were re­cruited via au­di­tions in 2010 and 2011 and grouped and groomed for star­dom. They’re con­ven­tion­ally at­trac­tive, well spo­ken, like­able young men. But Michelle Cho, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of East Asian stud­ies at McGill Univer­sity who is cur­rently study­ing the band, says that the un­der­rated key to BTS’ global suc­cess—and what makes it dif­fer­ent from boy bands be­fore it—is the one thing we haven’t dis­cussed yet: its ac­tual mu­sic. Pre-BTS, if you heard one boy-band song, you heard them all. The mu­si­cal styles have changed over the years, but the sub­ject of the boy-band canon has not. Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” could (lyri­cally, at least—no one could ever repli­cate Wanya Mor­ris’ dul­cet tones) stand in for any boy­band song over the decades. The mem­bers of BTS, on the other hand, fre­quently write their own lyrics and songs—and some­times things get heavy. “They’re writ­ing about quo­te­un­quote ‘the tra­vails of youth,’” ex­plains Cho. “They’re ad­dress­ing a post-re­ces­sion gen­er­a­tion and say­ing a lot about how hard it is to get es­tab­lished or move in the world as an adult when you can’t find a job.” They have also spo­ken up about the need for more open­ness about men­tal-health strug­gles. It’s not your clas­sic boy-band fod­der, and it’s not the only way they are rewrit­ing the nar­ra­tive. “They’re af­fec­tion­ate to­ward one an­other, which is not some­thing you see men do a lot in pop cul­ture,” says Cho, who thinks this de­pic­tion of in­ti­mate male friend­ship is a draw for fans, whether they see it as ho­mo­erotic or not. “It’s the op­po­site of this toxic mas­culin­ity that you find in a lot of on­line spa­ces.”

That’s some­thing that ap­peals to Leo Tapel, a twen­tysome­thing Toron­to­nian and de­voted mem­ber of the BTS Army. Tapel also ap­pre­ci­ates the band’s de­ci­sion to make some of their songs gen­der neu­tral. “It gives me—as some­one in the LGBTQ+ com­mu­nity—a sense of be­long­ing,” he says, adding that even the band’s fash­ion is sub­ver­sive. “Have you seen the makeup, chok­ers and ear­rings that they wear? Talk about break­ing gen­der stereo­types and re­defin­ing mas­culin­ity.”

All this begs the ques­tion: What will the next decade of boy bands bring? When the fifth wave comes (and BTS, we pray, are not singing out their days in a Ve­gas res­i­dency), one hopes that the changes they’ve her­alded—in­clu­siv­ity, vul­ner­a­bil­ity—will no longer be news­wor­thy. One thing that hasn’t changed from the boy-band days of yore? Tick­ets for BTS’ tour this fall in­stantly sold out...and you’re the only one of your friends not go­ing, just like with NKOTB in 1990. ®

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