A few weeks ago, I woke up to another must-see Amy Schumer sketch gone viral. And it brightened my day significantly. “Girl, You Don’t Need No Make-Up,” is typical Schumer wit: bouncy and bright, but with a razor-sharp edge of social commentary. I strongly suggest you watch the clip if you haven’t yet, but here’s the gist: As Amy gets ready to walk out the door and face her day, a boy band accosts her with an upbeat tribute to her natural beauty. As they sing about how much they prefer the “real” her to all the trappings of woman-dom, she cheerfully dismantles her entire morning routine. Faced with an actual au naturel lady, the band changes their tune, shoving pressed powder into her hand and crooning worriedly about how they can’t date “the ghost from The Ring.” It’s magnificent. A proper critique of the impossible standards that women face practically from birth.
Though if you only read the headlines that accompanied the clip, you wouldn’t take it that way. “Amy Schumer Skewers One Direction.” “Watch Amy Schumer Make Fun of One Direction.” Okay. While the song in the video is absolutely a parody of “What Makes You Beautiful” and there’s a bargain-basement Harry Styles present, that’s not the end of the story. Methinks that Amy Schumer has better things to do than to write and produce scathing takedowns of four-year-old boy band songs. The song was the vehicle; the target was larger. Yet the same outlets that participate in promoting the very standards that Schumer is protesting decided to lump the blame on one harmless pop group, both to refuse accepting any responsibility and because, hello, clickbait. The headline “Amy Schumer Unleashes Giant Squid-Monster On One Direction” would also garner a lot of hits, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
The weird mass-framing of this sketch got me really miffed, and not just because I’m in the middle of a One Direction obsession spiral. (Nice to meet you, I’m 32.) It’s because the internet responded to a sketch calling out media sexism with more sexism. Boy bands are traditionally viewed as a feminine interest. Even less acceptable, they’re typically an interest of women who are young, one of the demos that’s given the least credence in pop culture and in society at large. Amy Schumer’s parody was about the relentless and contradictory appearance policing that women face; where filmmakers are barred from a Cannes red carpet for wearing flats at the very same time Midwestern teens are tossed out of prom for baring their shoulders; where magazines scream that yes, men will still want to have sex with us even if we don’t go to bed in eyeliner – as if that’s the be-all, end-all permission that we need to do whatever we damn well please with our own faces – at the very same time they’re running Kate Hudson’s professionally lit make-up-free “selfies” next to full page ads for $200 jars of La Mer. The media turned Schumer’s sketch into something petty, and, in the process, got their jabs in once again on young girls. This thing they like? It’s stupid. It’s stupid and silly and it doesn’t matter.
Except that it does. (“It DOES.” – Ross Gellar.) Boy bands matter. They certainly mattered to me. (And continue to. Louis Tomlinson has many important tattoos.) This whole shitshow got me thinking about why that is; what, beyond a flurry of stampeding hormones, makes us love them so god damn much?
Falling in love with a boy band unlocks a chamber of your heart that, until you do, lies cold, dark, and empty, aside from the cobwebs. It is a fierce love, both unimaginably generous and perfectly selfish. I think part of society’s sneering attitude to teen girls comes from fear – fear of our intensity, of how hard we dedicate ourselves to things. That’s why every boy band who’s ever sat on a late night couch gets the question, “What’s the craaaaaaziest thing a fan has ever done to you?” Those raging lunatics, amirite? Animals, all of them. How is it less acceptable for Directioners to feel personally part of the band’s success than for fully grown adult men to beat each other up in parking lots over professional football games? At least those bitches picked up their phones and text-voted for the VMAs.
It’s FUN, though. It is fun as hell, let me tell you. Loving a thing is so much more of a trip than feeling meh about a thing. When I think about it, I can still conjure that pleasantly cavernous feeling that developed in my stomach when *N Sync appeared on stage for the first time at the Pittsburgh stop on the “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” tour back in 1999. They were there, and so was I. I loved them so much, I felt sure I would die of it. I would drop dead on the sticky floor of the Star Lake Amphitheater, in my platform sandals and baby blue American Eagle tank top. (Justin’s favorite color, natch.) I’ve heard people speak similarly about the birth of their first child, which, okay. But how often does that happen? Once. I saw *N Sync in concert six times and that feeling never faded.
This heart-breaking, earth-splitting love just takes over. And it can survive any cynicism thrown at it. I was repeatedly told as a teenager that I was “too old” for boy bands, while action figures and video games lined my brothers’ shelves, generating no comment. If anything, my interests were the more adult ones. They were born of a fascination – the siren call of boys. Cute boys, who could dance. (And I will come at anyone who tells me that boy band love doesn’t jive with a feminist identity. There’s nothing about paying five beautiful men to dance for me that’s not the very best of feminism. Carry on.) Nursing a band obsession satisfied my unquenchable interest in boy world, a place I still find exotic as an adult. Boy bands give us the opportunity to observe boys in their natural habitat, without fear of judgement or rejection. Because it starts with the music and the videos, but then it expands. It wants everything. We want to know these guys, beyond the Tiger Beat details. (Though those are still important. Apple Jacks are Justin Timberlake’s favorite cereal, pass it on.) No minutia is too boring. No brief interaction un-mined for personality traits and patterns. There’s a reason why girls flocked to see Never Say Never, The Jonas Brothers 3D movie, and This Is Us. Those movies give girls the opportunity to be both a fly on the wall and the center of everything. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the fans,” they say, and that’s you, oh my god. But also you’re one of the guys, there in the hotel room when Big Rob shakes Joe Jonas awake and in the venue when Louis rolls through on a skateboard and grabs a bucket of popcorn off a table. Being a teenage girl is the most terrifying. There’s humiliation around every corner. But not here. Not with these guys. They will never make you feel bad, or let you down.
Like any entertainment delivered on such a massive scales, boy bands are marketed to within an inch of their lives. We know, okay? We just don’t care. Knowing that backstage machinations have been orchestrated to sell us “The Hot One,” “The Shy One,” “The Bad Boy,” etc. does nothing to stop the spread of our fervor. Because as soon as said band gets a foothold, they belong to us. The ownership changes. I don’t care how many focus groups have been held to discuss which one looks best with a goatee.
There’s a validating and invigorating sense of belonging when it comes to finding one’s boy band fandom. It’s a tribe, with plenty of opportunities to share both high points and lows. (Bye, Zayn.) A lot of bonding and socialization happen over these guys. There are big plans, like group concert excursions – what to wear, where to sit, who gets which guy when you’re inevitably invited to the super secret band after-party and enter into long-term relationships with them. But there are small things too, like having something to contribute to pre-homeroom gossip or meeting a new friend because she admired your JC necklace.
And then there’s the internet. I recently hosted an *N Sync trivia night in New York. The team that won came up to talk to me afterwards to ask me which messageboard I’d been into in the ’90s (because it was obvious I’d been into at least one, hello.), and it turns out that they’d not only been regular posters there too, but that that’s where they’d met. They stayed friends into adulthood. And there we all were in 2015 in a midtown bar after a work day, drinking and talking about this thing that still carries so much emotional weight for all of us.
Allow me to explain something to those of you who do not frequent this blog: I am a nerd. When I wasn’t recording *N Sync’s every TRL appearance as a teen, I was elbow-deep in my Official Guide to The X-Files. I go to Doctor Who conventions and dress up like characters from the show. Fan fiction has devoured a huge chunk of my life. And somehow all of this is more socially acceptable than being a full-fledged, quivering boy band fangirl. I’m not telling anyone anything that they don’t know, but there’s a lot of judgy-ness within the geek community. Why is it that the same people who will defend to the death their right to like what they like will so easily turn around and shit on others for the same reason? It’s because the societal narrative there is that smart is sexy, geeks will inherit, the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates is probably playing a video game right now, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, our narrative is that young girls are unpredictable, overly-emotional, too immersed in fantasy, and vapid enough to scream at whatever five guys with blown-out bangs are dropped in front of them. No one’s ever bothered to find out what girls are getting out of these relationships, so long as money can be made off of them. I think my own resentment over this insulting double standard is one of the reasons I hang on to this so tightly. You can pry my boy bands from my cold, dead hands, world!
That brings me to One Direction, whose cute faces you’ve been enjoying throughout this post. As an unapologetic fan of pop music, I’ve had their albums on my iPod since they made their big US debut on SNL. But I was satisfied to only be aware of 3/5 of their names and even more satisfied to not be able to tell the difference between them. Because they were babies. But they aren’t any more, and god help me, I’ve been pulled so far back in. (My friend Jaime: “The youngest one is 21. Go nuts.”)
As an amateur boy band anthropologist, I’ve been fascinated by what it means to be teen heartthrobs in the 21st century. In my day, fans didn’t have Tumblr or AO3. We made due without. But when I look at the community that’s grown up around these guys, I can’t help but be jealous that Backstreet Girls and *N Syncers didn’t have 24/7 access to our heroes’ Twitters and Instagrams. Yet the differences go beyond the joys of social media. Or are at least enabled by those joys. The bands of the ’90s boy band boom (and the ’10s pop-punk boy band moment too) were remarkably similar on paper, if not in practice. In the TRL age, even groups that weren’t very skilled at it (ahem: 98 Degrees) were forced into choreographed dance, something that One Direction has all but avoided. I read somewhere that they’re a boy band with an anarchist spirit, and it’s a little bit true. No matching outfits for them, and the pelvic thrusting is all freestyle. (Still present, thank god. Some boy band responsibilities are not optional.) This Is Us features a long sequence with their various tour crew members trying desperately to wrangle them. (Including their “choreographer” who surely has the easiest/most exasperating job on the tour.) Though a post-X-Factor agreement is surely a terrifying contract with the devil, 1D has managed to retain their sense of fun and chaos, and to shrug their shoulders at a lot of boy band stereotypes.
But what strikes me the most about the band is the example they set for their fans just by being themselves. They are constantly and irrepresibly ALL OVER EACH OTHER. There’s something beautifully progressive and pure about boys being so openly affectionate with each other. My heart sings, I swear. There are moments that live forever online, like Niall’s Instagram post in support of Irish marriage equality (My precious leprechaun, let’s be best friends.), and basically everything Harry Styles ever does. Hero moments from that guy include: asking two cute boys in the pit if they were having fun on their concert date; wearing a Michael Sam jersey for their encore in St. Louis; and this iconic interview response to a question about what he looks for in a mate:
Not to mention Feminist Harry Styles. Ugh, get out of my face.
It’s not that One Direction are showing their fans how to act. This generation is already much more aware and tolerant than even mine. (If Justin ever grabbed JC’s balls at an international awards show, the fandom would have shit a brick.) They’re meeting most of their fans on their level, and hopefully pulling the rest in the right direction. One look at Tumblr shows that it’s teens who are having the most productive conversations about gender identity, sexual identity, and universal respect for every stop on those spectra. It’s more than a little ironic that artist management will do anything necessary to preserve their product’s manly, straight-guy image (ha) when fans are writing and trading operatic slash fics 24/7. It’s the commodification of girl desires, without any attempt to actually understand them.
Boy band love takes the middle man out of the equation. It’s a connection between the group and their fans. The intimacy is real; it has a real impact. Loving something makes you a more interesting person. And loving something within a community (fandom) makes you a more understanding, relatable, empathetic person. Even if that thing is a group of guys who sing and (sometimes) dance. Don’t let anyone ever tell you different. Boy bands for life.