When One Direction were cobbled together on X Factor in 2010, no one could expect they’d become one of the most successful bands in the world.
They toured around the globe to Beatles-level acclaim, sold over 50 million records worldwide and became the first band ever to have their first four records debut at Number 1 on the US Billboard 200. Yet despite their success, they were globally panned by large swathes of the population. It was cool to hate One Direction, and to make fun of those who liked them.
The band announced a hiatus in January 2016, and since then the tables have turned considerably. Zayn is now a sex icon, dating Victoria’s Secret models, while Harry is the closest thing to this generation’s Paul McCartney, touring solo and modelling for Gucci. Niall has also released a critically-acclaimed solo album and toured the world alone. Liam had a child with Cheryl Cole, and more recently has released tracks with hip-hop artists Quavo and French Montana. Louis has come full circle and will be judging the next season of X Factor alongside Simon Cowell. It’s now OK to like these men, and maybe even to respect what they do. So what was the issue when they were a band, rather than five individuals?
It comes down to the label they were given: boy band. It’s a curse that has seen many talented acts relegated to the lower echelons of popular culture. The term ‘boy band’ brings negative connotations for those who consider themselves to have a ‘good’ taste in music. ‘Fake’, ‘temporary’ and ‘record-label plants’ are just some of the terms thrown around in relation to boy bands. “Why do they have such a bad reputation?” you might ask. As One Direction proves, it doesn’t matter how talented the members of the band are – it comes down to the fan-base.
Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about the self-proclaimed ‘hardest working boy band in show business’, AKA Brockhampton. Hailing from Texas, the group is best described as a collective, with fourteen male members including vocalists, producers and photographers. Led by Kevin Abstract, an openly gay African-American man, Brockhampton hang out and collaborate with everyone from Ansel Engort to Jayden Smith. Most of the founding members met on a Kanye West forum site, and their music clearly fits into the rap/hip-hop genre. Overall, they appear to sit closer on the spectrum to Odd Future than One Direction.
But despite their urban roots, the group has actively embraced the term ‘boy band’. Speaking on Yours Truly, a Beats 1 Radio show, the band explained their process. “We studied boy bands. We picked apart the dynamic of a boy band… what it comes down to is, how can we put our twist on what people think a boy band is?” It’s about turning the term on its head and redefining what people think. Gone are the days of perfect choreography and stereotypically beautiful members – Brockhampton pride themselves on their different nationalities, different sexualities and different outlooks on life. They’re open about their mental health issues and the pitfalls of fame, and had their own #metoo moment this year with the ousting of founding member Ameer Vann. While they’re not the clean-cut poster boys you’d typically associate with a boy band, the moniker has stuck.
There’s one key difference, though, between Brockhampton and the boy bands of yesteryear – their fan-base is predominantly male, not female. This makes sense in a way – their music is part of a genre stereotypically associated with males. It works in their favour. As much as it pains people to admit, the music industry as a whole has been a boys’ club since the beginning, and there’s still a long way to go. Music that is stereotypically associated with women, such as pop and folk music, is generally not taken as seriously by critics or the general public. Acts with a predominantly female fan-base, particularly if that fan-base is young, struggle to be recognised as legitimate artists. As Brodie Lancaster noted in her 2015 Pitchfork article, “the presence of teen girls offers up a handy barometer: if they like something you can rest assured it’s not worth a serious listener’s ear…the crux of teen-girl illegitimacy is the assumption that they are incapable of the critical thinking their older, male counterparts display.” This is part of why the One Direction/Brockhampton dichotomy arises – according to the industry, teenage girls can’t possibly have good taste, whereas young men can.
That’s not to say Brockhampton don’t have female fans; at their recent Enmore Theatre show the crowd was probably a 60/40 split between men and women. But as is often the case with rap/hip-hop-centred performers, their female fans are often forced to the sides. After the Sydney screening of ‘The Longest Summer in America’, the group’s new documentary, it was announced that they would be filming an impromptu video clip for new track ‘New Orleans’. As Junkee reported, most of the women present were pushed back or moved to escape the rowdy scenes around the group. This had a huge effect on the final product – the video basically consists of the group jumping around with young male fans, reinforcing their ‘bro-ish’ appeal. While this particular incident was probably accidental, it’s representative of how the gender proportions of an act’s fan-base can greatly influence their critical reception. The Fader called the video “a thrilling and impromptu portrait of hardcore fandom”. In comparison, The Fader never covered One Direction until their cover story with Zayn after he left the band.
It’s clear the concept of a ‘boy band’ is changing drastically, thanks to the redefining of the term by acts like Brockhampton. The new guard aren’t afraid of their predecessors – Kevin Abstract explicitly makes the comparison in ‘Boogie’ (“best boy band since One Direction”). They’re willing to make it work in their own way, and in the future ‘boy band’ might not be a term that makes critics snub their nose. For now, however, it still seems like a boy band can only be taken seriously if their fan-base is dominated by men.