Wrong Direction: Why The Wanted Never Reached The Boy Band Stratosphere

Mark Hayman

The Wanted

There were sonic missteps and album delays, but the boy band war of 2012 was over before it began.

In March 2012, there were not one but two U.K. male pop groups on the cover of Billboard magazine, with a story written by Steven J. Horowitz about the impending boy band boom that the arrival of these two groups, One Direction and the Wanted, signaled within pop music. It made sense to pair the two quintets, who were far from household names at that moment but had been gaining momentum in different ways. One Direction’s debut album, Up All Night, had just been released in the U.S. and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, making 1D the first U.K. band to start at the top of the albums chart with its debut set (the Beatles were among the acts that hadn’t accomplished that feat). Meanwhile, the Wanted owned the higher-charting hit of the two groups, as the bombastic Eurodance single “Glad You Came” peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100 chart (One Direction’s concurrent single, “What Makes You Beautiful,” tapped out at No. 4). The Wanted’s debut album had already been a smash in the U.K., and a seven-song EP was due out in America in April 2012.

Both groups were populated by hunky U.K. natives who appealed to different demographics — One Direction’s members were all under-21 and scooped up the tween/teen fans with their bubblegum tunes, while the Wanted could legally drink in the U.S. when they invaded the country (except for Nathan Sykes, who turned 21 last April) and flaunted more overtly suggestive music. Both had big-time backers (Simon Cowell for One Direction, Scooter Braun for The Wanted) and major label support guiding their ascendance. Both had younger female fans who would buy concert tickets and shriek at their gorgeous faces, no matter how few chart hits they had compiled at the time.

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“Not since the reigning days of Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync and 98 Degrees have boy bands crashed pop culture with such fervor,” Horowitz wrote in Billboard’s cover story. This was just how it was going to be: the boy band wars were back on, and these two groups were the ones on the front lines. They were going to be huge! Were you Team 1D or Team Wanted? Resistance was a laughable idea.

And then, a funny thing happened: One Direction barreled into international success, but the Wanted got stuck in the mud. One was prospering, and the other was fledgling, and the Backstreet Boys/’N Sync binary started to disintegrate before it was even started. Watching the Wanted struggle in real time was like picturing BSB releasing an album full of smash singles while ’N Sync struggled to find a follow-up to “I Want You Back” and kept pushing back its album release date. The gap between the two contemporaries grew wider and wider, with One Direction’s seemingly effortless superstardom making the Wanted’s lead-footed missteps appear even more glaring. The Wanted was still performing on awards shows and selling out theaters, but why weren’t they collecting radio hits and plotting arena tours, like their younger pseudo-rivals?

Earlier this year, the Wanted quietly announced that they would be taking an indefinite hiatus to pursue solo endeavors following its spring 2014 tour. That defeated shoulder-shrug came in January, when One Direction was basking in the glow of its third No. 1 album and preparing to embark on its first stadium run. The boy band war was not a war at all; it had been a one-sided stomping.

The Wanted's journey to the U.S. was always a little more awkward than One Direction's, since they already released two albums released before heading to America. 1D had been formed on the U.K. version of The X Factor in the summer of 2010, while The Wanted was put together through auditions a year earlier; the latter had already released its self-titled debut album overseas before the former had started working on its own first album. The Wanted's debut U.S. EP was an amalgamation of the two albums' better tracks, but the group had decided not to repackage old U.K. hits like “All Time Low” and “Gold Forever” to U.S. radio. Whereas Up All Night was a cohesive introduction to 1D, The Wanted EP was a short, if fairly enjoyable, mishmash, tossed out to give stateside hit “Glad You Came” a home while sacrificing a bit of consistency from each of the group’s two albums.

But what a single that was, right? “Glad You Came” remains sensational boilerplate pop, a dance track oozing cheese and with movements both expected and uncontrollably alluring. In between smoldering slow-motion shots of the guys seducing the entirety of Ibiza, the video for “Glad You Came” successfully established the Wanted members’ personalities: Max was the football-loving brute, Nathan the earnest vocalist of the group, Tom the squirrelly jokester, Jay the scruffy quiet type, Siva the beautiful model. The song was a legitimate mainstream hit, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart, and the group followed it up with “Chasing The Sun,” a song that’s exactly one second longer than “Glad You Came” and sounds exactly like “Glad You Came,” but hopped up on some Red Bull. No matter: “Chasing The Sun” was another Hot 100 hit, and the Wanted started promising that a proper U.S. debut was just around the corner.

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Over the next year and a half, however, the Wanted demonstrated that it simply did not know what type of pop music it wanted to make while awaiting a concrete album release date. “I Found You” was a sleek and stellar dance-pop single, constructed around a synth riff that recalls “Glad You Came” but with an all-falsetto hook that’s loads of fun to attempt yourself. That song was performed at the 2012 American Music Awards and served as a breakout moment of sorts for crooner Nathan Sykes, but only peaked at No. 89 on the Hot 100, and a 2012 album release was shifted into 2013. Then came “Walks Like Rihanna,” a slapdash grab for headlines that flirted with sensitive pop-rock before arriving at its lame-brained chorus, which didn’t crack the Hot 100 at all.

By the time “We Own The Night,” the official first single to debut album Word of Mouth, was unfurled in August 2013 with faux-folk vibes and pub-destined chants, the Wanted had scrambled its identity to an incomprehensible point, while also squeezing in a strange E! reality show and promises of a Justin Bieber collaboration that was never to come. After cloning its first U.S. hit, the Wanted had swung too far in the other direction, grasping at trends before establishing a musical foundation.

"We wanted to make sure the album really flowed," the group’s Tom Parker told Billboard of the prolonged album delay, weeks before debut LP Word of Mouth was finally released, “so it wasn't random orchestral bits, random dubstep. So we really feel like it flows now." Word of Mouth contains a few strands of euphoric pop, but one thing it does not do is flow — the project somehow feels both stinted and heavy, and the inclusion of “Glad You Came” a year and a half after it was featured on The Wanted EP is head-scratching. Incredibly, the Wanted announced its impending dissolution less than three months after Word of Mouth hit stores and opened at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 albums chart last November, the same month that One Direction’s Midnight Memories sold over half a million copies in its first week.

No, “Walks Like Rihanna” couldn’t raise its devil horns with the lip-smacking fun of “Best Song Ever,” and the Wanted’s first U.S. album wasn’t released until 1D released its third. But it wasn’t just about the songs or the album delays: the odds were always stacked against the noticeably older boy band engaged in the Great Boy Band Battle of 2012.

Those who attended One Direction’s Where We Are tour earlier this year witnessed tweens who had been grade-schoolers, young teens who had been tweens and high schoolers who had been middle schoolers when One Direction arrived in the U.S., all screaming at 1D’s adorable faces as they sparkled under the bright stadium lights. These were the shrieks of the lovesick, of adolescents who worshiped One Direction because they related to them as fellow teenagers and who had quickly grown up alongside them over a three-year period of time. By nature, One Direction can’t dominate pop forever, because they and their fans will become adults and move on to other endeavors. The Wanted, on the other hand, were already adults when they crossed the Atlantic, and while they still provoked screams at their shows, they also looked more awkward winking at underage girls and pumping up the audience for their backing band.

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There’s a reason that boy bands burn bright in their youth, and then either break up (like 'N Sync, Jonas Brothers or 98 Degrees) or coast on their most dedicated supporters without ever recapturing the zeitgeist (like Backstreet Boys, Hanson or Boyz II Men). Groups like Menudo even took to replacing members with younger members to keep the faces fresh. The zealous fandom of teen girls cannot be sustained for more than a few years at a time, so when a group captures that audience, they must sprint with it -- which is why One Direction is about to release its fourth album in four years and has refused to press the pause button on its extraordinary pop machine.

Maybe the Wanted’s fate was sealed the moment they arrived on the scene as a boy band full of men, a quintet with a handful of great singles but too few members under the age of 21. One Direction and the Wanted appealed to different demographics, but perhaps the Wanted’s demographic never really existed.