5 Seconds of Summer formed organically back in 2011, not from industry forces or a competition show, but from being YouTube friends who’d built up sizable followings for their covers of pop songs. Luke Hemmings, Michael Clifford, Calum Hood, and Ashton Irwin, all accomplished singers and guitarists, played their own instruments and co-wrote all their own music; it was optics and marketing -- constant content and fan engagement targeted squarely at young women -- that earned them the boy band tag.
When they broke through with that “American Apparel underwear" song in 2014, they were typically categorized as pop-punk; after all, their just-barely-PG-13-rated sugar rush rock songs landed somewhere around the Jonas Brothers at their heaviest, Simple Plan at their most Radio Disney. But both of these bands were either broken up or far past their commercial peaks when 5SOS arrived, as were nearly all of the influences the boys wore on their band tees. Even back then, 5SOS' popularity was an anomaly.
Fast-forward to the recent past: 5 Seconds of Summer spent 2017 promising an album, but failing to deliver. After finally announcing Youngblood earlier this year, lead single “Want You Back” failed to make a striking impact, peaking at No. 61 in its lone week on the Hot 100 -- a far cry from its predecessor, "She's Kinda Hot," which peaked at No. 22 in 2015. And even then, none of Sounds Good Feels Good's subsequent singles peaked higher than No. 95, fueling the narrative that 5SOS was starting to sputter a little by the end of its second album cycle. Those versed in boy band lore had seen the cycle before. For New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys, the Jonas Brothers, the Wanted, and a host of smaller acts, the peaks and plunges were linear and obvious: several years of cultural saturation followed by deflating, swing-and-a-miss singles and an obvious commercial downturn. Even *NSYNC and One Direction sailed off into the sunset with choreographed, deliberate goodbyes.
After Youngblood dropped on June 22, there was considerable doubt 5SOS could beat out Nas and Christina Aguilera, a pair of vital veterans, but well past their commercial primes, for the No. 1 album. I interviewed the band over breakfast that morning and while they appeared ready as ever to gun for the stop spot, even their expectations were far below their final figure. Even with Beyoncé and JAY-Z releasing a surprise joint album the next day, 5SOS -- following a week of tireless promotion and fervent fan support -- snagged the Billboard 200’s top spot with 142,000 equivalent album units earned. Still, some shrugged off the No. 1 as a relative fluke, bolstered by album sales attached to concert ticket and merchandise bundles and still failing to match Sounds Good Feels Good's first-week total. That’s where the single’s success marks a watershed moment.
So what does the success of "Youngblood" indicate? For one thing, it shows continued (if underrated) influence of radio in driving songs up the Hot 100. It's not a major streaming standout (currently sitting at No. 44 on the daily U.S. Spotify charts), but the rise of "Youngblood" to the top 10 coincided with three consecutive weeks as the Hot 100's top Airplay Gainer. Rock bands are hardly a staple on Top 40 playlists, but "Youngblood" hangs just fine thanks to its driving bass groove and percussion-heavy stomp outshining the guitars throughout the mix. And the way the chorus strips back the song's sonics rather than exploding in full force -- much like Charlie Puth's recent Hot 100 top five hit "Attention" -- brandishes another trick radio listeners have warmed to. Mainstream radio saturation bodes well for 5SOS' current North American tour, as does their recent follow-up single, "Valentine," a bedroom jam best described as Future5SOS/LoveSounds. In all seriousness, it's the band's first song you could call "sexy" with a straight face.
What it's not indicative of, at least not yet, is rock'n'roll's oft-fabled triumphant return to pop radio. "Youngblood" is largely guitar-based, but instead of dominating the mix, the riffs are sparse and agile, used mainly for texture and rhythm (think The Police). If 5SOS are going to lead a rock revival on pop radio, they've got some heavy lifting to do: The other tracks on this week's Mainstream Top 40 chart coming from acts nominally tagged "rock" (Imagine Dragons' "Natural," lovelytheband's "Broken," Panic! at the Disco's "High Hopes") all eschew prominent electric guitar for sonic signifiers borrowed from recent pop, hip-hop, and dance trends -- let's just agree to call Weezer's "Africa" cover an outlier for now. Again, 5SOS plays the nonconformist.
For a radio hit, there's a refreshing roughness to "Youngblood." Our colleagues at Stereogum recently likened 5SOS' poppy reinvention to Maroon 5, and while there's some truth to that, their biggest hit refuses to scan as a "sellout" move or some placid radio pander. "Youngblood" sidesteps this in the tension of its riifs, the frayed shouting of the gang vocals.
However, their transformation across the album -- from the Miami Vice pallette of its album art to its chirpy guitars and smooth production -- actually does fall in line with a move punk bands have been pulling off for decades. From Blondie to No Doubt to Paramore, pop-leaning punk bands have consistently turned to new wave when looking to mature their sound without losing commercial clout and in that, the quartet's evolution is a familiar one. It's on the boy band side of their family tree where it's largely unprecedented. But 5SOS was never a simple case to begin with. Thanks to "Youngblood," their strikingly singular evolution continues to play out on a fittingly large stage.