We all know the most famous examples. Lance Bass famously came out three years after *NSYNC disbanded, saying he lived in constant fear of being outed and subsequently ruining his and his bandmates’ careers. Jonathan Knight of New Kids on the Block was outed in 2011 by “I Think We’re Alone Now” singer Tiffany, and admitted that he was told to keep quiet about his sexuality when performing in NKOTB. Former Menudo member Ricky Martin came out in 2010, admitting later he was advised by friends that doing so could end his career. These are just a few of the stories stories that we know about.
But pop culture has changed in the last few decades. Television, music, movies and art have slowly made their way towards offering more representation for queer people at large. RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a pop culture phenomenon that has seen ratings grow and expand with each new season. Films like Love, Simon, Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight have seen success not only with critics, but at the box office. Artists like Hayley Kiyoko, Troye Sivan, Sam Smith, Halsey and many more have found significant mainstream success as openly queer figures in music.
The main difference, however, between the success of these artists and the triumph of the boy bands of yesteryear is the audience being targeted. Solo artists have the autonomy to create and cater to their own specific fan base, whereas boy bands are marketed specifically to be the heteronormative new heartthrobs for a generation of teenage girls.
This is yet another example of the never-ending culture of toxic masculinity -- the idea that males can only be called “true men” if they subscribe to and portray a specific type of manhood. If you’re not a strong, emotionally suppressed and innately competitive man, then society shames and attempts to change you. The idea that a queer man could still broadly appeal to an audience made up of predominantly straight young women doesn’t fit in to this narrative.
Labels and industry moguls have commodified straight male sexuality in boy bands since their inception, using an innocent, unchallenging form of sex appeal to bait young women into buying and listening to their music. But today, young audiences are not only accepting of queer people in boy bands -- they crave it.
Take One Direction for example. During the short time period that the band performed together, a large faction of the group’s fan base was obsessed with the idea that bandmates Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were in a secret gay relationship. Fans poured over the fact that the two lived together and always seemed to be sitting near one another during interviews, analyzing every moment in which the two made physical contact with one another, including hugs, pats on the back, and even the occasional peck on the cheek. Don’t believe me? Go Google the term “Larry Stylinson.”