Lance Bass, Kevin Abstract & Ricky Martin

Having a Queer Member Should Not Be A Death Sentence for Boy Bands in 2018: Op-Ed

For the first time since 2012, we are currently enjoying a new era of boy band prosperity. With groups like BTS, CNCO, Why Don’t We and more new young, male vocal groups crashing into mainstream pop culture, there’s no denying that we are in the midst of a mini-renaissance of an artform previously at risk of becoming archaic.

Many aspects of the ‘80s and ‘90s waves of popular blockbuster boy bands have found their way into this new wave of popularity; gigantic worldwide tours, upbeat hit songs and hypercharged female fan bases. But there’s one relic from the heyday of boy bands that I’m not interested in seeing again: the repression of members’ sexuality in pursuit of fame.

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.”

Even after the group disbanded, rumors of Styles’ potential queerness continued, and were reinvigorated last month by the lyrics to one of his live-debuted new songs, “Medicine.” When it appeared that the lyrics referenced Styles’ potential interest in both men and women (“The boys and the girls are in/ I mess around with him/ And I'm okay with it”), fans inundated Twitter with messages of support for the singer. 

The fact remains that many producers, managers and record labels are still hesitant to present a queer-fronted boy band thanks to the endless stereotypes and bigotry that the LGBTQ community still faces to this day. In a recent interview with Refinery29, Hayley Kiyoko said that she’s still confronted by music executives questioning her choice to write about her relationships with women. “Taylor Swift sings about men in every single song and video, and no one complains that she’s unoriginal,” she said. “I’m not over-sexualizing my music. I make out with women because I love women, not because I’m trying to be sexy.” That hesitation should be a thing of the past —  the intolerant opinions of an increasingly small portion of global audiences should not dictate whether or not labels are “comfortable” with artists living their truth.

For a young LGBTQ individual to see a group that is specifically catered to them and their straight peers touting an openly queer member could make a world of difference. It could be an unquestionable signal to them that other queer people exist and can thrive in our society without having to compromise their own sense of identity. It could allow them to feel seen and understood in a society that doesn’t often show signs of open acceptance.

LGBTQ culture has seen a growing amount of honest representation in mainstream culture, and boy bands should be no exception to that trend. Since this artform is specifically designed to appeal to the masses, having a non-straight member could show young queer kids everywhere that we are slowly making our way toward true equality. For the same reason that Disney fans want to see Elsa have a girlfriend in the next iteration of the Frozen franchise, boy band fans should call out the lack of representation in the industry and actively ask for what they want to see in their entertainment.

Luckily, there is hope. Brockhampton, a new “boy band” from San Marcos, Texas, signed last month with RCA Records. One of the group’s members, Kevin Abstract, not only openly identifies as gay, but raps throughout the group’s songs about gay sex, being attracted to straight men and even coming out to his parents (“I told my mom I was gay, why the fuck she ain't listen?”). At this year’s Coachella festival, Abstract took to the stage wearing a police vest that displayed the word “f----t,” almost as a badge of honor, for a screaming crowd that looked pretty similar to the ones attending sets by any other up-and-coming hip hop act that weekend.

The group is hardly your traditional boy band -- they are a group of racially and ethnically diverse young men whose sound is an innovative fusion of pop and hip-hop tropes. They occasionally follow common boy band trends, like wearing matching outfits and performing synchronized choreography, but the primary reason that they’re considered a boy band is because they say they are one. With a fast-growing audience, tens of millions of Spotify streams and a sound different from any other boy band performing today, Brockhampton is on the verge of blowing up.

Industry executives, take note; groups like Brockhampton are the future of the genre. Audiences are flocking toward less traditional pop acts by the thousands, and they have no problem supporting artists who don’t identify as straight. The next time you think about throwing more money at an all-white, all-straight boy band because they’re “a safe bet,” remember who you are denying that opportunity to for the sake of appealing to a shrinking demographic. Because the bet you’re making might be too safe for 2018 after all.