The greatest thing a pop act can do is be controversial — create a confounding experience and resulting discussion, one which makes celebrity so damn exciting to dissect. Boy bands, by definition, are not controversial. Boy bands make safe music aimed at young, naive girls, and adults often assume that this music is not worth critical analysis. Teens love them, and most other people dismiss them. If there ever was a type of formulaic music, these boys — often cobbled together in a perfect-people factory, their high cheekbones and chiseled jawlines at pristine ratios — would be the ones making it, right?
For boy bands, controversy is what happens when the lines are blurred. What if they are not necessarily making safe music or playing the part of the manufactured pretty boys? What if a boy band is not a boy band at all? This is what makes 5 Seconds of Summer so interesting.
5SOS is a group that draws a huge number of young female fans, and much of the dialogue surrounding the success of the Australian group is dependent on One Direction, currently the world’s most popular boy band. They owe a lot to the group — a fateful tweet from 1D’s Louis Tomlinson and another from Niall Horan scored the boys an opening slot on One Direction’s annual world tour, two years running.
But at their core, 5SOS are very much a pop-punk band. When they harmonize, it’s in the form of New Found Glory-esque gang vocals. When they perform, they play their own instruments and they write the majority of their own tunes. When asked about their favorite musicians, they name-check Green Day, Mayday Parade and the Offspring. So they’re a band that’s not a boy band but provokes reactions like a boy band and associates themselves with the biggest boy band. Got all that?
What 5 Seconds of Summer have accomplished in a very short amount of time is an exponential growth in popularity often only accessible to bands knighted by the “boy band” term. It’s a level of success that is unique to that genre: cute boys and ravenous young female fans. Other groups have recently made something akin to this leap, or gotten closer to doing so. Fall Out Boy has always been rooted in rock, but Pete Wentz was a heartthrob that looked transported from another genre. All Time Low came close to reaching crossover success in the mid-to-late 00’s, but never quite made it; they’re actually closer to it now, perhaps thanks to 5 Seconds of Summer’s constant co-signing of the veteran group. When all is said and done, 5SOS could very well be bigger than either of those bands.
The only pop-punk band of this kind to rise to the ranks of 5SOS success was Blink-182 in the late 90’s and early 00’s — a group that, to this day, finds itself at the butt of many critical jokes. Where a band like Green Day spent much of their time politicizing a youth experience, Blink wanted to want to hop on stage and make dick jokes, while looking extremely good and being extremely funny in the process. A generation later, 5 Seconds of Summer has followed suit by de-vulgarizing Blink’s music while also proudly wearing them as an influence. 5SOS might crass it up soon enough (drummer Ashton Irwin turned 21 last week, the first member to do so), but for now, they are closer in age to much of their fandom and are keeping things PG-13. It’s what allows them to grace the covers of J-14 and Alternative Press concurrently — an important line to toe.
In that AP cover story from last year, guitarist Michael Clifford said, “I think in two years, we could either be seen as the leaders of the new pop-punk wave or we could be seen as ‘that shitty One Direction support band.’ But as far as our vision goes, all we’ve ever wanted to do is to be seen as bringing back guitars. That’s been our goal since we started: What if we could get a song in the Top 20 that had guitars in it?”
Clifford’s interest in covertly invading mainstream pop with rock music harkens back to the pop-punk explosion of the early ’00s. When young girls grew tired of the pop-centric stylings of Backstreet Boys and *N SYNC, they opted for the seeming alternative-ness of Blink-182, Good Charlotte and New Found Glory — the Hot Topic crowd, but with catchy hooks. Their dangerous appearance and sensitive songwriting became an attractive juxtaposition. Perhaps it’s because of One Direction that 5SOS was allowed to become the heads of what will soon become a new wave, allowed to study the moves and reap the benefits of Blink and Good Charlotte before them.
Meanwhile, One Direction is responsible for allowing 5SOS to fill that once guitar-less void in Top 40. 5 Seconds of Summer don’t have a signature crossover hit yet, but “Amnesia” broke into the Top 20 of the Hot 100 last year, and their self-titled debut album rocketed to No. 1 last July with 259,000 copies sold in its first week, according to Nielsen Music. Would those numbers have been achieved had 5SOS joined the Warped Tour in 2013 instead of 1D’s impossibly popular world tour? Probably not.
5 Seconds of Summer’s fans continue to overlap in pretty wondrous ways as they prepare to headline across North America and start setting up their sophomore album. For older teens, the group’s music may launch them into other realms of rock music, and maybe into a pop-punk resurgence, if one is about to happen. And younger fans might need a new group to worship if 1D starts winding down over the next few years. 5 Seconds of Summer — the boy band that’s not a boy band — is better set up for superstardom than perhaps any other group out there thanks to that multi-dimensional appeal. Now, it’s up to them to sustain it.