In her first book, the fully illustrated LARGER THAN LIFE: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS (out July 21 on Black Dog & Leventhal, a Hachette imprint), author Maria Sherman offers a definitive guide to the pop phenomenon through capsule histories of the swoon-iest groups, in-depth investigations into one-hit wonders, conspiracy theories, dating, in-fighting, haters, fan fiction, fashion and more. In this exclusive excerpt, Sherman details the building blocks of boy bands — delivered with a mix of serious obsession and tongue-in-cheek humor.
A SHORT LIST OF ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL BOY BAND LINGO
To fully dive into the boy band story, there are some terms to familiarize yourself with in order to make it through the overwhelming enthusiasm of it all. I’m very much aware that slang limits text to an isolated moment in time, but this is a history book (a tongue-in-cheek history, but a social study nonetheless) that requires you, dear reader, to wield the proper tools to make it through. Luckily enough, you’re armed.
“THE BOYS”: This is how all boy band fans refer to their favorite group. If they’re feeling assertive, it becomes “my boys.” When communicating with another die-hard devotee, it’s “our boys.”
EASTER EGG: In popular culture, an Easter egg is a hidden message, joke, reference, or image in a body of work meant for fans to decode or crack. For example, New Kids on the Block wearing updated versions of their “Hanging Tough” outfits in the video for their “Boys in the Band” single thirty years after the original track is an Easter egg. It’s unlikely a non-NKOTB fan would pick up on it.
FAN FICTION (FAN FIC FOR SHORT): This one is pretty self-explanatory, but fan fiction is fiction based on real people or characters from a separate, original work. There can be Harry Potter fan fiction, and there can be fan fic about befriending New Kids on the Block. If they so happen to travel to space and land on a planet that does not exist in our limited understanding of the great beyond, or enter some other setting that differs from their canonical history, that’s referred to as AU, or fan fiction set in “alternative universes.” Online, there are self-publishing databases dedicated to fan fiction, the largest one being Wattpad. You might remember Fanfiction.net.
FANDOM (AND FANDOM NAME): Fandom is used to describe both a community of fans and the experience of being a fan. Etymologically, it is the combination of fan- and the suffix -dom, likely referring to “kingdom,” or a condition, found in the word “wisdom.” In the latter interpretation, “fandom” is the state of being a fan. Every big boy band, and those groups who aspire to one day become a big boy band, name their fandoms. It’s a simple idea: give your loyal followers a sense of community and identity by tagging them in the same way Democratic and Republican party affiliations unite people with similar politics. Contrary to popular belief, fandom names are not a trend that began in the social media age to rally those populations. They have been around for decades: the Beatles had their Beatlemaniacs, the Bay City Rollers had Rollermaniacs, New Kids on the Block fans are called Blockheads, Direction has its Directioners, BTS simply calls their group ARMY, like KISS fans referred to themselves in the zenith of ’80s hair metal.
FAVE(S): Your favorite band, bands, member, celebrities, whatever. It is not a proper noun, but the internet does not care much for grammar or the limitations of language, so get used to it. Example: Big Bang’s G-Dragon is my fave.
INSIDER: A term used to describe the most loyal and active members of an online fan account who have access to privileged information, like the whereabouts of a boy band beyond their publicized appearances. These include: the hotels they’re staying at, where they were spotted in the last hour, their flight numbers, and so on. This should not be confused with the way “insider” is used at gossip publications, where it means a private source close to a celebrity. These insiders are fans who’ve done their homework and should probably become spies later in life.
SHIP: While this may sound nautical to the uninitiated, “ship” is closer to “relationship” than “pirate ship.” It’s an active verb. When a fan ships, they encourage and/or root for a relationship between two celebs and/or fictional characters. This is anything from hoping Harry Potter and Hermione Granger would become an item to wishing boy band members would date one another. Shipping plays a crucial role in celebrity gossip and in the homosocial experiences of fans who, say, want One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson to date. In fact, romantically positioning two objects of affection in queer relationships is common in boy band spaces. For many young women interested in the boys, it would be heartbreaking to see them with another girl, but with another member of the group—someone she also fancies—it’s accessible eroticism. In that way, shipping deserves a lot of thought: Is it that these girls see queer relationships as somehow less legitimate than straight ones, and therefore this does nothing toward furthering sexual equality? That Harry and Louis together means they could never “cheat” on a female fan? Or is it that fans are open to the idea of polyamory and bi/pansexual identity at an early age? Or are they simply horny?
SHIP NAME: When you ship a pair, it’s likely that others do, too. That results in a sub-fandom for those relationships, regardless of whether or not they are real. To return to the previous example: Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson shippers are known as Larries, in reference to “Larry Stylinson,” a combination of both boys’ names. When Styles was dating Taylor Swift, a public relationship, their ship name was “Haylor.”
STALK: Not to be confused with the criminal act of harassing someone with unwanted obsession, “stalking” is used by boy band fans in a way that is meant to reappropriate the “hysterical” language of boy band fandom past. A stan “stalks” by waiting around a place their fave member might be, such as outside a tour bus following a stadium set or at baggage claim in an airport. A fan could say they’re “stalking” their fave by simply scrolling through social media and bringing attention to some posts he recently liked. Basically, stalking ranges from the totally innocuous to borderline criminal.
STAN: A portmanteau of “stalker” and “fan,” colloquially used to mean “super fan.” Taken from a 2000 Eminem song no one should remember. Or perhaps they should, for the horror. In the lyrics, “Stan” is an obsessed fan who gets drunk and drives off a cliff with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk, presumably because Eminem, his obsession, never responded to his fan letters. Nowadays, the term has been co-opted by fan culture and used endearingly, both as a noun (“I’m an O-Town stan”) and a verb (“She stans New Edition”).
TINHATTING: Taken from the conspiratorial impulse to rock a tinfoil hat, à la the 2002 flick Signs, tinhatting is the fan practice of forming some theory and using new information to justify it. In my profession, that’s called lazy journalism: the result of someone who has already come to a conclusion looking for and stretching shreds of evidence to verify their existing thesis instead of allowing an unbiased investigation to uncover the truth. But it can be fun to be obnoxious online, in zines, and with friends, so more power to the tinhatters—as long as they aren’t promoting harm.
Apologies for the sacrilege, but if you’re into boy bands, you’ve already converted into the most persuasive spiritual practice there is. Congratulations, by the way! It’s a lifelong commitment, and it’s much too late for you to back out now. The good thing is that there’s no sacred scripture to memorize or eternal damnation to worry about, but there are commandments. You’ll want to make sure you internalize this information to avoid appearing like a poser in future conversations. I don’t make the rules, but boy band performers are forced to understand the following:
- Thou shalt harmonize well with others
- Thou shalt respect a five-year life span
- Thou shalt not take the name of the fandom in vain
- Remember your hair products, to keep them holy
- Honor thy love ballads
- Thou shalt not grow a beard
- Thou shalt not get a girlfriend
- Thou shalt be in thy teens or early twenties
- Thou shalt consider choreography and coordinating outfits
- Thou shalt not covet the limelight
Allow me to translate.
COMMANDMENT ONE: THOU SHALT HARMONIZE WELL WITH OTHERS
Boy bands must sing well together. Obviously. They don’t play instruments, otherwise they would just be called a “band.” Actually, some boy bands do play instruments. Much like organized religion, boy bands are full of contradictions. Learn to deal with it.
COMMANDMENT TWO: THOU SHALT RESPECT A FIVE-YEAR LIFE SPAN
Boy bands only last about five years, excluding, like, the Backstreet Boys and the inevitable reunion album or cruise. In the rare case a boy band exists beyond their expiration date, their popularity drops, and their celebrity is reserved for die-hard fans alone. Pop music trends have a short shelf life.
After the five-year mark, give or take, live shows move from stadiums to arenas to large clubs to small clubs and so on. It’s rare for a boy band to elect to fade away instead of burning out with a fiery passion once they realize they’ve passed their prime and it’s time to put this thing to bed. A new group is destined to take their place, anyway. As Boyzone and Westlife manager Louis Walsh wrote in the Guardian in 2001, “The rest is up to the girls. They go crazy, buy all their records, posters and DVDs and go to every show they can. And then they grow up. But the boys do, too; when you see facial hair, earrings and tattoos and they start to talk about being individuals, it’s time to go to the conveyor belt and get a new set.”
Even though boy band breakups are ineluctable, they are also ruthless and devastating for fans. When your fixation is happening in real time, it’s impossible to imagine your favorite group choosing to do anything other than maintain their ongoing existence until you lose interest, as if you ever would.*
COMMANDMENT THREE: THOU SHALT NOT TAKE THE NAME OF THE FANDOM IN VAIN
Boy bands’ only true loyalty is to their fans. Fans are all-powerful, and the boys know it.
COMMANDMENT FOUR: REMEMBER YOUR HAIR PRODUCTS, TO KEEP THEM HOLY
Boy bands have fantastic hair and work hard to ensure it always looks fantastic, even when dirty or disheveled, for their fans’ sake.
COMMANDMENT FIVE: HONOR THY LOVE BALLADS
Boy bands love love ballads and would sing exclusively about the elusive four-letter word if they could. Many do. Sex, unsurprisingly, is not on the table, unless the topic is discussed through a heavy layer of lyrical metaphor and innuendo. Anything more is lewd.
COMMANDMENT SIX: THOU SHALT NOT GROW A BEARD
Boy bands are clean-shaven. Always. How else are you supposed to see those jawlines? Also, it’s in the name: boy bands. Not “man bands.” What kind of boy has a beard? Sometimes singers will sport light facial hair, but nothing more than a five o’clock shadow. The big beards arrive after the guys go solo, not unlike when a service member leaves the military and the war is over.
COMMANDMENT SEVEN: THOU SHALT NOT GET A GIRLFRIEND
The boys are unable to fall for any stone-cold fox until their fans have made it known that they’ll remain supportive even if their crush is taken, or until their publicists have run the numbers and concluded that the boys would benefit from a high-profile relationship in the tabloids. Luckily enough, those realizations occur around the same time. Whether or not these extremely public bonds are real or fabricated is up to the fans to investigate, but it’s very clear to see why, say, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears would link up. They’re hot, and the benefits are endless.
COMMANDMENT EIGHT: THOU SHALT BE IN THY TEENS OR EARLY TWENTIES
Boy band members are in their teens or twenties. They are never in their thirties, because then they might as well be dead. When they’re in their thirties, they’re officially men, which means they are not boys. Ideally, the youngest member and the oldest have a significant age difference between them, too, to attract a broad range of fans. The youngest member is usually very young and therefore responsible for the oh-so-necessary falsetto. Someone has to hit those high notes.
COMMANDMENT NINE: THOU SHALT CONSIDER CHOREOGRAPHY AND COORDINATING OUTFITS
Boy bands dance. If they don’t dance, they look good standing next to one another in coordinating outfits, which is almost as good as dancing.
COMMANDMENT TEN: THOU SHALT NOT COVET THE LIMELIGHT
Boy bands never allow one member to identity as the leader. When someone grows too big for his britches, the group is over. Got it? Good.
Over time, boy bands break free of their blueprint, the result of groups before them pushing the envelope enough for change to be had. Think about it: One Direction refused to dance a decade after the Backstreet Boys’ and *NSYNC’s massive popularity. 5 Seconds of Summer played instruments after them. K-pop boy bands like BTS extended the membership of boy bands to seven or more. Brockhampton raps, expanding the boy band genre designation from pop/rock/R&B to hip-hop. In future decades, these commandments may be completely obsolete, but one thing is eternal: cute boys who can sing well together will always be popular.
Or maybe a boy band can’t be defined by a set of rules after all? Maybe a boy band is defined only by the makeup of its fans, the loyal young women who adore them? You decide.
* There’s an alternative mode of being, taken from my diary: you hope your band will stick with it until you get a cute boyfriend, even if it is some dude who thinks boy bands are wack. You decide to entertain his very bad opinions for, like, two years, because Mike is real, smells okay, and wants to do neck-kissing. (The next stage in the process is realizing boy bands are better than any boy you’ll meet in grade school while simultaneously hoping your favorite group’s reunion is nigh.)