The return of the boy bands…
Peruse the Billboard Hot 100 on any given week, and you may find that not many artists currently sitting in the top twenty have had careers spanning more than a few years. This is just another testament to the capricious nature of the music industry, which often cycles and revamps itself more frequently than your average Madonna career.
As new bands garner the love and adoration of fans, older bands frequently find themselves out of favour – just ask Menudo, Another Bad Creation, or O-Town what they’ve been up to lately. Everyone desires a Mariah Carey-like resurrection (and sometimes, even Mariah Carey hopes for it), but how many artists can actually do it?
One band who hopes to do just that is the newly reunited New Kids on the Block, who dusted off their coveralls and joined Timbaland and Teddy Riley, among others, in the studio for their first album in fourteen years. The Block’s first track, “Summertime,” became a Top 40 single and revived nostalgia for anyone born before the nineties. The seeming success of New Kids on the Block prompts the question – can other bands successfully reunite when the fanfare has disappeared? Let’s take a look at some boy groups and how they’ve fared with their own comebacks. ¤ C.Ho.
New Kids on the Block
The Story: What do you get when you mix five baby-faced boys with some Motown sensibilities and a dash of bubble gum pop? If you were around in the early nineties, the answer would be mass hysteria. Not since The Beatles have a group of boys elicited so much fainting and screaming and panty wringing than Jordan Knight, Joey McIntyre, Danny Wood, Jonathan Knight, and Donny Wahlberg. "Please Don't Go Girl," "I'll Be Loving You (Forever)," and "Hangin' Tough” were just some of the pop-infused drivel that will forever be etched in our pop cultural landscape. (In fact, to this day, I can still recite the lyrics to “Step by Step,” although my moves are a bit rusty.) NKTOB, as it was later known, was one of the most iconic bands of the nineties, signaling the rise and fall of the boy band in one fell career. After several years of fame, fortune, girls, and singles called "Dirty Dawg,” they were no longer hanging tough, if you catch my drift.
Last Top Ten Hit: “Step By Step,” 1990
The Comeback: “Summertime” is a throwback to the New Kids on the Block we all knew and loved – even though they’re all over the age of 35 now, and are probably having a hard time remembering anything that happened before 1995. The boy band formula is still here, even down to the part where Danny and Jonathan don’t really sing. Despite improper grammar and implausible street cred, the nostalgic “Summertime” did well on the U.S. and Canadian charts. The follow-up track featuring Ne-Yo, “Single,” is poised to be a respectable chart topper as well.
The Video: “Summertime” begins by re-introducing us to the guys: Donnie, who seems to have developed some sort of eye tick, boards his chopper; Joey, the only one who still feels comfortable enough to go topless, is on his yacht; Danny, looking as buff as ever, is doing a Predator revival as he runs in some jungle; Jordan, last seen on “The Surreal Life” playing “the douchebag,” is in his expensive car; and poor, neglected Jonathan is riding solo in a limo. The group then proceeds to alternate between cavorting on the beach with a couple of hot women and attending a boisterous party. At the end, we’re treated to a dance that incorporates some of the group’s signature moves. And yes, Donnie is still the only person here that can dance.
The Epilogue: After years of speculation and VH1 television shows and reality television appearances and Saw, the Kids are back and in fine (or at least, not-so-old-you-feel-like-a-grandparent-watching-Wayne-Newton) form. Unfortunately, the nostalgic trip down memory lane for Generation Xers can last only so long – as is the patience to hear upcoming tracks like “Sexify My Love” and “Stare At You.”
The Story: In a cultural landscape dominated by grunge rock, it was a ripe time to re-introduce good, wholesome music to the American public, preferably by five photogenic teenagers with an uncanny knack for dancing in sync. After a slow start, the Backstreet Boys finally gained momentum and unleashed radio-friendly hit after hit. Nick Carter, A. J. McLean, Kevin Richardson, Howie Dorough, and Brian Littrell became the object of many a tween girl’s dream and, really, who could resist shirtless dancing in the rain? The Backstreet Boys were also single-handedly responsible for showing a nation of teens the real shape of our hearts. There was no stopping these plucky five. That is, until puberty hit.
Last Top Ten Hit: “Incomplete,” 2005
The Comeback: After Kevin left the group to, you know, raise a family instead of cranking out pop music for women half his age, it seemed like the group was destined to become a footnote in musical history. But if that were the case, we never would have been treated to Never Gone, which was released five years after their platinum album, Black & Blue. With a sound that one Rolling Stone reviewer describes as an “urge to rock out in a superslick power ballad kinda way” (not that there were really any other dimensions to the Boys), Never Gone debuted at number three on the Billboard 200.
The Video: “Incomplete,” the first single from Never Gone, features the dramatic sweeping motions and overwrought hand wringing that the Boys have perfected over the years. And sadly, that is it. Utilizing every clichéd element under the sun, including a burning car and some emotionally strained splashing in the ocean, each Boy is awarded his own tableau in which to stomp around, brood, and generally act like underneath their pain lies an even greater emotion: constipation.
The Epilogue: A successful comeback seemed so close – and yet as far away as the Boys’ lost youth. 2007’s Unbreakable had a decent showing upon its debut, but dropped out of the Billboard Top 100 by its second week. This may be in part because the album’s first single, “Inconsolable,” failed to chart anywhere except the Adult Contemporary Charts, and sounded exactly like “Incomplete” (let’s hope “Incontinent” doesn’t become the title track of their next album). But I like to think that it has more to do with the fact that Unbreakable shares the same namesake as a lackluster M. Night Shyamalan film, and that the five people who contemplated buying the album saw “House of Carters” and changed their minds.
The Story: It’s hard to imagine a song more annoying than “Macarena,” but “Mmmbop” comes close. Set against happy-go-lucky beats and impossibly high male vocals, the song became a giant international hit for the Hanson brothers in 1997. Soon, everyone was singing the song, even though no one knew the actual lyrics or what the song was about. Isaac Hanson (then 17), Taylor Hanson (then 14) and Zachary Hanson (then 12), the 90s counterpart of the Jonas Brothers, were spoofed by “Saturday Night Live” and “The Family Guy,” among others, and were even awarded a day in their name (May 6, for those of you keen to mark your calendars). Middle of Nowhere scored a slew of award nominations and sold over ten million copies worldwide. But alas, this fortune was not meant to last. After the commercial flop of their second album, This Time Around, and record company execs rejecting most of their new material, Hanson chose artistic integrity over sweet, sweet money, and started their own independent label, 3CG.
Last Top Ten Hit: “I Will Come To You,” 1997
The Comeback: There is no real comeback story for Hanson. That is because I cheated, and Hanson never actually took a hiatus or broke up before continuing their career. But there was a sort of reawakening as the group parted ways with their major label and embarked on a career of independent music. Underneath, released in 2004, debuted at number one on the Billboard Independent Albums chart and #25 on the Billboard 200 chart. One might think that this would spell commercial success, or at least yield enough profits for several Big Macs, but as the story has been going, Underneath actually lost money for the band, who fronted most of the cash themselves.
The Video: “Penny and Me,” the first single from Underneath, doesn’t steer far from the Hanson we’ve all come to know. First there’s the singing, which is just as muffled as it was seven years prior (for the love of my ears, why won’t someone give them some elocution lessons?). Then there are the boys, who still love those instruments. On the plus side, they’re older now, and therefore less creepy to watch. And then there’s the split-screen, which follows a pretty girl (during close-ups, I often mistook her for Taylor) as she listens to music, drives a car, cries, and kicks fruit. All in all, “Mmmbop” all grown up.
The Epilogue: Even though Hanson has yet to match the success of their debut, it doesn’t seem like the siblings are hurting for attention. Participating in charitable events, filming documentaries about said charitable events, and marrying women they all eerily met at Hanson concerts have kept these three lads busy. And yes, Hanson Day is still going strong.
The Story: England’s answer to the New Kids on the Block, Take That was conceived through test tubes; that is, they were the brainchild of producer Nigel Martin-Smith, who assembled the band much like a movie montage where everyone is handpicked for the big heist. He finally settled on Gary Barlow (then 18), Mark Owen (then 17), Howard Donald (then 21), Jason Orange (then 18), and Robbie Williams (then 15), and the group immediately began cranking out dance-friendly hits. Everything Changes, Take That’s sophomore album, changed, well, everything. The group became a phenomenon across Europe and Asia, producing mass hysteria and crying teenagers wherever they went. At the height of their career came “Back For Good,” a maudlin song asking for forgiveness. Six years after the group was formed, Robbie Williams left to pursue a solo career. In 1996, the group officially disbanded, but not without a last jab at world domination – their greatest hits album was also released in 1996, and went on to give them their final number one song, which was…
Last Top Ten Hit: “How Deep Is Your Love,” 1996
The Comeback: During the hiatus, several members had tried to launch solo careers. But none were met with the same level of interest that had made Take That the most squeal-worthy band in the U.K., proving that four handsome heads truly are better than one. The group, sans Williams, reunited in 2006 for Beautiful World, which would go on to sell over two million copies in the U.K.
The Video: Beautiful World’s lead single, “Patience,” features each band member, looking much older (and tired – though that could happen to anyone who’s worked with Robbie Williams) than any of us remember, walking across a deserted road. They’re each carrying a microphone and stand. Hopefully this will come in handy later. They slowly convene on a rocky cliff, where they proceed to…watch Gary sing. Eventually, everyone joins in for the last chorus of the song. With their Abercrombie & Fitch ensembles, scraggly hair, and worn look, they seem to be channeling early 90s Duran Duran.
The Epilogue: Take That’s extremely successful comeback proves that you can go home again, provided that the porch light is still on.
Boyz II Men
The Story: In 1991, Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, Shawn Stockman, and Michael McCary brought a new sound to Motown Records. Part new jack swing and part soul, the foursome’s smooth vocals and harmonized singing parts became trademarks of the group, as were their geek chic looks and boy-next-door sexuality. “Motown Philly,” Boyz II Men’s first single, presented the group as a contemporary hip hop act, but it would be the Motown ballad, “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye To Yesterday,” that would become their signature sound. After a string of hits, including “I’ll Make Love to You” and “On Bended Knee,” Boyz II Men became the go-to group for baby makin’ songs (well, the kind that you don’t mind your kid sister listening to). Then there was “One Sweet Day,” a duet with Mariah Carey that broke records and stayed at number one for an ungodly amount of time. But by the time 1997’s Evolution came around, the band lost momentum, mostly due to label conflicts. In 2003, a scoliosis-stricken Michael retired from the group, and later efforts from the remaining members produced less than stellar results.
Last Top Ten Hit: “A Song For Mama,” 1997
The Comeback: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – and that’s exactly what Boyz II Men did when they released Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA in late 2007. With “American Idol” judges and sometime producers Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell on board, the album serves as a tribute to some of Motown’s greats, including The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and The Four Tops. And as far as numbers go, this album put the boys back on track by debuting at number 27 on the Billboard charts and selling 42,000 copies in its first week
The Video: Set against the glitzy backdrop of a stage show, the trio still tugs at our heartstrings with their velvety voices as they croon The Miracles’ "The Track of My Tears.” Although it’s been years since “4 Seasons of Loneliness,” everyone still has that unassuming and mild-mannered look about them, like they’re going to take you backstage to just hold hands. And, there’s more dancing here than there has been in the last ten years.
The Epilogue: Even though Boyz II Men is no longer the powerhouse it once was, the Boyz are staying afloat by returning to their roots and doing what they do best. And hey, it never hurts to revisit the classics.