The culture industry is one of the central areas in which genders are constructed, because of the influence popular culture has on all aspects of society (television, music, fashion and books). Within the music industry, boy bands have become a popular concept, since they can be extremely successful with girls and young women to earn quick money. Boy bands are typically appreciated for their vocal abilities and dancing capabilities which awe audience members. Nevertheless, this paper presents that the concept of “the boy band” is a site of gender reaffirmation for femininity, while it is a place to develop new forms of masculinity. This will be demonstrated through the analysis of three boy bands, over three decades: The Backstreet Boys (1990s), O-Town (2000s) and One Direction (2010s). To illustrate the replication of femininity and new wave of masculinity, three factors will be considered. First, this paper will survey lyrics from each of the three bands and how females are overtly sexualized in each of their songs. Next, fans (who are mostly girls and young women) are often characterized as hormonal in the media, which is used to devalue female sexuality. Lastly, all three of these bands perform in sexual manners reaffirming their heterosexuality to audience members and will often perform to females instead of with. Therefore, as a consequence of these boy bands’ lyrics, fan base representation and spectacle of concerts, patriarchal scripts of femininity are reiterated while hegemonic masculinity is able to be explored.
There is a common theme of female sexualisation that underlies each of these boy bands’ lyrics, which will leave an impression on young female audience members. The first can be seen in the 1990s with the Backstreet Boys. On their self-titled 1996 album, Backstreet Boys had one song entitled “Boys will be Boys,” which discusses a heterosexual relationship where the boy wants to initiate sex but the girl wants to wait, so he encourages her to change her mind:
And I hear you say
That you think we should wait
And I can’t hold on anymore
My body’s callin’ for you
So please don’t hesitate
Boys will be boys (you oughta know by now baby)
Boys will be boys (you know I gotta do what I gotta do baby)
This excerpt from Backstreet Boy’s song justifies the boy’s desire for sex, since he is unable to control his own emotions. The line “boys will be boys (you oughta know by now baby)” excuses the behaviour acted out by the male individual, which girls will then translate into their own lives. By the band using this expression – “boys will be boys” – in their song, they “convey recognition and acceptance of what [society] regard[s] as ‘natural’ boy behaviour” (Peterat 1994). In fact, this expression is often used in rape situations where there are young children involved, such as the case of a five year-old Montana girl who was raped by a fellow boy. The prosecutor told the victim’s mother that “boys will be boys” (Murphy 2014). Additionally, the Backstreet Boys help their male colleagues by repeating the expression throughout the song so that their female listeners adopt the expression as truth. This constructs the female gender into the passive, sexual entity that males commonly desire where she “oughta know” that it is the norm for society.
The band O-Town follows a similar sexual format, but instead their song “Liquid Dreams” is a prime example of the male gaze perspective, as the band describes the perfect female for their wet dream. In their song “Liquid Dreams,” they select the flawless sexual bits of their favourite women, and piece them together to create one ideal girl:
Now this hot girl, she’s not your average girl
She’s a morpharotic dream from a magazine
And she’s so fine, designed to blow your mind
She’s a dominatrix supermodel beauty queen
I dream about a girl who’s a mix of Destiny’s Child
Just a little touch of Madonna’s wild style
With Janet Jackson’s smile, rolled in a body like Jennifer
You got the star of my liquid dreams
O-Town’s lyrics are another sample of how young women are normalized into the construction of patriarchal femininity, and how they are expected to be good looking while being passive. For example, the band says “just a little touch” to describe the wild style, therefore a girl cannot be too wild or it will not be acceptable. This is what Laura Mulvey explains as the “male gaze” or “scopophilia.” Scopophilia refers to the erotic pleasure in looking at another individual (in this case an ideal woman) as an object (Vander Hoef 2014). Since all of the band members are describing what will achieve their orgasms, it is clear that the woman is a means to an end, and the person behind her does not matter. For female listeners, they will feel that they are constantly being compared to these women, so they may feel obligated to attempt to appear just like the ideal woman described so that they are satisfactory for their man.
Lastly, One Direction’s “Little White Lies” also deals with the subject of sex, but differs because it uses labels to differentiate the girl who chooses to have sex and the girl who abstains.
You say you’re a good girl
But I know you would girl
‘Cause you’ve been telling me all night,
With your little white lies, little white lies. X2
Now you wanna make some rules
Now cool – then we’ll watch them break tonight.
(One Direction 2013)
This song plays with the dichotomy that females either fall into two categories: either the angelic, virginal “good girl,” or the transgressing bad girl who is more open with her body. This is seen by the lines “you say you’re a good girl / but I know you would girl,” where the key word is “would” meaning that she wants to have sex with him. The male is then portrayed as knowing more about the girl than she does about herself. The gender construction that is evident in this song is how a girl should approach sex. She must not be blatant about desiring to have sex, but should still give off subtle hints, with good intentions, to the male.
The three different sets of lyrics demonstrate how boy band songs have not changed over the last three decades; all three have something to do with a heterosexual relationship desiring sex or pleasure from the girl. An observation that can be made for why the bulk of songs feature hegemonic masculine lyrics is that it is to reaffirm the band’s own masculinity to the public. Boy bands in general are known for their fashion, vocals, and dancing, yet these are qualities that are often attributed with females. Gayle Wald refers to this perception of boy bands as “girlish masculinity,” for there is a combination of feminine vocals with masculine sexual desire (Wald 2002). The lyrics allow the males in the bands to play with their own masculinity, but are able to reassert their own heterosexuality because of the dominant theme of female passivity and objectification in their songs. As a result, the construction of female gender remains at a standstill, while the masculine gender is allowed to evolve.
Patriarchal femininity is also established in how girls and young women are represented in media outlets, often criticizing the fan bases’ reactions to their interest in boy bands. Sarah Baker comments on the love of boy bands, and states that “alongside other ‘girlie’ activities like dancing, chatting and dreaming of romance, teenybop music is considered to be trivial and is devalued by critics because it is perceived as being purely about having fun” (Baker 363). In this statement, Baker explains that the fan base is portrayed in an unintelligent light as they are thought to be obsessed with the glorification and catchiness of a band rather than the talent. This portrayal reiterates the perception that a female’s hormones easily persuade her to consume goods, displaying her “foolishness” for being easily manipulated.
Since the Backstreet Boys marked the beginning of the boy band boom in the 90s, it has been clear that the female public is the main source of income for these artists. Backstreet Boys fans are often seen as the original obsessive bra and panty throwing fans, because the media sees their hormones as a cause to this action. Dan DeLuca described the 1999 Philadelphia concert as not “awful, just awfully dull for anyone not motivated by hormonal urges” (DeLuca 1999). “Hormonal urges” reduces the largely female fans to having a mere sexual attraction to the band, opposed to a sincere interest in the type of music and style that they have. The same can be seen for O-Town fans’ affections for them, which were also regarded as being purely due to their hormones. For instance, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan described the group as: “By early last week, millions of Americans knew each member of the boy band O-Town by name…dozens of fan Web sites with such titles as ‘The Erik Luver’s Club,’ where smitten teen-age girls regularly gush about their hormonal yearnings” (Tan 2001). In this article the author discusses the fans’ yearnings, even though the fan base was also made up of pre-pubescent girls who are not aware of their sexuality just yet. In both cases “hormones” are used to describe the reasons why these teenagers like the particular band and not actually because they genuinely enjoy the type of music.
It is no different in the 2010s where One Direction fans have received even more outrageous representations. One example is featured in the male magazine GQ. As Aja Romano from The Daily Dot describes the article “it was condescension and sexualisation of the fans themselves” (Romano 2013). The article Aja Romano discusses is written by Jonathan Heaf and enlightens GQ readers that:
“Inside the venue, a hormone bomb has gone off…an ocean of 20,000 wide-opening mouths, hundreds of pleading white eyes, 40,000 palms raised skywards, a dark-pink oil slick that howls and moans and undulates with every impish crotch-thrust from their idols’ plinths. Thousands of female fans caught on the cusp of their own sexual awakening…Behind me I hear the shrill sonic boom of a whole generation of women coming of age” (Heaf 2013)
Again, the mention of hormones of these girls and young female fans is relayed to the public. Referring back to Gayle Wald, she comments that this is a “patronizing depiction of the teenybopper herself,” and also creates a “hierarchy” of high and low art within the music industry (Wald 2002). The constant reference to hormones dismisses the “teenyboppers” choice in liking manufactured music as opposed to real rock music, even though looking at the history of rock music the initial fans were largely women (Tringali 2005).
Nevertheless, this paper does not diminish the idea that hormones play some part in the fans reactions during these concerts, as the boy bands’ lyrics encourage the women to behave in sexual manners. Hormones are not the issue though; the real problem is how the media is allowed to represent fans as “just hormonal,” because this already has the negative connotation by being associated with menstruation. This can be seen in relation to Emily Martin’s research of gender stereotypes and how they are projected in science. When reproductive organs are provided with explanations, Martin found that female menstruation is described as destructive and dirty while male spermatogenesis is explained as productive (Martin 1991). It displays that society continues to be uncomfortable with female sexuality, whereas it is okay for the boy bands to act in a sexual manner to the female audience. The media does not usually acknowledge the boys’ sexuality during performances, as society has reasoned that overt male sexuality is “natural behaviour.”
The last site of feminine struggle is during the actual performance of each of these boy bands. Diane Railton makes the case that “teenybop” music is to provide a break from everyday life for the female audiences. Railton reasons that “This means that pop stars…must focus on [girls’ and young women’s] needs rather than on the needs of the performer or of musical credibility. They must understand what is missing from the day-to-day lives of young women and provide it in fantasy form” (Railton 2001). The “fantasy” package that Railton remarks on can be associated with the presence of romance throughout the boy bands’ performances, since romance is the one genre that movie, television, and music industries have deemed marketable to females. However the romance presented on stage is the traditional dominant male and passive female relationship. The female passivity is seen in Figures 1 to 3 where each of the female fans are expected to sit through a song in which each of the boys serenades her and touches her. The effects of gender constructions are seen in the reactions of each of the female fans who are ashamed of their enjoyment of being serenaded to. There are the signs of blushing, fixing their hair, and downcast eyes, which is significant because they feel that it is wrong for them to enjoy the performance.
Alternatively, Gayle Wald raises the argument that “the spectacularization of the [male] body in music video performance renders it a particularly charged arena for the cultural representation and articulation of gender–especially, in this case, of masculinity and male sexuality” (Wald 2002). What Gayle Wald signifies here is how boy bands are able to create new forms of masculinity, and their music videos allow for this development. For example, any Backstreet Boys music video will feature a lengthy dance number shot at the end of the video. Backstreet Boys (and other boy bands during the 90s) paved the way for future males to be able to express raw emotion without receiving harsh criticism. There was no harsh criticism since these boy bands had the large female audiences to support their hegemonic and normative masculinity.
Conclusively, patriarchal femininity is reasserted in boy bands lyrics, how female fans are represented in media and during concerts, while masculinity has the opportunity to evolve in the same areas. The lyrical analysis identifies how the boy bands objectify females in their songs, and how they are able to convey patriarchal scripts of femininity: passivity but still giving into sex. However, by looking at the broad scope of lyrics by all of these male groups that feature raw emotion, it helps progress society’s views on what is acceptable for masculinity. Next, media outlets often negatively represent the fan bases by excusing the girls and young women fondness of the group because of their hormones. Female hormones are regarded as irrational since there is the link to menstruation and PMS. For males, their hormones are seen as uncontrollable yet acceptable in society because it is something natural. This is seen through the articles that overlook the bands sexuality during performances, but focus on the female audience members’ sexualities, and mocks them. Finally, female passivity is reaffirmed during concerts where, if brought on stage, females are expected to sit and be sung to. They have to keep their own hands to themselves, but it is alright for each of the band members to do what they please with the fan. Boy bands are just one example where social constructions of gender are identifiable. It is concerning that society has a difficult time accepting new forms of femininity, but is more open to new waves of masculinity provided they are done so in hegemonic ways. Without any discussion, this pattern will only be repeated.
Figure 1: Backstreet Boys Concert with Onstage Fan
Figure 2: O-Town Concert (Live From New York) with Onstage Fan
Figure 3: One Direction Concert Watford with Three Onstage Fans
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