In this 360°Sound exclusive, author Maria Sherman discusses her new book Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS. The 28-year-old Brooklyn resident has written extensively about music and popular culture for many publications, including Rolling Stone, SPIN, Billboard and Entertainment Weekly. Sherman is currently a senior staff writer for the website Jezebel. Larger Than Life will be released in paperback July 21.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
360°: How does the book define “boy band”?
Sherman: Popular culture accepts the idea that boy bands are groups of three-to-five young, attractive, usually white teens or 20-somethings who harmonize well with one another, dance synchronically, dress similarly, and perform inoffensive pop songs for a plethora of adoring fans, usually girls younger than themselves. Those with a bit more expertise might add that boy bands are usually the result of some Svengali-type behind the scenes, pulling the strings (The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC’s Lou Pearlman, New Edition and New Kids on the Block’s Maurice Starr). They might mention that boy bands don’t play instruments and fulfill particular tropes: the heartthrob, the bad boy, the cute one (who is not the heartthrob), and so on.
Most of that is true. But it’s also malleable. BTS has seven members. New Edition, the first contemporary boy band, was Black. One Direction couldn’t and didn’t dance. The Jonas Brothers are a rock band. K-pop [Korean pop] members are organized by age and skill set, not with the traditional, Western “heartthrob” tropes. Sure, there are overwhelming similarities, but boy bands are not as formulaic as many are wont to think.
I understand that you’re a longtime boy band fan, so I imagine writing this book was a labor of love for you. How’d the idea for the book come about?
The easy answer here is that this book was born out of necessity. There wasn’t a “history of boy bands” book in existence, so I wrote it. I pitched a definitive history, a comprehensive primer for curious audiences to fill historical gaps and for superfans to see themselves in something, and, ideally, feel their interests legitimized in some way.
Judging by the excerpt, the book looks like a narrative history with plenty of timelines, sidebars, illustrations, etc. Is it a bit reference/encyclopedia-like as well? How would you describe the format and writing style of the book?
You’ve nailed it! I knew I wanted to approach this book with the intellectual curiosity reserved for other music viewed as “serious” or “cool,” but I also wanted to maintain the integrity of what makes boy bands so great – that they’re fun! And this book is fun, and hopefully funny to some people. From the cover I hope it is apparent that illustrator Alex Fine and I were aiming to make this book look like a teen mag à la Tiger Beat. The book is styled a bit like that, too. There are capsule histories that lead each chapter, but there are also recurring sidebars to establish other histories within the text. I don’t want to give too much away, but I think it allows the reader to jump around to sections if they so choose, though the most comprehensive reading would be straight through.
What do you think your book adds to the existing literature on boy bands? Does it have something for neophytes and longtime superfans?
I like to believe this book identifies and finds the through lines that connect all generations of the pop phenomenon because, well, it simply hadn’t been done before in this way. Whatever your experience and attachment to boy bands may be, I hope you can find something interesting in here. After all, this is a human story. And there’s tons of crime and sex and fashion and all that extra-musical stuff that makes pop music especially interesting to interrogate.
The cover art by Alex Fine is really cool. What did Fine bring to the project?
Alex Fine is absolutely one of the most talented illustrators around and it was a total honor to get to collaborate with him on this project. I’ve long appreciated his work at Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly and getting him on board was a dream come true. His illustration style is bright and cheery; he really brought this story to life. Plus, he was very considerate and kind and responsive when I sent him ridiculous notes that were like, “I think Harry Styles’ dimples could use some more definition.”
Was the peak of the boy band phenomenon around 2000 when Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were at the height of their popularity? What was it like for you living through that time as a boy band fan?
If someone really wanted to label a “golden age of boy bands,” then I agree with you – it would undoubtedly be the late ‘90s, early ‘00s era, when the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC reigned supreme. That’s largely because they sold millions of records, numbers never seen before, eventually leading to the implosion of the music industry as we know it and the advent of illegal downloading and the digital marketplace.
I was a child during that time period, and I much preferred Backstreet to *NSYNC (they were moodier, darker, and *NSYNC could dance too well—as a kid, I was intimidated by their bodily expression of sexuality.) My real obsession started later in life, when One Direction pranced into my heart, but I will say the Backstreet/*NSYNC era gave me a greater sense of community surrounding pop music, and that has been the most valuable connection of my personal and professional life.
You devoted the final chapter to the future of boy bands. Are you optimistic that there will always be a market for boy bands?
It is my belief that boy bands will never go away, because they never have before. Once one disbands, another comes along to take its place – usually – after a few years. But with the success of BTS, it’s clear that the transition has become much quicker. Boy bands will always exist as long as there are young women and queer youth and everyone else endeared to this type of music dedicated to seeking out something that speaks to them.
To order Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS, click here.