Redefining Musical Men:
How The Backstreet Boys Challenged the Ideologies of Traditional Masculinity
“A lot of people want to discount us. Because unlike a rock band or a garage band, they don’t think we paid our dues. A lot of people don’t know we’ve been playing together seven years. We weren’t playing bars, but we played high schools all over the United States. High schools aren’t bars, but teenagers are tough crowds, man.”
--Backstreet Boy Kevin Richardson (Wild, 45)
Although the ‘90s are often characterized, musically, by the popularity of punk and alternative rock, the teen pop genre significantly redefined the music industry and adjusted the expectations of the future of pop music. A sensationalized movement of the mid-to-late-nineties, teen pop was defined by a core group of artists who blasted the Billboard charts with hit singles and platinum albums. The Backstreet Boys were one of the first groups that emerged under the genre of teen pop, forming in 1992 under the guidance of producer and manager Lou Perlman. Fascinated by the incredible success of ‘80s boy bands like New Kids on the Block, Perlman auditioned a slew of young talents, determined to gain the same financial and musical successes that previous boy bands had seen. The result of Perlman’s endeavors significantly changed the atmosphere of the music industry at the time and impacted the lives of thousands upon millions of young girls across the world. As a result of a shift towards a kind of new girliness, The Backstreet Boys’ image both respected and exploited the newfound sensation of “Girl Power” launched in 1997 (Douglas, 104). Taking shelter in the reassurance of boy band lyrics, young females of the “tween” demographic tended to gravitate towards a new kind of male—one who was not defined by the uber-masculine, violent image of punk and alternative rock music. The subsequent tensions were deeply rooted in a society that was still struggling to accept gay culture, as The Backstreet Boys were marketed in a way that was ambiguous enough to encourage queer readings. Even more challenging was the way punk and alternative rock felt threatened by teen pop, specifically boy bands like The Backstreet Boys, as the suicide of Kurt Cobain slowly decreased the popularity of such punk/alt music. As a result, The Backstreet Boys’ image challenged heteronormative masculinity, as it played on a kind of androgyny that appealed to a young, noncritical demographic. This can be seen in the music video of their number one single “I Want It That Way” and, in turn, contributed to a growing paranoia of sorts, as young females began to prefer more androgynous men, like the men of The Backstreet Boys.
As Daryl Jamieson argues, “general studies agree that mass media consumption does influence youths’ attitudes toward sexuality and expectations about sex” (246). From this, the assumption that Lou Perlman, and other such boy band creators, have a significant influence on the sexual tastes of young people instigates the ways in which androgynous (or gay-looking) celebrities perpetuated a market that was aimed at young people. But what helped maintain this image can be seen in The Backstreet Boys’ infancy, before they dominated America with their multi-platinum album Millennium. Although The Backstreet Boys originated in 1992, their success in America did not happen until 1997 when they returned from touring Europe and Australia. In an effort to “develop” the boys’ experience, Perlman utilized the international community to ensure that The Backstreet Boys’ return to the US would undoubtedly become a success. As Jamieson notes, “Boy bands and pretty members are nothing new, especially in Europe…[The Backstreet Boys] brought the European formula to America, and thus became the biggest selling boy band in the world” (248) In addition, The Backstreet Boys’ image was tightly controlled, as they honed their image to one that had “no facial hair, no earrings, no girlfriends” (Wild). It is clear from this that the management had a specific persona they wanted the boys to envelope—an ambiguous one that would subtly hint at a cross-gendered appeal. Not surprisingly, this ambiguous, androgynous type of masculinity provoked a considerable amount of anxiety (which was typically expressed as a disdain for the music), raising questions surrounding the intentions of the band, their target audience and what many called “girl” music. (Wald) While their music videos and lyrics emphasized the unrequited love they had for their fans, who their fans were and where this love was directed at was very unclear. What was important, however, was the visual spectacle intended to communicate the “pacts” between The Backstreet Boys and their audiences, whoever that may be. This can be clearly seen in the music video for the boys’ hit single off of their album Millennium, “I Want It That Way.” The song, in general, was written as a dedication to The Backstreet Boys’ fans. However, the interpretation of the song and its accompanying video plays up to fans’ expectations of intimacy and love. More importantly, the visual imagery of their music video accurately matches the ambiguous and repetitive lyrics that are targeted towards their fans. Although the video features screaming girls, implying that the target audience of the video are, indeed, young girls, the boys hardly interact with their fans, and instead focus on the camera. These camera-centric interactions suggest a kind of intimacy that is customarily disproved of by traditional hegemonic masculinity. While the female fans offer viewers of the video the opportunity to imagine themselves as members of this desiring body, it also establishes heterosexual “looking relations” as the proper mode in which to view the performance. Yet, paradoxically, the video features the boys turning their backs on fans in order to board a plane, which creates a distance between The Backstreet Boys and their fans. Therefore, it is clear that despite their promises of intimacy, the boys are in fact distant objects of affection, chaste of anything too inappropriate. This further challenges the traditional masculine ideals often associated with rock, as rock was more about the sexuality between heterosexual couples.
In addition, the video features the boys less like musicians and more like performers, as they dance in sync wearing white clothes. This propels the innocence of their image, distinguishing them from other types of popular music of the time, such as punk and alt rock, that honed their image to be one of hardcore, bad-boy musicians. As Jamieson puts it, “If girls can be attracted to these pseudo-rockstars, then parents can convince themselves with not too much trouble that the songs are all quite innocent” (249). By accessing this image, The Backstreet Boys faced challenges from the punk and alternative rock industries, as many of these groups dismissed the boys’ music as “girlish sound.” A great example of the way in which the punk and alternative rock subcultures disapproved of the androgynous image of The Backstreet Boys is the Blink-182’s music video for their hit song “All the Small Things.” The video, which features the band members debunking the image of familiar teenybopper stars centers on the failure of an intimate moment turning into an embarrassing mess (Wald). In reference to the “I Want It That Way” video, the band dances around while being surrounded by a group of screaming, crying fans—some which include a pregnant, bikini clad model and a naked male fan holding a sign that reads “I Want You That Way.” While Blink-182’s intention may be to mock the banality of boy bands, such as The Backstreet Boys’, masculinity, in devaluing teenybopper pop as a “feminized” form of cultural expression from which ‘real’ men would naturally wish to distance themselves, “All the Small Things” actually prominently displays the insecurities of the punk and alt rock subcultures (Wald). As Blink-182 attempted to parody bands such as The Backstreet Boys, they, in fact, became one themselves as the song became a huge hit on TRL, skyrocketing Blink-182 to the top of the chart. While Blink-182 and the song “All the Small Things” are considered a part of the punk/alternative rock movement, there are many aspects of the video (and song) that can be attributed to the exact teen pop music they are mocking. For example, the song lyrics are equally as ambiguous as the lyrics of “I Want It That Way” as well as the fact that it seems that Blink-182 is enjoying living out a boy band-esque fantasy. In that vein, young females are led to consume “All the Small Things” in the same way they would consume The Backstreet Boys, as the line between parody and appropriation seems a bit unclear.
As “All The Small Things” goes to show, the tensions that arose between teen pop and the punk/alternative rock movement further challenged the ideals of traditional masculinity. The compulsion felt by the punk/alt movement to respond to the teen pop sensation comments on the concern felt by many in the industry at the time—the fact that young girls were the ones choosing who would be the musical successes, and it seemed liked they were beginning to prefer less than “ideal” men who did not display the traditional signs of hegemonic masculinity. But what goes beyond that is something that was noted by New York Times journalist Jon Pareles who, at the time, composed a piece on the unexpected success of the teen pop genre. He wrote, “When rock and roll began, many people thought its sole purpose was to get teenagers hot and bothered and insisted that it would never be good for anything else. By the early 1960’s the formula for teenage idols was already in place: a nice young man, songs that promised endless sublimated love, mild-mannered music and an attitude that wouldn’t scare parents” (Pareles). What Pareles successfully notes here is the inorganic formation of seemingly appropriate male artists who possessed traits that were traditionally associated with femininity. This model from the ‘60s can be reflected to the way teen pop took over the music industry in the late nineties. While punk and alternative rock music seemed evidently aggressive and sexual, many parents worried that exposing young women to this kind of music would discourage them from forming a respectful, wholesome relationship. That was where boy bands stepped in. They were not overtly sexual—in fact, they were implicitly intimate to such a point that at whom their intimacy was directed could be open for interpretation. Also, their image was wholesome—no tattoos, no piercings, no angry yelling or phallic-shaped guitars, just a bunch of guys who sang about love with their hands over their hearts, eyes gazing longingly at whoever was watching their videos. The ambiguity of to whom this love was directed at was really what panicked those in the industry who were focused on hard rock, male-oriented music. If women were beginning to prefer men who were like The Backstreet Boys, then the sexual attributes of rock could be deemed as homoerotic—something many people in the ‘90s were still trying to grapple with. Therefore, the impact The Backstreet Boys had on the music industry went beyond topping the charts with number one hits—it challenged a set of ideals that was deemed “normal” in a society that was transitioning into the twenty-first century.
As The Backstreet Boys and their image questioned the standards that had traditionally been associated with men in the music industry, their legitimacy as a music group was not only challenged, but also critiqued by many who feared they were not musicians or artists, rather they were performers and an image for young, androgynous males everywhere. In a decade where everyone was struggling with their identities, it seemed that even the slightest nod towards something that could be seen as a threat to traditional masculinity resulted in a kind of paranoia that overtook men who viewed themselves as “manly,” resulting in hyperbolic mockeries of boy bands and the discrediting of such bands’ legitimacy. As the music industry moved into the twenty-first century however, the image of the androgynous male pop performer became more and more popular, and even became progressively sexualized. Pop bands such as Maroon 5 and Green Day and solo artists like Justin Timberlake and Bruno Mars embraced a more androgynous or “metrosexual” image as men who steered away from traditional images of masculinity often associated with classic rock. Though many of these artists do not receive as much criticism as The Backstreet Boys did, and their fan base is not primarily teenaged girls, there is still a stigma put in place, specifically by the adult generation, that men, specifically male musicians, should be more traditionally masculine. Based on the trend, however, set in place by the ‘90s teen pop genre, it seems that as androgynous, metrosexual male musicians becomes more of the norm, so too will the mindset of those who still question the legitimacy of these artists.
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