When I was in junior high back in the ’90s, I was a little too cool to express interest in boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC. I might not have known to call them commodities, but I did sense that they were scooped from Orlando shopping malls and sculpted in Lou Pearlman’s grubby little hands to appeal to girls like me. I’m 27 now, and I’m finally just uncool enough to fall for the next generation of manufactured boy band: One Direction, a group of five British boys assembled through reality competition The X Factor to exhaust the vocal chords of girls around the world.
The music is essentially the same: One Direction songwriter Carl Falk straight-up admits he cribbed 1D’s sound from bands like BSB. (He claims the new generation of fans is too young to remember, but I’ll never forget, Carl.) The racial dynamics also persist. In an important contribution to 1D critical theory, Racialicious describes how the group's Muslim member, Zayn Malik, is dogged by the same “ethnic bad boy” trope promoted by pop music pigeonholers since A.J. McLean first rubbed down his Latino-German chest on MTV. And the video for One Direction’s hit single, “One Thing,” mirrors the plot of the seminal Backstreet video “I Want It That Way”: The boys take a form of transportation, then appear in public. The crowd goes wild.
But the boy band industry has made one notable improvement in its new model: Rarely do members of One Direction appear constipated. This is a recent development. When the Backstreet Boys hit the charts in 1997 with “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” they targeted young women with their choreographed, pelvic dance moves, lubricated abdominals, and a pained look that appeared to originate in the lower intestine. "Girl,” the look says, “My love for you is so strong, it is beginning to affect my digestive tract.” If you’re not familiar with the facial expression to which I am referring, grab a mirror. Curl your upper lip, flare your nostrils, furrow your brow. Imagine that you are confused, offended, and oddly aroused. Remove your shirt. That is the look.
Here are Backstreet Boys Nick Carter and Brian Littrell, assuming the position:
Even *NSYNC, the more-fun of the two bands—the two Pearlman-run groups drummed up a faux rivalry to line Pearlman’s pockets—adopted these anguished expressions in elaborate joke videos. Check out Justin Timberlake’s chafed look in the band’s offensive mental institution spoof, “I Drive Myself Crazy”:
But no group of men grimaced like English boy band 5ive, whose big international hit, “When the Lights Go Out,” introduced us to facial contortions previously confined to the privacy of men’s restrooms, or else porn theaters:
Compare that to the expressions that dominate One Direction videos:
One Direction looks … happy. These boys smile. They joke around. They jump on trampolines with inflatable bananas lodged between their legs. Yes, sometimes, deep in a hook, they can appear slightly inflamed. For the most part, though, they seem to be having a good time being international sex symbols. The lyrics of One Direction songs may be peppered with serious “girls,” but the boys’ performances tell a different story.