Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Neverending Story: Boy bands

The history of boy bands arouses a good deal of debate among music cognoscenti, those who clearly have nothing better to do with their time or lives than indulge in such a fruitless debate. Nevertheless, and fruitless or not, placing a start time to this cultural phenomenon has some significance in that the debate wanders off into territory one might not expect, such as racial issues and even religious matters.

There is one line of argument that the roots of the boy band can go right back to the early days of Gregorian chant, an argument that does, one feels, rather stretch a point. It also contradicts an element of what the boy band is generally thought to require - an ability to dance. Monks of yore may have been able to dance, but it is unlikely that, while chanting, they were also gyrating in an unseemly fashion and grabbing hold of their crotches. Or maybe they did just this. It's hard to know.

Being a bunch of dancing boys is certainly a current-day necessity, but later claimants to being the originators of today's boy bands were equally as immobile as pre-mediaeval monks. Barbershop quartets of the nineteenth century weren't apparently known for their dance moves, but it is just possible to suggest that they were the source of all that was to follow (well, some reckon that it is possible to suggest this). The barbershop quartets and then, from the 1930s, The Inkspots, are where the racial aspect enters the grand boy band debate.

Barbershop was initially a phenomenon among black American men. Singing in a social setting, the barber's shop, has something of a connection with what occurred with American black music very much later, when beatboxing would be performed by black youth gathering together on street corners. The Inkspots, it would seem, did do a spot of dancing, but it almost certainly wasn't the style of dancing developed in New York in the 1920s that was the forerunner of breakdancing which became a key ingredient in hip hop and beatboxing.

The continuity of black American culture up to the start of hip hop does explain a great deal about current-day boy bands. The crossover into white culture, most obviously through New Kids On The Block, was a deliberate and manufactured attempt (and a successful one at that) of cashing in on a heritage of black culture from barbershop, to Earl Tucker's 1920s breaking, to The Inkspots, arguably also to Motown and finally to hip hop. And manufactured is, of course, an important word in the boy band debate.

There is the counter argument, one that considers the white cultural background. No one ever referred to The Beatles as a boy band as such, and to categorise them retrospectively as having been one is well wide of the mark. For one thing, they did things which boy bands generally do not; wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. And for another thing, when did you ever see any of them dance?

The Monkees are another suspect in boy band history. They were manufactured, so much so that they lent pop history the concept of the manufactured group. But a boy band? In current-day terms, definitely not. The Osmonds, however, were a different matter, as were The Jackson Five. Neither of these, though, was as relevant to the current day as New Edition who, black culture again, were the inspiration for NKOTB.

Since the early 1980s, the boy band has become an established fact of pop music life, and if there had been any question that it might have been on its last legs, then Simon Cowell made sure that it wasn't. The boy band also went international. It was no longer the preserve of the American and British pop industries and, together with the globalisation of the likes of "X Factor", you have what you have today in Spain, and what you will find at Muro's bullring this coming Sunday evening: Auryn, who are something of a Spanish One Direction.

Auryn, the name comes from the talisman in "The Neverending Story", have been around since 2009. They almost made it to Eurovision in 2011, individual members have appeared in the past on "Factor X" (the Spanish version of you know what), and their most recent album went to number one in the Spanish charts.

Easy it might be to disparage boy bands but you never know, if you cut along to Muro on Sunday, you might enjoy one. And if you do, then you will know that Auryn are part of a long tradition. Though how that tradition originated, that's for someone else to debate.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

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