Pop Culture

The Boys (and the New Kids) are back!

As the father of three daughters raised in the heyday of the New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys, Gordon Thompson knows a bit more about the magnetic appeal of boy bands than the average academic.

His girls dragged him to concerts — and he loved it.

“As a parent, it was kind of fun,” said Thompson, a music professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and author of “Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out.”

“It was a scream fest. As anybody with teenage daughters knows, they can be absolutely addicted to things. But I have to admit, (the groups) put on a pretty good show.”

Gerrick Kennedy seconds that emotion. He is a music critic for the Los Angeles Times. He attended the American Music Awards in November and suddenly discovered that his legs were moving when New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys took the stage.

“I’m 23 and I’m in the aisle dancing,” he recalled.

New Kids on the Block (NKOTB) and Backstreet Boys (BSB) embark on a North American tour together that will include an appearance on TODAY’s Summer Concert Series on Friday. Whatever that thing is that keeps bands relevant and piping hot, they both appear to be brimming with it, as evidenced by how quickly tickets for their shows have been gobbled up.

Demand for ducats crashed the bands’ websites. Tickets in Chicago, for instance, sold out in 15 minutes, requiring the addition of a second show there.

NKOTB — consisting of Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood, Joey McIntyre, Jordan Knight and Jonathan Knight — were assembled in 1984 and last released an album in ’94. BSB — Brian Littrell, Nick Carter, A.J. McLean and Howie Dorough (Kevin Richardson left the group in 2006) — came together later, in 1993, and despite some activity lulls, never stopped.

Given the vagaries of the music business in the past quarter century or so, and the flood of new acts arriving almost daily, how can two groups whose core fans were young impressionable females but are now savvy adults not only maintain their followings, but enlarge them?

“Teen singers have been around for many decades — Fabian, Ricky Nelson, David Cassidy, etc. So there is always need for a fresh new face or a group thereof,” explained Mathieu Deflem, professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina and an expert in pop culture. “What is remarkable, though, is that some of these singers (and) bands grow up, and their fans right along with them, and they stay popular to some extent, (like) NKOTB.”

Deflem cautions, though, that not every group has the staying power of NKOTB and BSB. “The more likely path is that fans grow up, and hence grow out of their idols,” he said.

“It doesn’t surprise me that these bands still have strong fan followings,” noted David Marchese of Spin Magazine. “The music of people’s youth stays with them. There were millions and millions of people who loved these bands when they first came out.

“It’s not weird that a large number of those original fans still love them. In fact, it’d be weirder if they didn’t.”

It used to be that a band’s worth was measured in the sales of discs, whether they were made of vinyl or some metal alloy. NKOTB have sold more than 80 million records worldwide. And BSB have the distinction of being the best-selling boy band of all time, having moved more than 130 million records.

(Of course, it depends on your definition of “boy band.” The Beatles have sold more than 300 million records. They were boys. And they were a band. But most consider a boy band to have a dance component, and often an act with some pyrotechnics or elaborate staging. The Beatles were a traditional standup rock 'n' roll band.)

In today’s market, however, in which records have given way to downloads, the power of bands is in touring. And there might be no better example than the one that NKOTB and BSB are embarking on now.

“The touring aspect is what makes them so marketable,” Kennedy said. “The fan base they started with has grown up, but many of them have kids now, and they all appreciate a sense of nostalgia.”

And of course, there’s the music. “A lot of people see boy bands as being all the same,” Kennedy observed. “But they’re so distinct. The Backstreet Boys are known for their syrupy pop hooks that translate into big records that can’t be ignored on the radio. The New Kids are more about an R&B edge.”

Thompson said even though the music and the generations are vastly different, the attraction to boy bands like NKOTB and BSB is similar to the one that made The Beatles such a sensation.

“There was a conscious imitation of the model when these bands were put together,” he said. “The Beatles had four identifiable characters. John was the intellectual. Paul was the cute one. George was the quiet one. Ringo was the funny one.

“So when boy bands are marketed, they’re not done so as all the same, but rather a distinct set of personalities. When teenage girls latch onto these bands, they’re not competing for the same boy. They could divvy them up while still retaining some semblance of unity and brand.”

And that, of course, leads to some friendly friction among fans. Kennedy said he was just a youngster when the New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys were at or near their peaks.

“I loved the songs, and we all wanted to perfect the dances,” he said. “I remember that you couldn’t be a fan of both. I remember walking down the hall and being asked, like kids today are asked about ‘Twilight’ — ‘What team are you on?’ That’s where it started, that whole team stuff.”

Naturally, though, when the teams team up — as they have now — it’s perfectly acceptable to root for both.

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to TODAY.com.

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