Numlock Sunday: Maria Sherman on Larger Than Life and Boy Bands

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition. Each week, I'll sit down with an author or a writer behind one of the stories covered in a previous weekday edition for a casual conversation about what they wrote.

This week, I spoke to Maria Sherman, author of the brand new book Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS. It’s an outstanding book, a top-to-bottom cultural history of the boy band genre.

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I really loved this book. It’s a history of this really unique form of music that’s been pervasive for decades, one that is not only durable but also lies on a bedrock of exploitation. Any boy band is fascinating in its own right — five years of cultural hegemony is a wild thing to do to any group of teenagers — and Larger Than Life really gives this form of music the scrutiny and affection it’s deserving of.

Larger Than Life came out last week and can be found wherever books are sold.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Cover image by Alex Fine, author photo Jatnna Nuñez.

You have written a book about boy bands, this is a type of music that has been with us for much longer than people tend to realize. You contend that it started as far back as the 1800s. Where did the modern format come from?

The reason I structured it that way is because I think boy bands kind of just evolved from male vocal groups, specifically when groups of young men were singing together and singing songs that weren't religious in nature. That, to me, is the identifiable boy band format. Of course, the fandom surrounding boy bands is what defines it. It's very much a form of music that is identifiable by the people who are interested in it, namely young women, which is interesting because I don't know if there are other forms of music that are classified in that way.

You have like classic rock, but beyond that defining music by its audience and its market sector is interesting. Where did the business of this originate from?

I would say it's the Menudo and Motown model. I mentioned that early on in the book because in Motown you have Berry Gordy's Hit Factory, where he was essentially using everything that he learned in the Detroit auto industry and the Ford factory to streamline this process of finding the best instrumentalists, finding the best singers, putting them together in a group, having them perform these hits and working them until he deemed what they did to be perfect. Not necessarily manufactured-sounding because I don't think anybody would really classify Motown as having this pristine scene in the way they would for boy bands in later decades, but the idea that you can sort of mechanize something as creative and artistic as music is very much a Berry Gordy fascination.

I also say Menudo because the group Menudo in Puerto Rico was founded in 1977, and they predate the New Edition, New Kids on the Block model. Eduardo Diaz, the man responsible for putting Menudo together, had a sort of similar take. He watched what was happening with Motown and he decided, "I'm also going to put a group of charming people together, specifically boys, to perform pop hits for young women because they are a large consumer base. But I'm also going to get rid of them once they reach the age of 16 to ensure that they're always young." He was replenishing this audience of young people, which is why Menudo is probably the longest lasting boy band of all time.

I was really struck in those early chapters how there's just this pervasive sense of almost neoliberalism. The idea is super globalized, it's super interchangeable. It's not manufactured as often as people say, but the market angle of it is deeply neoliberal in a lot of ways.

Yeah, absolutely. I agree, I love that interpretation. I wish you were writing a review.

It was crucial to me because there was no boy band book in existence prior to this one. I mean, there were a couple of like quick hit, hundred-page, pocket-size books you could get in the Y2K era that were specific to the Y2K era, so the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and all of the one-hit wonders that followed. But there wasn't a text like this that offered a primer to this sort of music.

I wanted to make sure that I corrected some historical inaccuracies or maybe just corrected the historical myopia, and made sure that I was establishing the boy band story as one that relates to race, gender, sexuality and all these other things in a more complicated way than just being white boys dancing in an organized manner for young women.

I really liked have much you engaged with a lot of the other groups that didn't get a shot back in their day. The genre in general gets written off by lots of prevailing cultural forces for any number of reasons that you get into in the book.

I knew that in writing a boy band book, I wanted to include as many groups as possible. I organized it with the understanding that I'm an American writing for a primarily North American audience. I backtracked and looked at, "okay, we're in this decade, who was the biggest boy band of this decade? Oh, it was the Jonas Brothers." Some people might look at this book and be like, “why are the Jonas brothers included?” They didn't seem like that big of a deal compared to something like Take That in the UK. I just wanted to make sure that I structured everything so that there was a clear timeline to follow.

It really sort of underscored the similarities, things like the five-year rule, where some boy bands only last a certain number of years, and then another one comes to take their place, then in another five years when people aren't exhausted by the boy band machine anymore, in fact, there's a need or desire for it. I wanted to make sure I could represent as many of those people as possible. Also, I think it's helpful to differentiate between boy band forms and show that there was more of a spectrum of what a boy band could look like than just the formula that exists and that people seem to associate with boy bands.

Even in the Backstreet Boys section I break down all of the other boy bands of that era because that's why they become a big deal. I made sure to include stuff about LFO being more of the macho boy band, if you were interested in a male vocal group that had a little more meat on their bones, they were there for you. Or that O-Town was created from a reality television show, which is also fascinating because we've seen that happen time and time again. I'm not so sure if the One Direction model would have worked if they hadn't done it previously.

It's almost like you could build a spider web of connections from the way the history is laid out, and that was really important to me. But to jump back to your first question about the sort of derision of boy bands, that's something that I continue to have qualms with and continue to explore and attempt to unpack because the sort of innate criticism I think with boy bands is that they're manufactured, but that's also a very dated criticism that people have used for pop music since the beginning of time.

It's interesting that they are still in this space of being critically maligned when I think there's been more openness to writing with intellectual curiosity about pop stars in general. Pop stars were using songs written by Swedish pop songwriters, but boy bands for whatever reason continued to be cast aside. A lot of that to me is because of the association with their audience. That it's a fascination of young women or older women who are self-infantilizing themselves, for whatever reason.

It seems like a very gendered approach, and I hope that the people who read my book see that it certainly doesn't need to be that way. If you're interested in something and it seems like it has some sort of cultural resonance, then maybe there's a way to explore it with the same curiosity that people do other subjects or other pop music. It doesn't have to be cast aside immediately. Surely there's something more interesting going on. It's such a formative musical identity for so many.

I love the work that you did in here to cover the labor component of it. You alluded to it earlier, like Menudo would just chuck kids out at age 16.

Then you get into this portion in the NSYNC chapter that I was most obsessed with all about their finances — their producer took 100 percent of their publishing rights, 50 percent of the royalties, 50 percent of merch and 30 percent of touring, and all they got was a $25,000 check after three years of $10 million in record sales.

But then you wrote about how that evolved even further, how One Direction owned a piece of their opening band. I would love to hear more about your views on how that component of this format's changed.

To be honest, I think that's the negative or sad thing about the boy band story, and also one that I think is so fascinating to people. In recent history, there have been multiple documentaries made about Lou Pearlman, responsible for the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, only some of which are good. I cite heavily from Tyler Gray's book from a couple of years back, but there's certainly a throughline of exploitation that I think it is inherent in the model, where you're taking boys from typically working class backgrounds and you're thrusting them into this like Hollywood space where they don't have inherent connections. It's not something that they've grown in and have a language for, or lawyers behind them.

To be quite honest, there's certainly an evolution of what that looks like, but I don't think it's gone away in any concrete way. And that's one thing that I wanted to make explicitly clear in the book is that being a boy band fan is not just liking silly pop songs. Some of it is just learning to reckon with the cognitive dissonance of knowing that they're exploited behind the scenes. And it seems to be the total opposite of the shimmery pop music, engineered to elicit joy within young people.

But I guess maybe a quick evolution of that would be New Edition gets thrust together by this local producer. He allegedly takes all of their money. They go on tour. They're tweens. They come back after doing all that work and allegedly only make a $1.57. And they have "Candy Girl," which was a huge hit, especially in Boston. It's like number one on Billboard black charts, but essentially they were allegedly screwed over. I say allegedly screwed over because I haven't been able to get in touch with Maurice Starr. They cut ties with Maurice Starr, they signed another deal. It's not even a record deal. It's a production deal, which is sort of a music industry cautionary tale.

And then Maurice Starr leaves and he goes and does New Kids on the Block. They find a better deal, but he tries to control them when they get to be much larger in size. Then they start to express their autonomy, they want to be a little bit more individualistic, which is what happens to all boy bands at a certain point. So, they cut ties with him.

And then of course the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC — these two groups were created to compete with one another, but were under the grasp of Lou Pearlman, who fancied himself a sixth member of the group and took a lot of their money, in fact, most of their money. Most of them had to cut ties. The Backstreet Boys bought their way out, NSYNC managed to take it to court and probably benefited from Backstreet Boys having that sort of failure.

There are examples where this isn't the case, I would say The Jonas Brothers. I guess their exploitation would just be feeling the creative control of being a group that was basically formed on Disney Channel and also during the purity movement, which is in and of itself an oppression, but maybe not such a concrete one as having some Svengali pulling the strings.

One Direction is interesting because maybe news will come out about something that went wrong behind the scenes for them, but it really doesn't seem like there has been any sort of larger issue. Perhaps maybe in 10 years they'll reveal that there was some sort of managerial misunderstanding that really informed their music or their later career. I don't know about that.

Then, of course, with K-pop everything is sort of locked up and tight behind the scenes, and there is a cultural conservativeness that informs a lot of how that industry runs. I think outside of the exploitative behaviors that have been reported — and there have been more since I wrote this book — you only hear about those exploitations if they're widely reported in South Korea. Otherwise, we don't really know what's happening. It's definitely inherent to the boy band story, and it's really unfortunate, but I do think that boy band fans are smarter and now have more access to this information to draw their own conclusions of how we can change the boy band format in the future. It's always shape shifting, it's a malleable thing. How can we ensure that this doesn't happen?

Where can people find the book?

If you are interested in boy bands, if you loved a boy band in your youth or maybe your not-so-youth, like I did — I'm a late in life boy band fan — or if you're just sort of curious on filling pop music gaps in your knowledge base, I think you'll really get a kick out of Larger Than Life. It's not just a story about pop songs, it's about people and fans and cultures and global identity and race and gender and all of these things that are kind of tethered to music inherently. I think anybody could really enjoy it if they're curious about any of those things.

Do you have a favorite band?

I'm still One Direction through and through. When I was a kid, I really liked Backstreet Boys because I was intimidated by NSYNC's dancing ability. I think that dance is just so inherently sexual. Like as a nine year old, I was like, “I don't want any of that, no thanks.”

But then again, Backstreet Boys were soaking wet all the time. So, I don't know.

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