Why British boybands are conquering America
Unlike their predecessors, groups like The Wanted and One Direction have succeeded in filling a conspicuous gap in the American market, says Neil McCormick.
I am not sure that it qualifies as a British invasion, but I suppose we should be proud that there are five UK artists in the US top 100. If we are lucky, maybe, we could even persuade some of them to stay there.
It’s no surprise to find Adele and Coldplay topping US album and single charts, global figureheads of the new middle of the road. Jessie J is enjoying an American hit with Domino, which is what this brash R’n’B sexpot in the US mould was always supposed to do. But where things get interesting is the success of UK boy bands, The Wanted (who have hit number one on iTunes) and One Direction (the highest British new entry in the US singles chart since The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony).
Young, handsome, harmony singing, and choreographed with military precision, this is a genre where the British have consistently been overshadowed by the slicker, sharper US versions. It was the US that gave us this particular model of manufactured idol, with New Kids On The Block, Boyz II Men, Backstreet Boys and N Sync. The big British boy brands of the nineties, Take That, Boyzone and Westlife, were created in the same mould but failed to set the pulses of American teens racing.
What’s changed? Well, this generation of British wannabes can actually sing, for a start. British boy bands of the past always had almost comical weak links, the handsome dead wood who did lots of headspins and backflips to cover up for their inability to do more than croak an approximation of the correct note (Jason in Take That, Shane in Boyzone, Nicky in Westlife). In the wake of the reality cabaret TV boom with its intensely competitive ethic, technical singing standards in UK pop have noticeably improved. And, perhaps, the realities of what it takes to make it as a working pop star have sunk in under the stern tutelage of Simon Cowell. These are well drilled, hard working units who know their place in the scheme of things: turn up, shake hands, sign autographs, sing, dance and leave the rest to professionals.
But I don’t think it as simple as that. The real issue, surely, must be that the Americans have left a gap in the market. The very glamorous and flamboyant British pop that stormed the US in the 80s made headway because there was an absence of American homegrown pop pitched at young girls. The eighties US market was focussed on a relatively adult oriented rock. Indeed, the original US boy band boom started as a reaction to the British pop invasion, and effectively put an end to it.
In recent years, the emphasis in American pop has been on hip hop and R’n’B, with its bad attitude drawn from rebellious black cultural roots, styling itself as overtly swaggering and sexy. Certainly, the US has had its own strand of TV Cabaret pop, but the scale and bluster of American idol has still tended to produce stars with brash and bold aspects. American pop is addicted to testosterone and US male pop stars are macho to the core. It took the meteoric rise of Justin Bieber (a Canadian) to demonstrate that there was still a huge appetite for clean cut, wholesome, whiter- than-white, middle class parent friendly pop: cute boys advocating puppy love. It is safe sex for dangerous times. And what could be better than one cute boy, if not five? It is no coincidence that The Wanted share a manager with Bieber, and One Direction are the same age as him (and still several years younger than most of their rivals).
US impresarios will, in all likelihood, catch on fast, and start flooding the market with teenage boy bands. But the Brit boys should press their advantage while they can. When it comes to seducing American girls (and charming their mothers), I bet those English accents don’t go amiss.