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Boy Bands March 8, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Uncategorized.
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The singing performance group has a long history in popular music. Although vocal groups dominated the African American tradition from the 1950s through to the 1970s, and harmony singing is important in many forms of folk music, it is in the Tin Pan Alley tradition that such entertainment has had its most successful run. The Boy Band version of harmony vocal group performers is, though, only really apparent from the 1990s onwards and looking for immediate predecessors can easily deceive us. Clearly performing groups like the Bay City Rollers, The Jackson 5, the Osmonds, and even the Beatles, share the adulation of girls and young women that characterises the Boy Bands. However, all of these earlier entertainers were presented as self-contained musical outfits; a band in the sense that we usually mean it. Likewise, gospel and 1950s doo wop singing groups share the ‘singing and dancing only’ characteristics of the Boy Bands, but they are more firmly of the African American tradition in their musical forms and relationships to their audience.

We can better locate the Boy Bands rise to significance in the 1990s in the development of urban music as a way of selling the dancability and emotion of black music to young white audiences. Calling hip hop and R&B forms urban allowed first radio, and then record companies, to sell the entertainment value without having to deal with the fact that the African American tradition dealt explicitly with the politics of race. We can trace the progress of Boy Bands from New Edition, through New Kids on the Block to Take That and Boyzone. A group like Boyz II Men mark the boundary between those groups who mainly work in the African American tradition and those who draw strongest on Tin Pan Alley.
There is, though, a longer-term link back to nineteenth century music hall, through the barbershop singers and amateur glee club performers of the early twentieth century, and the musical theatre and film entertainers that dominated mid-century pop. It is in the antecedents that we can see the songwriter / singer split and standardised song form that characterises Tin Pan Alley’s writing factory methods, as well as the emphasis on entertainment and spectacle for mass audiences.

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