Part Two: "Gonna write a classic. Probably."
The voyage has been long and troubling, more for the fear of what lies at its destination than due to any maritime adventures along the way, of which there have been precious few. It's been almost four months since we left the faintly shimmering coastline of Early Boybandland behind, and as is my task I've spent the time reading up on and --- say it without fear --- listening to the music of what I will term the “classic boybands”, although that's something of an oxymoron: there's nothing classic about any of these bands, nor will there ever be. But on a scale of let's say importance to the genre, these bands would be best known and rank the highest. New Kids on the Block and New Edition may have started the craze back in the early eighties, but it's really the nineties that this whole thing got totally out of hand, and boybands started springing up everywhere, like branches of Ikea or Starbucks.
All of the bands (I know, I know, but what else can I call them? Know what I'd like
to call them … keep it friendly, keep it friendly...) I'll be looking at here started their careers in, and enjoyed their biggest successes throughout the 90s, so qualify as “classic” boybands, purely for that reason: they're seen as the “big guns” of the boyband movement, the ones people remember or revile when they talk about this genre. These are the ones who decided to start butchering some classic songs along the way, as if spinning out their own puerile pap (isn't this article nicely balanced and unbiased?) wasn't enough of an insult to music. These are the ones who most contributed to, even helped create, the cult of the personality, or indeed, the celeb, the ones whose image, love life, actions and fashion mattered a whole lot more to their fans, in general, than their music.
Of course, I don't know too many boyband fans --- at least, none that will admit it! Anyone reading this who is one, I welcome your discourse on the subject, as I am quite figuratively taking your heroes apart here (I say figuratively, as were I to say literally I would be liable to be jailed for murder) and they don't seem to have anyone to defend them. But to be totally fair, I'm not just writing about how bad they are. To be completely frank, I know very little of boyband music, and one of the aims of this feature is to try to understand, if I can, more about what drives these bands and their fans, why they are or were so popular, and where, if anywhere, they deserve a place among music's rich history.
So this time out I have four boybands to concentrate on. I know last time I only did two, but that was the early boybands and there really weren't (mercifully) too many of them at that time. By the nineties they were rampant across the face of the Earth like some incurable disease (sorry!) and therefore there are many more to cover for this period, and were I to decide to do so, I could probably write about nine or ten. But I want to restrict it to four, which is about all I think the universe will stand for at this moment, so these are the ones I'm going to be investigating on the second leg of my voyage to Boybandland.
To be completely fair and impartial, nationality-wise, I'm choosing two American, one British and one Irish --- God how I hate to admit we had boybands, but we did, and two of the bigger ones too! --- and they are Nsync, Backstreet Boys, Take That and Boyzone. I know Westlife probably fit this category too, but as they only recently broke up (who cheered? Oh, it was me!) I plan to hold them back for the third and final part of this treatise. Hell, they're pretty much carbon copies of each other anyway! Now, now, no pre-judging... what am I saying? I've already prejudged all these bands, and rightly so. They've made my life hell, polluting the airwaves for nigh-on thirty years now. But the idea is to see if I can scrape off the gloss and the surface paint, peel back the layers (if there are any) and look beneath the surface to see what's underneath, if indeed anything is, or if these bands are all as empty, vacuous and pointless as I believe they are.
As the wind sighs in the sails of our ship and the ancient timbers creak in protest (hey, I could only afford passage on an old tub! I'm not made of money, you know: who do you think is paying for this expedition? Yeah, you're talkin' to him!) I can begin to make out the misty coastline of my new destination, Terra Permusica Major
, which roughly translates to “Greater Boybandland”.
As the old schooner begins the slow approach into the harbour, I consult my travel guide and learn that Greater Boybandland --- usually referred to as GBBL --- is basically broken into four main areas, regions or countries: no-one is quite sure what category they fall into, and the governmental structure around these parts is, shall we say, fluid and changeable. But for my purposes I'll refer to them as kingdoms --- which I don't think they are, but it suits my narrative, and as the whole ethos of the boyband genre is making everything suit your particular plan, that seems appropriate.
The first is the one we head towards, and it's called Chicotania. It is here that the main archive concerning the first successful boyband since New Kids on the Block (and indeed, the most successful in terms of sales of all time, with over 130 million records sold), the Backstreet Boys, is located, and here where I will learn what I need to know for my article. In Chicotania I will sample (shudder!) the music of these young guns of their time, and examine their phenomenon, try to work out what it was about them that made them so successful, almost ridiculously so. They still exist today.
Later I will head east, to the kingdom of New Southland, where I will research the other big American boyband of the time, the weirdly-named Nsync, then it's a three-day train journey to the very southernmost tip of this country to Tha'Takken, to read about and listen to the first big example of this genre to pop up outside the US. Finally, I will take a relatively short busride back north to Boyzeire, a much smaller realm which houses the Early Irish Boyband Archive.
As I disembark from the ship and head through Customs, I'm almost immediately surrounded by people. These guys are not well-dressed, and seem very much down on their luck. One offers to sell me a “genuine” Fender Strat for the price of a cup of tea. I politely refuse, but give him some money. BIG mistake! Like sharks sensing blood in the water, the others crowd in and press upon me as if I were the Messiah and they all looking for miracles. Some wave guitars, some thrust ratty pieces of paper purposefully in my face, with comments like “Look man, I just need someone to record this song, yeah?” or “If you see Timberlake tell him I wrote this for him”, and other such requests, demands, even threats.
A sudden shout of “Mr. Cowell! Simon Cowell!" rescues me as the wretches all turn their eyes to the left, beginning to move off in the direction indicated, shuffling with the half-desperate, half-hopeful gait of a auditionee for the “X-Factor”, and I turn to behold my saviour. A small, swarthy man with a large heavy moustache and deep, dark eyes, Max will be my guide for the first few weeks of my visit to GBBL, and will ferry me to my first two destinations. I'm eternally grateful to him for rescuing me, though as we stow the bags in the boot and I climb in the passenger seat, I confess I am somewhat bemused as to who the people who had been accosting me are.
“Ah yes, session men.” Max shakes his head gravely. “You have to feel for them. They do all the work, backing the band and playing the music, but they never get any recognition. They're the lowest class around here,” he confides to me, a slight tremor in his voice betraying his contempt for the situation. “Everyone loves The Kids, of course: the boyband members, not to mention their managers and producers. They get all the plaudits. But these guys: you can't not have sympathy for them.” I resist the urge to correct Max in his use of a double-negative, and hold my tongue as he expounds further, the tan-coloured Vauxhall Viva clanking and creaking almost as much as the boat that brought me here, as we pull into traffic.
“Time was,” he reminisces, “this country was full of guitarists, drummers, keysmen. They made an honest living, forming bands, gigging, recording. Life was good. Then the boybands came, and they were relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Terrible.” He shakes his head sadly, and for a moment I feel a little selfish as I find myself less concerned with the plight of these out-of-work musicians as I am with Max keeping his eyes on the road ahead. But his grip on the steering wheel is firm, and his eyes scan the twin lanes ahead as he pulls out and passes a large green bus, whose driver, a woman of African origin, flips him the finger as he passes, her pearl-white teeth glinting like jewels in her mouth.
“Terrible”. The last word comes almost four minutes after Max last spoke, and takes me by surprise, but I suppose he has been thinking about the situation of the unemployed musos as he drives. I feel compelled to ask why they don't just move on, and he shakes his head again. “None of them have the sort of funds that would allow them to do that,” he tells me. “Most spent all their money on their instruments, and what they occasionally pick up as session musicians for these upstarts wouldn't come close to what they need for the fare out of here. And even then, where would they go? You came here by sea,” he turns to me, precipitating another flutter of my heart as two motorcyclists zoom by, one on either side, and a police siren (or maybe an ambulance or fire engine) sounds in the distance. Is it getting closer?
“You've seen how far this boyband nonsense stretches. Why, you have to go thousands of miles before you leave the influence behind. I heard you say you have been to Terra Permusica Minor
“What?” I'm a little thrown, as I haven't heard the name before. He sighs.
“No-one uses the old names anymore.” Another disapproving shake of the head. “These days it's called Lesser Boybandland,” he clarifies, “or Early Boybandland, something like that. I prefer the old names. Still, they mean the same thing. But you have been there, yes?”
“Early Boybandland?” I understand now. “Yes, I have. In fact, I came direct from there. Almost four months the crossing took.”
“So. And even that relatively slow and not exactly glamourous form of travel cost you, I have no doubt. And beyond here lies an even worse place, which they now call Future Boybandland, though most of its residents have taken to calling it New Boybandland. The old name,” he confides to me, “is Terra Permusica Ultima
--- some fools think it means “ultimate Boybandland”, but it does not. It literally translates as “The last Boybandland”. So there is a very long way to go if you wish to escape the insidious clutches of life in Boybandland”, he concludes, “and going a long way means paying a lot of money. So most of the musos just hang around here, drifting from city to city, realm to realm, staying not too long in one place or the other, always on the lookout for work but seldom finding it. Ah, Scherzattach!
” he snaps, and I assume this is some ancient expression of distaste. “Tis a bad hand they've been dealt, and no mistake.”
We continue on in silence for some time, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts, as the highway begins to thin out and more fields and hills become evident, as we obviously move away from the city and towards the outlying country. As my attention begins to drift and my eyes start to close, I suddenly see a huge structure passing by on the right, almost gone before my eyes and brain can properly register its presence. Quickly, I fumble out my camera and snap a picture, looking back as it recedes in the back window, its rapidly diminishing bulk evidence that we are travelling at some speed.
I look at the picture I have taken, having not had enough time to properly take in the huge statue --- for such it seems to have been --- in any detail before we are past it and it's behind us, vanishing rapidly, its configuration becoming less and less visible and discernible as the Viva speeds along, out into the countryside. What I can make out, now that I look at the picture, seems to be the figure of a huge man or manlike form, must be well over twenty feet tall, probably closer to thirty. The man --- if indeed it is a man --- seems to be large and fat, with a sloping, balding forehead and small square spectacles that cover small, squinty eyes. He appears to be dressed in an orange jumpsuit and is standing on something, though I can't quite make out what it is: the speed at which we passed the icon has blurred all but the largest aspect of the form.
I turn to my guide, asking what was that? He shrugs. “Ah yes,” he intones. “Pearlman, one of the most hated figures in Boyband history. A real pariah.” My blank look leads him to explain: I have never heard of this Pearlman of whom he speaks. He goes on. “The statue is one of several, hundreds even. One such stands at the entrance and exit to each major city here in GBBL. It represents the figure of Louis Jay “Lou” Pearlman, who was the creator, if you like, of both Nsync and the Backstreet Boys, and indeed also formed and mentored other boybands and young artistes. The statue depicts him standing in a prison jumpsuit, as you have probably worked out, as he was eventually jailed for mutiple fraud, embezzlement, conspiracy and money laundering offences.”
I have my recording ipod out now and I'm listening eagerly, and taping it all for later transcription and inclusion in my article. “The statue further shows him standing on the prone bodies of five young men, meant to represent neither Nsync nor BSB, but more a symbol of the many artists he cheated and lied to during his career. He swindled both the two big ones, and others, out of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars, and had so many legal cases against him it just wasn't funny. Most got settled out of court, but eventually the weight of his crimes was so unsupportable that he was indicted on federal charges and he's now serving twenty-five to life.”
Max lapses back into silence then, and I ruminate upon the, as I saw it at the time, nefarious Maurice Starr, who also cheated his charges, infamously paying New Edition the princely sum of one dollar thirty-seven cents each for their first world tour! I thought that guy was a scumbag, but my god, Pearlman makes him seem like a saint! Seems no matter where boybands went, sneaky, greedy and crooked managers and promoters followed, like bodylice or bands of marauding lawyers. They were everywhere!
After a while I begin to nod off, as the sun starts to slip behind the darkening hills and the night air turns cold. The ancient Vauxhall is not air-conditioned, but then, I come from Ireland, where most of the cars are not, and anyway it's seldom warm enough to merit such technology. I am, however, glad when Max turns on the heater: it seems nights in GBBL can be damn cold!
I listen to the steady click of the car's engine as we travel along the country roads into what is fast becoming night, and I allow my eyes to slide shut, as I contemplate the work that awaits me in the morning.
It's well past two in the morning when the car finally bumps to a halt, and Max shakes me awake, advising me we have arrived. The hotel is not the most glamorous, but it's not a fleapit either: I had and have limited funds, but I refuse to stay anywhere that inserts an extra letter into hotel, making it a hostel. Hostage, more like! So it's a two-star at best, but at least I can be reasonably confident that breakfast at the “Millennium” --- named, I'm informed, for Backstreet Boys' third and most successful album --- won't have to be shared with any bedbugs or cockroaches. I hope.