Boy Bands Are Back: How The Wanted Is Bringing Good Boy Band Pop To The States

Oh hey! I’m Sam Lansky, music journalist extraordinaire, and I had a poster of 98 Degrees dressed as firefighters on my bedroom wall as a little boy. (Did I say “dressed”? Because what I actually mean is “undressed.”) It’s Thursday, and you know what that means — time for an extra-strength dose of Pop Think, no prescription necessary.

Up this week: the possible return of the boy band to domestic shores, which I’d call a cause for celebration. But after a decade largely devoid of cheesy boy band deliciousness, are Americans ready for another boy band invasion?

The Wanted is pop princess-approved! Credit: @britneyspears

After the boy band boom at the turn of the millennium, when groups like Hanson, Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC ruled the airwaves, things have gone relatively quiet on the boy band front — at least Stateside, with the occasional exception of all-male pop-punk and emo outfits such as Good Charlotte and Fall Out Boy, and Disney tween pop megastars like the Jonas Brothers.

But overseas, the boy band phenomenon never really went away. In the U.K., Westlife and Take That continued to enjoy massive success throughout the ’90s, and more recent discoveries such as JLS, One Direction, and The Wanted just keep the boy band relevant with hook-laden singles and endearingly goofy dance moves. (Is it just me or is there something like, intrinsically comical about a group of hot guys dancing in unison? Even if it’s visually mesmerizing, I often find myself laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of dudes with chiseled jawlines and ripped abs dancing to a four-on-the-floor beat, their bodies in perfect synchronicity.)

Record labels seem to think that the United States is ready for a big boy band return — or at least they’re gambling on it, with news of new groups launching every day. Former *NSYNC member Lance Bass is mentoring a new boy band Heart2Heart, whose 2Ge+her-like video for their first single, “Facebook Official,” walks a VERY fine line between parody and sincerity. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga super-producer RedOne has launched his own boy band venture as well called Midnight Red. Five meticulously coiffed dudes in skinny jeans belt out dance-pop bangers with names like “One Club At A Time.” (Whether or not the club can handle Midnight Red remains to be seen.)

The most promising boy band on the horizon for Americans, though, has to be The Wanted, who have carved out a serious niche in the U.K. market with devastatingly catchy pop and an image that seems carefully calculated to project just the right balance of masculinity and sensitivity. It works, too. They’re as convincing singing lovelorn ballads like “Heart Vacancy” as they are at the helm of synth-fueled house-pop such as “Lightning.”

+ Read more about the return of boy bands after the jump.

Even if you haven’t heard The Wanted’s singles in full, you have probably heard the hypnotic opening strings of their debut single, “All Time Low” (not to be confused with the American band All Time Low), used prominently throughout the U.S. version of “The X Factor.” “All Time Low” was actually released back in July 2010 and hit No. 1 in the U.K., but a retooled version of the single was released as a digital single in the United States and Canada a year later. Though the song has failed to match its native success on this side of the Atlantic, that doesn’t mean The Wanted has given up trying.

Indeed, last week marked their very first performance in the United States, as The Wanted performed at New York’s Gramercy Theater alongside the blisteringly talented dance-pop soloist Wynter Gordon. Their performance was well-received, and deservedly so, given how massive The Wanted are in the UK; their formula is tried and true (cute guys, catchy songs), even if that doesn’t automatically translate into international appeal. The tricky thing, though, is that audiences are less willing now to buy into an earnest boy band than they were a decade ago; the best pop acts of today inject their music and image with irony, or at least, a tongue-in-cheek self-consciousness, knowing that they can’t win over increasingly cynical and media-wise listeners so easily anymore.

There’s also been a return to a mode of artistic credibility that’s appreciated, if not altogether required, for many mainstream pop acts. Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, and Katy Perry all write much of their own music (and have written for other artists too), so the old role of the so-called “manufactured” pop star isn’t quite as relevant or accurate as it once was. International artists who gain domestic traction — like Adele or Florence + The Machine — do so by being just that: artists. There’s something that always feels a little contrived about the boy band, conceptually — and because boy bands rarely, if ever, sing their own lyrics, it’s a lot harder to earn public trust as credible artists in their own right.

Luckily, The Wanted’s newest single, “Warzone” — which just premiered a few days ago on BBC’s Radio 1 — is a grinding, piano-and-drum ballad with a soaring chorus and ominous drum-and-bass wobbler effects that evokes OneRepublic and Timbaland‘s “Apologize,” which was a massive hit here. If anything could crack them in the States, it’s this single, with its never-gets-old love-as-war extended metaphor and instantly hummable chorus.

Because even as English boy bands have tried (and largely failed) over the last several years to launch in the States, I keep holding on to some possibly naive belief that good pop music will always prevail, and The Wanted are definitely making some. And if they don’t score big here in America, well, I’m long overdue on a trip to London anyway.

Sam Lansky is a writer and editor from New York City. He goes hard for Swedish pop music, “Real Housewives” GIFs and juice. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.