What makes a boy band so crushable? The songs, of course; without their declarations of love and well-timed key changes, the likelihood that they'd creep into the mass consciousness is low. But the personalities that make up the groups, often boiled down to easy shorthands like "the cute one" or "the shy one" or "the one who just sort of stood there but who I'm attracted to anyway," are just as important; these archetypes allow different types of fans to hook into the groups, to argue over which band member is most deserving of their notebook doodlings, memorabilia money… and latent sexual stirrings.
1. BRIAN LITTRELL: BACKSTREET BOYS
I'm not sure I had an actual crush on Brian from the Backstreet Boys, but I remember being confused and maybe angry that anyone would think anyone else from any other boy band was even remotely attractive. I still don't think Justin Timberlake is cute. He looks like a little boy. A little boy! A baby. A pretty baby with a high voice. Who can dance extremely well, and is probably also really fun to hang out with. But not hot. Not hot.
Brian at least looked like a man. With a jaw, and he seemed serious. With his chin in his hand, unsmiling. "Brian backs" is all Google needs to know what I'm talking about. Brian Littrell. But also, Brian Littrell, I wish I hadn't Googled you. Pictures indicate he's dealing with a receding hairline by dying it blonde and combing it forward. He's 37 and has apparently become a Christian musician. Speaking of manly, I wonder what Joey Fatone is up to. OMG, Joey's actually looking really good these days. Being in a boy band is almost like… castration.
I wish I had a heartwarming story about self-discovery prompted by the soulful eyes, meaningfully outstretched arms and dedications of love made by Nick or Justin or JC. Hell, I'd probably settle for one of the Moffats, V.I.P., or some other third-tier boy-band that existed solely to satisfy the demands of the CanCon overlords.
But it's complicated. The boy bands of the late '90s were presented as objects of desire in ways that walked the line between vaguely homoerotic and uncomfortably objectified. Donald Glover captured the stereotype perfectly: Young men marketed for their innocence, inspiring pages of mildly uncomfortable online homo-erotica. Take, for example, the video for "Tearin' Up My Heart," in which Justin, clad in tank-top and sweatpants, reclines on a bed and licks his lips in a way that I've described as "totally corny Czech gay porn."
Despite this-or perhaps because of it-significant gay panic surrounded boy bands during my youth. It might have been acceptable to like isolated songs, but being a fan of the bands themselves was beyond the pale. So in fifth grade, a dance party request for "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" by a male classmate required qualification-he wanted to show off his dancing skills for girls.
Even more terrifying was the prospect that-horror of horrors-boy-band members might be gay. I vividly recall a conversation in which my now-stepsister, distraught, told her father that some friends informed her that Justin Timberlake and Lance Bass were "gay for each other," begging him to affirm that it couldn't possibly be true. (In retrospect, the irony is delightful.)
At 14, having a crush on a boy was something I couldn't wrap my head around without being bludgeoned over the head repeatedly by my attraction. Neutered songs of romance and eternal devotion certainly didn't do the trick. Not until 2002, when Justin released "Like I Love You," "Cry Me a River" and "Rock Your Body," did my subconscious take pause. The Rolling Stone cover didn't hurt either.
We've come a long way since then, and I think/hope that it's possible, even acceptable, for 13-year-old boys to hang posters of One Direction above their beds. Twentysomething gay guys I know certainly express their admiration and preferences for particular members. Still, a week after someone had to apologize for calling a young, skinny twink exactly that, one can't help but suspect that some of the anxiety and discomfort I saw and felt during my youth remains.
I was well versed in commandeering the cable box and watching MTV around the time the British duo Wham! released its glorious second album, Make It Big, in 1984. I was nine years old. "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" made me want to wear oversized t-shirts; "Freedom" made me jump on my bed so hard the needle would skip across the record; "Careless Whisper" made me sad, even though my romantic experiences at that tender age were limited to a fruitless crush on a redheaded boy who wore plaid pants and lived right by my school.
My favorite track, though, was "Everything She Wants," George Michael's bitter tribute to a soul-and-wallet-sucking lover. While the song to this day is one of Michael's best, its acidity tempered by precisely calibrated synth blasts and his just-aggrieved-enough vocal performance, I loved its video because of the amount of screen time given to Andrew Ridgeley, Wham!'s "other guy" and my first Real Big Boy Band Crush. (By virtue of timing, Duran Duran's John Taylor came in second.) Michael, of course, got the bulk of the airtime, but Ridgeley was given the task of miming the plain "doo doo doo la la la"s that underscored Michael's tortured querying of why he worked for his love. His hair-just this side of a mullet-and his coat-plaid, with a wide collar-only made his gaze more intense, more projected exactly at me.
In the years that would follow, Wham! would break up, and George Michael would reel off hits like conversational asides while Ridgeley put out a single album, Son of Albert, which had one single that sounded suspiciously like an Alice Cooper cast-off. Ridgeley's name would become synonymous with terms like "second banana," "other guy" and "where are they now"; in 2009 the Daily Mail would make an example of him for, gasp, getting old; why they put him on the spot for going bald as opposed to going on I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!, I'm not sure. But for me, even to this day, he remains my first crush beamed from the otherworld of pop music, his piercing stare and willingness to cede the spotlight to his longtime buddy completely endearing to that part of me that will always remain nine.
-Maura Johnston has written for Rolling Stone and Spin, taught at NYU, and existed online since 1989.
I have always been a sucker for a falsetto. First it was Joey McIntyre of the New Kids on the Block, his high voice fogged by a sweet Boston accent; then it was Justin Timberlake of 'N Sync, who thankfully outgrew his absurd and glossy curls in favor of tattoos and a sense of humor; now it's the floppy-haired Harry Styles of One Direction. (Note: I have no idea what Harry Styles' individual voice sounds like, but I do know he's the cutest one. I mean, really, you can't argue with that hair.)
There's just something about impossibly high notes coming out of a pretty boy's mouth that sets my heart aflame. When I was a child, the boy with the falsetto seemed the safest, the least sexual… like beautiful castrato singing three-minute pop songs. No matter what the words are, a boy with a falsetto isn't going to break your heart. He belongs in a church, backed by a choir. He will bring you flowers and hold your hand. He will open your car door, or at least he would if he were old enough to drive. Joey was the better version of the boys at my elementary school. Not even his stonewashed jeans and mall haircut could deter me. If I told you that my husband serenades me with a voice a few octaves above his normal register, would it surprise you? It shouldn't. After all, a girl never really gets over her first love.
-Emma Straub is the author of the novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures.
I think about original O-Town member Ikaika Kahoano at least once a week, more often than one would expect. After all, he quit the 2000 reality TV series Making the Band to preserve his artistic integrity (or something more scandalous?), then… started another boyband, LMNT. The name was picked by readers of Teen People. They had one single (it was bad) and then kind of disappeared.
Way back in 2000, I had a big crush on Ikaika, even though now I realize he was a bit boring. But! He had a cool Hawaiian accent and a really nice singing voice, and he seemed a lot more circumspect than the rest of the guys in the house. (That tells you something about 15-year-old me: "circumspect" was a quality I appreciated in boys.)
Twelve years ago, reality TV still had people who were genuinely uncomfortable with cameras in their faces all the time; the secret to making a living from reality shows-being as ridiculous as possible-had yet to be figured out. Ikaika spent a lot of time on the phone getting advice about his career and the band from his brother, so much that another future O-Town member, Jacob Underwood, eventually deadpanned, "Hey Ikaika, what's your brother's number? I need to ask you some questions."
Ikaika comes into my head without fail when I'm loading the dishwasher. You know how some television moments are burned into your brain for all time? I'm never going to forget Ikaika loading the dishwasher in the MtB house and singing, to the tune of "Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely": "Tell me why I live with a bunch of slobs."
-Shani O. Hilton is a journalist in Washington, D.C.