Larger Than Life

A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS


By Maria Sherman

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This nostalgic, fully-illustrated history of boy bands — written by culture critic and boy band stan Maria Sherman — is a must-have for diehard fans of the genre and beyond.

The music, the fans, the choreography, the clothes, the merch, the hair. Long after Beatlemania came and went, a new unstoppable boy band era emerged. Fueled by good looks and even greater hooks, the pop phenomenon that dominated the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s has left a long-lasting mark on culture, and it’s time we celebrate it. Written by super fan Maria Sherman for stans and curious parties alike, Larger Than Life is the definitive guide to boy bands, delivered with a mix of serious obsession and tongue-in-cheek humor.

Larger Than Life begins with a brief history of male vocal groups, spotlighting The Beatles, the Jackson 5, and Menudo before diving into the building blocks of these beloved acts in “Boy Bands 101.” She also focuses on artists like New Edition, New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, One Direction, and BTS before ending with an interrogation into the future of boy bands. Included throughout are Tiger Beat-inspired illustrations, capsule histories of the swoon-iest groups, in-depth investigations into one-hit wonders, and sidebars dedicated to conspiracy theories, dating, in-fighting, haters, fan fiction, fashion (Justin and Britney in denim, of course), and so much more.

Informative, affectionate, funny, and never, ever fan-shaming, Larger Than Life is the first and only text of its kind: the ultimate celebration of boy bands and proof that this once maligned music can never go unappreciated.




I OFTEN JOKE, when someone is curious enough to ask when my love of boy bands started, that I don’t remember life before One Direction. Nor do I care to.

(That last part isn’t a bit. I really love One Direction.)

Sure, synapses fired as they always have, and my hearing has suffered from the impenetrable force of women and girls pulling from deep within their guts to contribute to the explosive, collective scream that follows boy bands wherever they may go, but that only feels like rebirth. There’s no way to revisit a time before boy bands; that peculiar pop music virginity has vanished. When those floppy-haired English boys discordantly pranced into my life, I was a goner.

Finding 1D was exuberant, a feeling I assumed was inaccessible outside of adolescence or, like, falling in love. Because I was in my early twenties, both felt unobtainable and disappointing. Unlike the hip music I spent my days writing about in my nine-to-five as a music journalist (I still love that stuff and have the very disappointing tattoos to prove it), One Direction was in the market of joy. They never adhered to trends or to the canons set forth by vintage critics, the Recording Academy, and whichever Chad in Marketing secretly controls the algorithmic mood playlists on streaming services. One Direction and the people who loved them loved them deeply, without fear of having their infatuation demonized as frivolous or feminine (two words often conflated, which this text is totally going to deconstruct). I was engrossed, surely to the point of journalistic biases, which quickly morphed into a mastery of a realm of pop music once ignored by my contemporaries. I wanted to write something that did justice to the modern boy band because, frankly, it’s absurd that a book like the one you’re holding didn’t already exist.

If you’ve:

Ever been inconsolable with excitement at a live music event; listened to a record on repeat; thought people who dismiss Top 40 radio are elitist snobs; been an elitist snob who changed their tune for some sexy ditty produced by Max Martin; traveled to another neighborhood, city, or country for the opportunity to see your boys in a different setting; didn’t tell your family about it; handmade a band shirt or fan sign; destroyed a Trapper Keeper, notebook, or laptop case with stickers and scribbles for your favorite boy band; read fan fiction; written fan fiction; written fan fiction and later in life realized it was your first foray into a crucial, wholly embarrassing sexual awakening; written diary entries, or blogs, or Twitter posts, or Instagram stories full of the same; refused to leave your room, car, or any space where your favorite album was easily accessible; watched live performances on YouTube of your favorite group on repeat and lost hours doing so; thought your parents didn’t understand and knew your friends and other fans never could, not as much as you, anyhow; wondered why your encyclopedic knowledge for music and evolutionary hairstyles is derided instead of celebrated the same way sports fans’ menial fact-dropping is (which couldn’t be as life-affirming, right?); have been genuinely afraid of how much you enjoyed a bit of music, a music video, or any other tangible aspect of boy band fandom, up to and including the sight of a plastic cup set ornamented with your favorite member’s face in the discount bin of a Target, dollar store, or some overseas equivalent,

this one’s for you.

In the way that Judy Blume’s books, Harry Potter, and other various young adult fiction turned a few generations of youths into voracious readers, boy bands continue to turn curious kids into curious music and pop culture experts. Boy bands teach morality, community, individuation, heartbreak, sex, virginity, purity, religion, politics, fashion, borders, language, business, dance, magic, nostalgia, and innocence. The affection inherent in these groups informs the rest of our lives. It’s unsurprising that boy band fans past and present identify as enthusiasts, a unique name reserved for the likes of Anthony Bourdain and those of us unafraid to pursue the purity of pop, looking ridiculous and having a wonderful time soundtracked by silly anthems. And with that, let’s get cooking.

A Somehow Long, Definitely Very Abridged Boy Band Timeline

MID-1800s: An obsession with celebrity composer Franz Liszt is diagnosed as Lisztomania, one of the first modern, Western examples of pathologizing women’s “hysteria” in relation to a musical artist. Girls are patronized for loving a cute musician boy as a collective disorder long before boy bands ruined our lives.

1930s: Barbershop quartets of men singing a cappella four-part harmonies emerge on the scene and grow in popularity. Lives = slightly more devastated. (Fact: African American quartets date much earlier, a tradition most commonly documented back to the mid-1800s. They sang spirituals but didn’t evoke Liszt-level fanaticism. If I go too far back in the history of male vocal groups, I’ll end up deciding any polyphonic singers, like eleventh-century Gregorian chanters, were the first boy bands, and I’d rather not sexualize monks. My abuela might read this.)

1940s–1950s: Following barbershop, post–World War II black youth, bored of their parents’ music and dedicated to altering traditional harmony singing, create the love song craze of male doo-wop groups. It’s swoon city, baby, population: all straight women.

1956: Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers release “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” Some fools fall in love with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

1958: The Osmonds, a vest-and-blazer-sporting barbershop vocal group of Mormon siblings, form. Restorationism-practicing Christians deserve boy band hooks, too.

1959: Berry Gordy establishes Tamla Records in Detroit. In a few months, his company becomes Motown Records, Inc. His male vocal groups like the Temptations and the Four Tops become increasingly popular and increasingly proto-boy band.

1960: The Beatles form with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Stuart Sutcliffe. Ringo Starr doesn’t join for another two years.

1965: In Gary, Indiana, the Jackson brothers become the Jackson 5. They will soon become one of the first boy bands and one of the first massively popular black acts to cross over to mainstream (read: white) audiences. Berry Gordy isn’t sold on “kids groups” right away, but later changes his tune and signs them.

1966: The Beatles, riding high from their success as the world’s most popular band (of boys), inspire the NBC sitcom The Monkees, inadvertently creating the first fully manufactured boy band. The show ends two years later.

1970: The Beatles break up.

1970s: Scottish pop-rock boy band the Bay City Rollers inspire their own Beatlemania called Rollermania, reaching the height of popularity around 1974–1976.

1977: Puerto Rican boy band Menudo forms, ushering in a new wave of Latin teen pop music.

1978: New Edition comes together in Boston, reaching the height of popularity in the 1980s.

1984: New Kids on the Block are formed by Maurice Starr, the same guy who discovered New Edition.

1985–1988: Boyz II Men, named after the New Edition song “Boys to Men,” get their start in Philadelphia, melting hearts with R&B ballads and a cappella harmonies. To some, they’re a boy band. To others, they can’t be, because they’re too busy performing seriously soulful new jack swing. As Billboard’s Andrew Unterberger wrote of the group, “Not all male vocal groups that dress similarly can be boy bands.”

1989: In Charlotte, North Carolina, two sets of brothers—Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey, Joel “JoJo” Hailey, Donald “DeVanté Swing” DeGrate, and Dalvin DeGrate—form Jodeci, a sexy, bad boy alternative to Boyz II Men’s silky R&B.

1990: Take That makes their television debut on The Hitman and Her and launches the boy band revolution across the pond in the UK.

1992: Hanson forms five years before “MMMBop” would become inescapable. They work to repopularize the familial boy band format. In Seoul, Seo Taiji and Boys not only helped launch the rise of South Korean pop music, they become widely regarded as the first K-pop boy band, ever.

1993: In Ireland, Boyzone takes over the air waves. In Orlando, Lou Pearlman creates Backstreet Boys.

1994: Multiracial R&B boy band All-4-One blows up with “I Swear,” a perfect medley of adult contemporary schmaltz and boy band inoffensiveness.

1995: Lou Pearlman creates *NSYNC to compete with the Backstreet Boys. A bunch of other boy bands come out of the woodwork to compete with one another, like 98 Degrees and LFO.

1996: New Edition reunites six years after disbanding and releases their first album in eight years, Home Again.

1997: Over in the UK, Five (styled 5ive) gears up for English domination.

1998: Producer Chris Stokes, recognizing a demand for more young black boy bands similar to the group that he managed in the early 1990s, Immature, introduces the world to B2K.

1999: Tween boy band Dream Street forms; they will break up after less than four years together. Frontman Jesse McCartney is a rare example of a soloist blowing up well beyond his midsize group.

2000: Like the Monkees before them, another fictional, caricatural boy band, 2Gether, is created for MTV’s first-ever made-for-television movie. Unlike the Monkees, they are intentionally satirical. In the same year, O-Town comes together through MTV’s (and Lou Pearlman’s) reality TV experiment, Making the Band. In the UK, the line between boy band and pop-punk group blurs with the creation of Busted and, later, McFly.

2002: Both *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys embark on indefinite hiatuses.

2004: Justin Timberlake quits *NSYNC to go solo. Backstreet Boys return and get to work on their fourth studio LP, the aptly titled Never Gone. It drops in 2005.

2006: Big Bang, one of the biggest boy bands in K-pop history, finalizes their lineup. It will take a few years for them to explode in the West, but the seed has been planted.

2007: Disney, hot off the realization that actual bands—like, the guitar/bass/drums kind—are cool now, signs the Jonas Brothers.

2008: Mindless Behavior, an R&B boy band, rushes onto the scene. New Kids on the Block reunite for the first time in fourteen years.

2009: Big Time Rush, like a modern Monkees or a non-satirical 2Gether, forms because of a television show on Nickelodeon, a channel for kids. At the same time, the Wanted manifests through a series of mass auditions. Unfortunately, they’re outshined by One Direction, but they have one big hit: the EDM-pop “Glad You Came.”

2010: One Direction meets on The X Factor UK as soloists who are brought together by Svengali Simon Cowell. They will become the biggest boy band since the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC.

2011: 5 Seconds of Summer, a group of pop-punkers from Sydney, Australia, form and quickly sign to Modest Management and One Direction LLC. That’s right: they are a boy band at least partially owned by another boy band.

2012: UK boy band the Vamps are discovered on YouTube.

2013: BTS mobilizes in Seoul and changes the landscape of what a Korean boy band can do for a Western audience. *NSYNC reunites to perform at MTV’s Video Music Awards, but it’s a onetime thing. Australian YouTube comedy group the Janoskians go full-EDM boy band and release the biggest single of their career, the explicit “Best Friends.”

2015: Brockhampton, a hip-hop musical collective from San Marcos, Texas, identifies as an “American boy band.” Unlike traditional boy bands, they’re celebrated by music media that otherwise doesn’t cover teen pop music. They even score a television show with the cool, irreverent, and not at all kid-friendly Vice network.

2016: With One Direction recently disbanded, PrettyMuch and Why Don’t We form and attempt to fill the boy band void while ushering in a new, contemporary look. Literally, they swap proper English polos for L.A. streetwear style.

2017: ABC launches Boy Band, a reality TV show dedicated to creating the next big boy band. The victors start a group called In Real Life. The series is canceled after one season. I don’t know why. It was great.

2019–2020: Following in the footsteps of New Kids on the Block before them, the Jonas Brothers reunite, proving that in a teen culture ruled by nostalgia, one life might not be enough.




MOST PEOPLE WITH a cursory understanding of boy bands will inform you that the phenomenon begins with the Beatles. If they’re feeling boastful, they’ll mention Beatlemania, a term coined in the early ’60s to describe the absolute frenzy the coiffured foursome inspired within their female fan base. Those people, who I’m sure are super smart and cool and attractive and well meaning, could not be more wrong.

Like anything that’s highly contested and old as hell, the origin of the boy band is not actually linear, but it is possible to get pretty close to a chronology. Personally, I believe the sensation that begat the melodious cutie-pie group was not the Beatles and their Beatlemania, but Franz Liszt and Lisztomania. In the mid-1800s, the Hungarian composer was essentially Justin Bieber; his very image was enough to make grown women faint to the floor. As Alan Walker wrote in his three-volume biography, Franz Lizst: The Virtuoso Years, 1811–1847, “Liszt once threw away an old cigar stump in the street under the watchful eyes of an infatuated lady-in-waiting, who reverently picked the offensive weed out of the gutter, had it encased in a locket and surrounded with the monogram ‘F.L.’ in diamonds, and went about her courtly duties unaware of the sickly odor it gave forth”—behavior strikingly similar to the monument erected in the spot on the side of Route 101 in Calabasas, California, where One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles threw up after a night of partying and a day of hiking in 2014. No wonder Beatlemania would share a suffix with Lisztomania a century later. If 1D came to fruition in a time when vintage misogyny was still hyped in pop-rock, it’s likely “Directionmania” would’ve caught on.

But Liszt was one man, and boy bands require multiple members to fulfill meticulously crafted archetypes. Outside of the Christian religion, and its gospels and spirituals meant to venerate God, the secular male vocal groups that most resemble modern boy bands arrived in the form of barbershop quartets. In the 1930s, these were adult men who adorned uniform looks and sang exclusively a cappella. In the late 1940s, love-song-obsessed doo-wop, the result of black youth creating their own sound following World War II, transformed the group-of-dudes-singing blueprint with new rhythms and instruments. (Around this time, too, Frank Sinatra became the object of teen girl affection, a population referred to as “bobby soxers.”) That music gave way to the popularization of rock and roll in the 1950s with artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Elements of the hip-swinging genre date back to 1920s blues, but things really took off with rockabilly Elvis Presley, his female following itself very Lisztian, and other white artists who performed historically black music. Appropriation shapes much of pop culture, and it rears its ugly head in boy bands throughout the decades.

Elvis, of course, was also just one guy. You could argue that the boy band thing really kicked off in 1956, when multihyphenate rock-and-roll-rhythm-and-blues vocal group Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers released “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” a song so perfectly lovelorn it manages to masquerade its horniness, making it proto–every boy band, ever. How far off is “Love is a losing game / Love can be a shame / I know of a fool / You see / For that fool is me” from the Backstreet Boys’ “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart),” really? And what a coincidence that Lymon wrote the song when he was thirteen years old, the same age Nick Carter was when he joined BSB.

The 1950s birthed superstars, but it did not create a group of equal members with boy band–branded ubiquity. Think about it: Bill Haley was the star of Bill Haley and His Comets, and they weren’t called Nick Lachey and the 98 Degrees. Lymon and his guys arrived too early in history, as geniuses so often do, to be considered the first-ever boy band. That is in part because the decade marked one of the first real eras of the teenager, a postwar economic and generational divide that had never happened before. Young adults had money to spend on their own interests for the first time ever, and they would soon define popular taste.

With a chunk of change in their shallow pockets and iconoclastic impulses in tow, teenagers transformed everything in the ’60s when the Beatles became widely recognized as the world’s very first boy band (also the biggest pop group the world has ever seen, but whatever, those titles are one and the same; as soon as there were teens, there were teen girls hand-selecting what pop art was worthy of immortality). John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were a force, distinct personalities and talents that would go on to establish the modern boy band paradigm. Most pivotal, however, was that they had their Beatles fans, an organized population so ravenously dedicated that they ushered in a new word.

Beatlemania (a term that has been weaponized by the media to pathologize young women for going wild, screaming that decibel-shattering scream, and having a blast—imagine if anyone called male sports fans an “epidemic”) marked the most vital shift of power in the boy band schema. The way the band has been described publicly is so intrinsically tied to their fans’ ceaseless passion that they became one and the same, and Beatlemaniacs wielded their power freely. Their underwear-throwing, red-in-the-face, teary-eyed hollers for John, Paul, George, and Ringo were an extension of the 1960s sexual revolution, a real rebellion of gendered oppression, which journalists like The New Statesman’s Paul Johnson infamously misunderstood and thusly clocked as foolish, writing a deeply misogynistic screed: “Those who flock around the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.” In retrospect, he was out of line, a real dolt, but the description does confirm two things: First, teens had taken control over pop culture, beginning in the 1960s and with the Beatles, as they would forever after. Second, boy band fans, specifically those who are women, were disparaged for their gusto, as they would be forever after.

The Beatles offered a framework that boy bands could build upon: John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s unstoppable, joyful melodies (especially when dealing with love and not sex, at least, coded carnality in their early days) were at the heart of every song, as were their matching suits and mop-top bowl cuts. They broke records and produced hit after hit, without waning in quality and with exhaustive speed. They offered young people an image of autonomy that differed from other celebrity at the time. They were devilishly boyish. They were unafraid of meddling with traditional gender and genre structures; their music blended the blunt force of 1950s rock and roll with the outrageously addictive harmonies of girl groups like the Supremes. In fact, the Beatles worshipped those girl groups and aspired to be like them. What’s more boy band–like than adoring women? The Beatles became extremely monetizable, their faces plastered on products and magazines and movies across the globe. Their influence was so immense that it would eventually create competition for themselves in the form of copycat acts. That, too, would prove to be a common thread throughout boy band history.

The Beatles’ 1964 flick, A Hard Day’s Night, made an impression on two wannabe filmmakers, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, inspiring them to develop a series about four young lads in a global pop band. (Sound familiar? They were not subtle.) After a series of rejections, their concept sold to NBC, and their quartet, the Monkees, formed in 1966. The group was frequently referred to as the “Prefab Four,” a parody of the Beatles’ “Fab Four” nickname, and they enjoyed a five-year run, maintaining popularity even after their show was canceled in 1968. The comparisons didn’t end there: the Monkees disbanded in 1971 (with reunions to follow), one year after the Beatles went their separate ways in 1970.

The 1960s were also the golden age of Berry Gordy’s Motown, the Detroit-based Hitsville studio that produced hit single after hit single, combining soul, disco, R&B, and pop. As great critic Nelson George described it, Gordy created “a triumph and a contradiction… a testament to the power of black music.” After a decade of timeless tunes and a path forged by the Four Tops and the Temptations, Motown’s ’70s were earmarked for boy band domination in the form of the Jackson 5. Even though Gordy’s groups are rarely referred to as “boy bands” in the modern sense, the pieces were there: cute boys now with choreography, matching clothes, and seriously catchy hooks. Across the pond, Scotland attempted to release their own Beatles, the Bay City Rollers, and in Latin America, pulling from both Motown and the Beatles before them, Menudo became Puerto Rico’s Monkees. Boy bands, long before the term was used, were diversifying.

At the end of the decade, in 1978, New Edition came into existence. The R&B group of youngsters, with the help of American producer Maurice Starr, became the first contemporary


  • "Larger Than Life champions the enduring legacy of these male vocal groups, from winsome 1930s barber shop quartets to fetching Disney Channel celebrities. It looks like an oversized edition of a teen gossip magazine, embellished with patterned yellow borders, pink and blue headings, and bubbly illustrations inspired by Tiger Beat."—Pitchfork
  • "Larger Than Life...shakes off decades of under-appreciation for the pop subgenre and lays out a fascinating, in-depth history of the groups and fans that have shaped boy band culture."—Rolling Stone
  • "An overdue analysis of boy bands and the devoted fans who elevate them."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Like a pair of Nike Foamposite sneakers on a Backstreet Boy, this book is shiny, fun and expertly constructed. Maria Sherman's unrivaled knowledge of and passion for those teen dream machines known as boy bands gains depth from her conviction that they really matter, both musically and as cultural catalysts. This compendium of historical vignettes, truly useful lists and perceptive critique unassumingly works a miracle, showing how a much-dismissed subgenre can be taken seriously while still generating the sparkle its subject deserves."—Ann Powers, music critic and author of Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music
  • "A definitive guide to the pop phenomenon [of boy bands] through capsule histories of the swooniest groups, in-depth investigations into one-hit wonders, conspiracy theories, dating, in-fighting, haters, fan fiction, fashion and more."—Billboard
  • "Maria Sherman has written the brilliant, definitive, hilarious, and long-overdue appreciation of boy-band culture-the realest, oldest, truest of pop passions. She chronicles the artists and fans with the respect they deserve. Larger Than Life is a revelation and a joy to read, in prose that sparkles like a One Direction hook."—Rob Sheffield, author of Love is a Mix Tape and Dreaming the Beatles
  • "In Maria Sherman's remarkable Larger Than Life, devoted music fans finally have a critic that honors and reveres fandom for what it really is -- expertise. She plunges into the depths of pop history and gives us a glorious look into the often maligned and misunderstood boy bands and their fanbases. Larger Than Life is feminist, gleeful, intersectional, funny, nuanced and nerdy -- Sherman is the great understander of boy bands and their fans."—Jessica Hopper, music critic and author of The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
  • "[This] colorfully illustrated book is perfect for diehard stans, pop culture aficionados and music fans looking to fill a blind spot."—Paste Magazine
  • "Sherman neither claims to be unbiased nor definitive, and though she provides plenty of nostalgia, she also smartly explores the cultural landscape that allowed boy bands to flourish and the lasting impact of these groups. Readers will want to have a playlist queued up."—Booklist
  • "A witty, irreverent, but almost scholarly primer on all things boy band."—Library Journal
  • "Larger Than Life does not only serve as a meaningful piece of pop music criticism, but it strives to be a celebration of a fandom that was built from the love of young women despite boy band fandom being written off as a hormonal mob letting out guttural screams for mediocre singers."—AIPT Comics
  • "[An] exhaustive guide to an enduring cultural phenomenon."—Texas Monthly
  • "Larger Than Life is a fun read, a bright large-format paperback generously illustrated by Alex Fine. Whether it's a nostalgia trip or a list of your current favorite artists, it's a no-brainer gift for any boy band fan in your life."—The Current

On Sale
Jul 21, 2020
Page Count
224 pages

Author Maria Sherman

Maria Sherman

About the Author

Maria Sherman is a music writer and culture critic currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She has worked as a senior writer at Jezebel, managing editor at Gizmodo Media Group, senior correspondent at Fuse TV, and contributor at BuzzFeed Music. You may have seen her work at NPR and in Billboard, SPIN, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and many other quality publications. If she were in a boy band, she’d be the bad boy. Also, Harry Styles ruined her life.

Learn more about this author