Boy Bands Were Way Edgier in the '90s

One Direction and The Wanted are storming pop with earnest paeans to teenage girls. Contrary to what we might remember, that's not what Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync did.

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They always look ridiculous in retrospect: the twitching hips and the shiny jumpsuits, the themed photoshoots, the matching sweater sets, the coordinated rainbow of skintight pants, Nick Carter's bowl cut, Justin Timberlake's curly cut, the various dye-and-gel jobs. But into every generation, a boy band must descend from heaven to act as an object of adoration for a legion of screaming teenage girls before further descending into minor scandal, revelations of talentlessness, and the general scourge of passing the age of 25.

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You might think that they'd weave consistent, candy-coated visions of all-consuming love. Certainly, that'd seem to be the case if one judged solely on the basis of the wave of boy bands conquering today's teenage girls. But the truth is stranger. The current contenders for the hearts and dollars of American girldom, One Direction and The Wanted, espouse a love-beats-all philosophy that's actually squeakier, cleaner, and simpler than that of the generation of manufactured, male teen idols that preceded them a decade or so ago.

If you've avoided mall radio and glimpses of Billboard charts over the past couple months, know that One Direction and The Wanted are British-Irish crews battle-tested in the U.K. before being shipped over here. For all the talk of a rivalry between them, the two groups actually have the market rather neatly divided. One Direction are Nice Guys, boys entranced by a girl's ponytail flip. The Wanted are Bad Boys, men pretending to booze, fight, and fuck their way through the battle of the sexes when really they just want to get home to their girlfriends. The result is, as you'd expect, effective but bloodless pop.

One Direction, in their tight-fit suiting and J. Crew leisure-wear, look like the kind of boys who could put shotgun-and-shovel wielding dads at ease. But when it comes to pitching their core audiences, they're as clueless as Charlie, the overweeningly sweet boyfriend on HBO's Girls who's so busy being kind and respectful that he becomes deathly boring. When they admonish a girl to "get out, get out, get out of my head" in "One Thing," the band members are careful not to suggest that she fall into their beds, much less to name that "one thing" that teenage girls are always warned teenage boys want from them.

Their biggest hit yet, "What Makes You Beautiful," is so worshipful that it feels smothering. The entire track is in praise of a girl who fails to see her own attractiveness—it's a compliment laced with condescension. "Gotta Be You," though, may be the most unsettling song in the group's ouvre. It portrays the girl the song is directed towards as ruined by the singer: "Girl, what a mess I made upon your innocence," Liam Payne croons. "Now girl, I hear it in your voice and how it trembles." But he wants another chance—"If you walk away / I'll fade / Cuz there's nobody else." It's as manipulative as any good love song, but stricken with a fatal dose of self pity.

The Wanted, by contrast, depend on frontman Max George's Mancunian-bro glower to bolster the impression that the members of the band have actually lain with women. The group uses that license to turn out songs like "Glad You Came"—yes, it's a double entendre—an ode to partying in Ibiza that includes the somewhat worrisome triplet "Now I'll take you by the hand / Hand you another drink / Drink it if you can." In contrast to One Direction's soft-focus scene setting, The Wanted can be shockingly specific. "Lightning" pictures a man and a woman making out at a party, "Just you and me and the coats in the back room / Learning things they don't teach in classrooms."

But The Wanted's horndog pose is just a front for the traditional storybook view of romance. "All Time Low" tells us that "Praying won't do it / Hating won't do it / Drinking won't do it / Fighting won't knock you out of my head." Love's powerful to these guys for the way it both elicits pleasure and agony. On "Lose My Mind," they explain that "If heartache was a physical pain, I could face it, I could face it / But you're hurting me from inside of my head, I can't take it, I can't take it."

One Direction's and The Wanted's lyrical commitment to commitment makes sense as a response to the deep, weird pessimism that defined the previous golden age of boy bands: the late '90s. Yes, that era provided a deep bench of earnest-seeming, swoon-inducing posses, from the big two—Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync—to the second tier of No Mercy, 98 Degrees, Hanson, LFO, and Westlife. But amid the glossy hooks were two darker trends.

First, what should have been the puppy-love soundtrack to an era is actually a collection of songs full of doubt about the possibility of lasting relationships. The Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," one of the most ubiquitous radio tracks at the time of its release, is about the utter hopelessness of love. Even if the object of the song is "my fire, my one desire," the act of trying to love her "ain't nothing but a heartbreak." She can't hear him when he tries to lay out what he wants from their relationships, and he seems resigned to their being apart. 'N Sync expressed similar doubts in "Tearin' Up My Heart," explaining that "no matter what I do / I feel the pain with or without you."

Worse, both 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys frequently sang songs aimed at undermining the self-confidence of their listeners, full of the sort of negging that would make pickup artists beam with pride. 'N Sync's "Girlfriend" spends as much time planting doubts about a woman's attraction to another man as making the lead's own pitch. "Does he even know you're alive?" are not words to make a woman feel treasured. "It's Gonna Be Me" alternated between chastising a needy girlfriend and expressing confidence she'd be back. And the Backstreet Boys' "As Long As You Love Me" reduces a woman's worth to her devotion to the man in question. Telling a gal "I don't care who you are / Where you're from / What you did / As long as you love me / Who you are / Where you're from / Don't care what you did / As long as you love me" is more insulting than it is affirming.

And beyond espousing some thorny views of love, The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync cast doubt on the entire enterprise of boy bandom in their songs and videos. In what has to be the neediest chorus ever to make the charts, the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)" first asked listeners "Am I original? / Am I the only one? / Am I sexual? / Am I everything you need?" 'N Sync opted for defensiveness in "Pop," in which Justin Timberlake alternately demanded respect and pouted that he's tired of putting out for a public that dismisses his band as being part of a fad. And 'N Sync didn't just mistrust: They recast their fans' adoration as an Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in the video for "Bye, Bye, Bye," in which the boys became marionettes of their audience, and their fancy cars become means of escape rather from—rather than rewards of—fame.

The larger culture didn't ignore this self-centered turn. The 2001 live-action Josie and the Pussycats movie featured a manufactured boy band called Dujour whose hit was a song called "Backdoor Lover." It was both a hilarious attempt to talk the listener into anal sex, and a funny rebuke to the ideal of the boy bander as fulfiller of all his girlfriend's desires and possessor of none of his own.

The atmosphere that One Direction and The Wanted operate in now couldn't have existed without Justin Bieber, who acted as a blow-dried human reset button and became a superstar on strength of sticky-sweet teenybop pop. In "Baby," he delivered a tune so glorious that it moved Ludacris, that randy master of the wisecracking guest verse, to rhapsodize innocently about his own first crush. And even Bieber doesn't really exist in that space anymore. One of the tracks on his forthcoming album is apparently about a girl suing him (falsely, says Bieber) for paternity. Most boys—and the girls they sing to—learn quickly that love isn't all there is, and that it's not enough to surmount all other obstacles. When it comes to boy bands, the sadder, wiser, weirder boy's for me.