As Toronto froze in ice like a fairy tale curse last Saturday, school friends Lily Getachew and Michelle Fabjan, both 15, spent nine hours outside the Danforth Music Hall, front row for American boy band Why Don’t We.
The teenage quintuple was playing his first of two sold-out shows, and Getachew and Fabjan arrived around 9 a.m. hoping to be on hand at the general admission show.
Michelle discovered Why Don’t We on Instagram Explore last year, although she has known band member Daniel Seavey from his top 10 on american idol in 2015. Lily knew her favorite Zach Herron from his cover of Shawn Mendes’ “Stitches,” a viral hit that garnered 20 million combined views on Instagram and Facebook. “Everyone knew it!” she says.
Inside the theater, the band members – Jonah Marais, 19, from Minnesota; Texan Corbyn Besson, 19; Seavey, 19, of Oregon; Jack Avery, 18, of Pennsylvania, and Texan Herron, 16, take their seats on the balcony.
Each member came to the group with a fanbase the size of a small Canadian town: in addition to the individual successes of Seavey and Herron, Marais and Besson were popular stars on live video streaming site YouNow, and Avery had a following singing Ed Sheeran covers on Youtube. Jon Lucero, an all-social media impresario, brought them together for a hit in Los Angeles, where they played the FIFA soccer video game in their underwear and ate powdered grocery donuts.
That was in 2016. Since then, they have released five EPs, including last fall’s Invitation, which topped the iTunes charts in Canada. Their videos have had over 150 million views on YouTube in two years, roughly double the total of Tragically Hip’s entire discography.
As a member of an internet-famous supergroup, Marais appreciates how different her position is today from when Beatles secretary Freda Kelly served fans by sending them Fab Four locks of hair. “I can send a tweet to my phone and it will go to each of the (fans’) phones,” he says.
Connection intimacy works both ways. Marais says a fan recently brought him a hat from his childhood baseball team. “They found a photo of you on Facebook from your grandmother’s best friend’s former roommate that you didn’t even know existed,” Seavey laughs.
Jessica Leski, the Melbourne-based director behind I Used to Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story, which will have its world premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto on April 26, fears that access will pierce the illusion. “Part of the appeal of a boy band is what you project onto them,” she says.
Leski, 37, understands this appeal. She surprised herself at 31 by becoming a late director, as One Direction fans call themselves.
“With One Direction, having this huge fandom online and interacting not just with other fans but with the boys directly, it was so huge and unlike any other time of being a fan,” she says. “You could write love letters to John Lennon but if he would actually see them, who knows? You could tweet Harry Styles and especially at first he felt like there was a chance he can see it.
One of Leski’s subjects in the doc is Dara, a Take That superfan who describes some common characteristics of boy bands: They should be aged 17 to 21 with three to five members, spanning archetypal personalities including “the mysterious ‘, ‘the sexy’, ‘the cute’, ‘the big brother type’ and – sorry, AJ McLean – ‘the forgotten one’. She considers the dancing and color-coordinated outfits to be canon, though One Direction broke with those traditions.
Some facial hair is OK; beards are not. Why Don’t We dutifully met these criteria, although there is no formal beard ban. “When I can grow a beard, I probably will,” Seavey says.
With the dissolution of One Direction in 2016, would it be too soon to relaunch the cycle of boy bands? Leski doesn’t think so. “Once they become men, it changes,” says Leski.
“Two of them (Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson) have children! Why would someone who is 12 feel love for someone who already has a child?
Korea’s thriving K-pop scene is already filling that boy band gap, which has lured fans away from English-speaking pop idols, especially the smash hit of BTS, who will release a new album next month titled Do you love: tear.
At the Why Don’t We show, the stage is drowned out by screaming teenage girls as the boys perform moves such as forming a semi-circle and kicking in sync backwards, as if they’ve just survived to an explosion created by their friendship. Behind the girls there is a void and then, along the back, another group: bored parents holding beers, some of whom are not even looking at the scene.
It’s a reminder that ever since the Beatles wore matching suits and sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on The Ed Sullivan Showthere have been scowling adults who don’t understand.
“As a foreigner, you look at it and think it’s not as good,” Leski says. “But for (today’s teenagers) it will be the greatest thing ever.”
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