Behind any group of boys topping the charts–whether it’s New Kids on the Block, One Direction or the recent K-pop powerhouse BTS–sits a dedicated fan base essential to its success. Texan author Maria Sherman, born in Fort Worth and raised in San Antonio, is herself a “superfan” of boy groups. After years of covering pop culture for Billboard and Rolling stone, Jezebel’s music journalist and lead writer, now based in New York City, set out to write a book that takes a serious look at boy groups from multiple angles, including race, gender and sexuality. The Definitive Guide is the first of its kind, celebrating not only the bands but also the hordes of fans who have been by their side throughout it all. “Boy Group is a behemoth pop culture app with monolithic impact,” writes Sherman. “Historically, yes, boy groups are hotties that fit together, but the fandom is the only true universal.”
Released today at Black Dog & Leventhal, a Hachette brand, Bigger than life offers a comprehensive history of the boy band phenomenon over the years, dating back as far as the 1930s when barber quartets emerged singing a cappella harmonies, and discusses what the future of boy bands might look like (think groups that venture outside the pop genre, like King Calaway, or all-LGBTQIA + teams, like No Daughter of Mine). The book also examines the exploitative business practices to which some successful boy groups, such as’ NSync and Backstreet Boys, have been subjected. Ultimately, he investigates the cultural impact of these groups, although they are seen as frivolous or insignificant by some.
Before the book came out, Texas monthly spoke with Sherman about the evolution of boy groups, what she hopes readers will take away from the book and about Texas’ own boy group, Brockhampton.
Texas Monthly: What has been your favorite part of writing Bigger than life?
Maria Sherman: Probably knowing that by writing it I was going to legitimize boy bands in one way or another. I have always had the idea in my head that it is very strange that this book does not exist and I hope that many people, especially the young women who make up much of the boy band fandom, do will find there. It’s also fun watching a thousand boy band documentaries on YouTube. The whole was pleasant. I just wish I had, like, six years to write it and it became a series of encyclopedias, versus just under two years and one book.
TM: Have you thought about writing a follow-up book?
MRS: I would like. People asked me if I wanted to write a book about girl groups and I think it would be quite interesting. That would open up much of the conversation to how pop stars are sexualized, especially at a young age. And much of the identity of the boy group operates in a space where it’s crushable, but not sexual – it’s just butterflies in the stomach and no touch and the grabbing scene forever. I think if I were to write about girl groups it would be explored more explicitly about how these people are sexualized.
I also think it would be just fun to explore boy bands as a subject of a racial or queer story. I allude to it in the book and wish I had more space for it. But I really hope it’s an introduction for people so that they can make connections in the story that they might not otherwise have. I also hope that other people will write boy band books, because that would be really exciting. Someone has to write the definitive One Direction book I’ve been waiting for.
TM: Did anything surprise you while you were researching and writing the book?
MRS: Definitely how connected everything seems to be. I knew there were layers that existed throughout boy band history. It was before my time, but I knew Maurice Starr had developed New Edition and New Kids on the Block. I hadn’t realized how fast this jump was, even the fact that [NKOTB] were supposed to be the new white edition feels like a very obvious cross line. Or the fact that the Backstreet Boys sort of happened because Lou Pearlman wanted to do what New Kids on the Block did. And then in the UK, with Simon Cowell appearing a lot more often than I thought. As an American, I had no idea. I just thought he was the American Idol guy and then the One Direction man.
And then a lot of the history of boy bands concerns these behind-the-scenes exploitation practices. It’s a lot of commercial exploitation and bad stuff that people don’t like to talk about like sex crimes and then later in the hip-hop chapter stuff about drug use. And I’ve always been aware of Lou Pearlman as that horrible kind of player, [and] the unspoken abuse that continues to be hidden in the way pop music tries to hide negativity because it’s bad business. But unpacking it all and spreading it all out there, it was like the pieces came together. I felt like the meme of this woman with all the stones on her face.
TM: As a fan, how do you think you know these exploitation practices but also appreciate this music?
MRS: It’s a challenge. And one thing I find really interesting about it is that it was so hidden and the internet tends to expose evils in ways that we might not have access to, or it doesn’t. there would be no transparency. Until now, with the K-pop fandom being a digital native audience, I don’t think boy band fans have ever really had to wonder what their fandom means, as they had no idea that these things were going on behind the scenes. Or if they did, they probably thought it was bad business practices, like groups protesting Pearlman outside the courtroom with ‘NSync.
It’s just crazy cognitive dissonance and it’s hard to unwrap. And I think it’s up to the individual to take that into account. At the heart of it, however, I’m trying to make the case that if you enjoy this music and it means something to you and it gives you something – and if it’s something that makes you feel good. well or a distraction or whatever – there is an inherent value in that. But that doesn’t mean we, as female fans, should have the privilege of ignoring some of the more seedy aspects of it. And nothing is as pure as it seems.
TM: Do you have the impression that we are moving away from these practices since these things are revealed more with the Internet and the increased access to this information?
MRS: Yes. I really think because the fans… who are going to spend the money and support things that reflect their value systems are more critical and less complicit when they recognize something. And I noticed that even with the K-pop fandom, because they play a participatory role in their consumerism. If they see something unfair, they say it very loudly. And we saw that recently with BTS posting to Black Lives Matter and donating a million dollars to the movement and even closing the Dallas iWatch application May 31 by flooding it with fan cams. I was really proud of it: it does something good for my condition and for these protesters. It is clear that boy band fans in particular, but also young pop fans in general, are interested in understanding what is going on and being very critical with the hope and ambition that it will change.
TM: What do you hope readers take away from this book?
MRS: I hope they challenge the idea that boy bands are ‘uncool’ – why do we believe that? Because there are so many unconscious biases that everyone has that can boil down to what’s considered legitimate or valued. I hope they see this and think, “Oh, maybe people fire me because of this greater patriarchy” – for lack of a more nuanced term.
Moreover, it was really crucial to establish this framework as existing above all in the black and brown communities and then to be taken away from them. It’s interesting to me that in the section where I’m talking about the etymology of boy groups, we weren’t using the term “boy group” until New Kids on the Block happened. We don’t even define the story until it’s already divorced from the dark source material. It drives me so crazy. If you don’t go back and write this story, is it ignored or is it just rewritten as something else? I think that’s what happened with New Edition. We just think of them as an R&B group, but they were kids singing and dancing together – there’s nothing more boy band than that.
Also hopefully [readers] get a tinge of optimism at the end, because it’s interesting how the artists recognize the boy band formula and continue to dismantle it. The best example is Brockhampton.
TM: Do you feel like Brockhampton is redefining what a boy group is?
MRS: There are contemporary boy groups that are huge, the obvious example being BTS. [Brockhampton] is kind of an alternative which I think still deserves space. It’s interesting that they got together the way they did, which was a post on Kanye’s online fan forum. There’s something really DIY about it, which is inherently the antithesis of a bunch of boys.
I thought about the role Texas has played in boy band history beyond the Dallas iWatch affair. In the Jonas Brothers documentary In the pursuit of happiness, they say they didn’t realize they were famous until they performed at the State Fair in Dallas in 2007 and 50,000 kids showed up. Someone told them the line was going to Oklahoma. It’s a lot of hyperbole, but I think there has always been such a big boy band community in Texas. And it makes so much sense to me that Brockhampton – a hip-hop collective that comes out as a boy band – is from the state where it’s already so popular.
TM: Would you say Brockhampton is paving the way for other Texas boy bands?
MRS: I hope. I search for boy band names on Twitter, just because I’m curious about the conversations going on, and it seems there is some pride in Texas, with fans in Texas. [claiming] property on Brockhampton. Even though they’ve been in LA for quite a while, their Texan identity obviously plays a role, like when they shout “yeehaw” at concerts. I imagine there are some budding boy bands trying to grow in Texas. It would be cool if there was a post-Brockhampton mixed group in the works. If that doesn’t exist, I really hope someone reads this and decides to come together and make it happen.
TM: Are there any other Texas boy groups that you’ve seen that you think are on the rise?
MRS: No, and it breaks my heart. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. There aren’t really any western boy groups that will successfully compete with K-pop. But Brockhampton is really the kind of exception as they occupy a space that no one even knew was vacant. They created it themselves, which is exciting. So I’m going to change my answer and say that the only American boy band worth a shot in this modern age is Brockhampton from Texas. I am proud.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.