Fans have strayed from the straight and narrow, so for boy bands to survive in today’s social climate, they must do the same.
It’s no secret that in recent years the music industry has seen an LGBTQ+ awakening. Openly queer artists like Lil Nas X and Brandi Carlisle reign on the Billboard charts, living proof that superstars don’t have to sacrifice their authenticity to succeed. While LGBTQ+ musicians have been around for as long as meaty guitar riffs or pithy pop fillers have been played, historically most have remained locked in because the mere speculation of being gay could lead to the loss of labels and the abandonment of record contracts.
Even now, the mainstream media continues to wrestle with – and sanitize – the queer experience. In the 2018 biopic Bohemian RhapsodyQueen’s frontman and confirmed bisexual Freddie Mercury avoided intimacy with men throughout the film, and yet he was still portrayed as dying of AIDS in the dramatic, sweeping finale. His homosexuality was reduced to a plot – in his own movie!
Still, LGBTQ+ representation in the music industry is the best it’s ever been. As lesbian pop culture prophetess Jill Gutowitz puts it:
“Today, artists who are loudly and proudly queer know that there are labels out there that are not only ready to uplift them, but whose business model is to appeal to the most queer generation in history. “
While homosexuality was once seen as an inconvenience and something to hide, gay musicians now have their own market that both accepts and embraces this part of themselves.
Currently, LGBTQ+ artists reflect many genres and orientations, many backgrounds and ethnicities, but one genre remains largely untapped: boy bands. This isn’t to say that members of queer boy bands don’t exist, rather that they are few in number and usually only come out after their respective bands have stepped out of the limelight (à la Bass Spear of *NSYNC).
Why are boy bands so straight? For a musical genre that is consistently labeled as gay, the lack of queer representation is both puzzling and indicative of the role of heteronormativity in popular culture. Historically, boy bands have filled traditional gender roles, using their songs and stage presence to appeal to young women. But they no longer need to court. Younger generations now question chivalry, seeing it as antiquated and sexist, and prefer to retain their own agency through relationships. Fans come in a variety of genders and identities and frankly want more than just men: boy bands have LGBTQ+ fans too.
And like all other fans, gay people want to see themselves represented in the media they consume. So when the subject of their fandom is heterosexual, they are forced to take matters into their own hands and project their own meaning onto the artists and bands they love. This is how the infamous Larry Stylinson relationship was born, in which a niche subset of the One Direction fandom claimed that members Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were in a secret romantic relationship. Any instances of the two boys exchanging eye contact or exhibiting physical contact were quickly filed as evidence, to be brandished at any time if provoked by non-believers. The plot became so well known that the One Direction management team were told about it, to the point of physically separating Harry and Louis during interviews to avoid further speculation.
There’s a fine line between romanticizing and invading the personal lives of pop culture icons, but no matter where Larry Stylinson fans landed, the intent behind their determination was simple: they made up for what the band lacked. Because there was no queer boy band space in which they could provide support, they had to create their own alternate reality. With over 20% of young people today identifying as LGBTQ+, having a queer boy band that fans can relate to is no longer just a want, but a need.
Fortunately, steps are being taken in the right direction. BROCKHAMPTONan eight-person boy band with an openly gay frontman, went on hiatus in early 2021, but another contender has re-emerged in the spotlight: British band Union J.
Syndicate J, like most boy bands, was created artificially by a manager (X-Factor judge Louis Walsh). Jaymi, Josh and JJ auditioned as a trio on the X-Factor in 2018 and after they were initially eliminated he decided to add George Shelley into the mix and give them another go. The group enjoyed success both on the show and in the world of reality TV, even being billed as the next One Direction, but after a few years together things fell apart when George announced he was leaving the band. It came as a shock to the other band members and the fans.
It was years later that George opened up about his departure, attributing much of it to the stress he felt being locked up in the public eye.
“I spent a lot of time hiding my sexuality because I was in a boy band that sold records to young teenage girls,” he confessed in the BBC Three documentary Learning to Grieve. “They needed us to be a commodity for girls…I didn’t want to compromise anything for the band by being gay.” His bandmate Jaymi was openly queer, but George worried his exit would be too much for fans and audiences to handle.
Like us mere mortals, the estranged members of Union J reconnected on Zoom during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was then that they reconciled and decided to give the group with an epic reunion show at the London Palladium in May. 2022. In doing so, they became the only active boy group today with openly gay members, and also the first boy group in all of history to boast not just one, but two members. homosexuals.
Maybe the world wasn’t ready for a half-queer boy band in 2016, but in 2022 we can’t wait to have exactly that kind of performance and more.
Ultimately, boy groups don’t need to contain LGBTQ+ members to be interesting or successful (as evidenced by the genre’s widespread success). Fans aren’t looking for any of these things; they are simply looking for each other. For them, it doesn’t matter how many graphic t-shirts, paper albums or VIP concert packages are sold, but rather how they feel listening to the music, the boys and the world they have created. They want to feel like they belong.
The formula “Build It And They Will Come” once served boy bands well, but changing times are challenging that same equation. Middle-aged straight white men (see: Lou Pearlman or Simon Cowell) who have formed many boy bands no longer have a clear idea of what’s trending, because it’s outside the scope of what they intrinsically know: being straight and white. As such, they’ve lost control of the market they used to puppet from above, and now it’s the fans who will dictate exactly who and what they swoop down on.
Fans have always been the backbone of the boy band genre, but for the first time they have complete control over where the industry goes – and I, for one, can’t wait to see what they’re up to. will do.
Editor’s note; Sam Bellisimo is a guest contributor to Instinct magazine