The earliest forerunner of boy band music began in the late 19th century as a cappella barbershop quartets. They were usually a group of males and sang in four part harmonies. The popularity of barbershop quartets had been prominent into the earlier part of the 20th century. A revival of the male vocal group took place in the late 1940s and 1950s with the use of doo-wop music. Doo-wop bands sang about topics such as love and other themes used in pop music. The earliest traces of boy bands were in the mid-1950s although the term boy band was not used. African American vocal group The Ink Spots was one of the first of what would now be called boy bands. The term boy band was not established until the late 1980s as before that they were called male vocal groups or "hep harmony singing groups.
Although the term "boy band" is mostly associated with groups from the 1990s onwards, the earliest predecessors of this format were groups such as the Jackson 5, the Osmonds, and the Monkees, which helped form the template for boy bands. While The Monkees were originally a manufactured act turned real band that featured members with distinct (albeit fictional) personality types, the Jackson 5 were a family group that established many musical conventions that boy bands follow. For instance, their music featured close harmonies from soul music and catchy pop hooks influenced as much as they were by Motown and acts like the Supremes. All members of the band sang, which is a common convention of a boy band, as opposed to having a front man and the rest on instruments; thus, no one person dominated the stage. Even so, the members conveniently fitted into the convention of having stereotypical personality types (e.g. Michael Jackson being the "cute one").
The Monkees are often considered as the original pioneers among boy bands as they were the first example of a manufactured boy band, put together by producers rather than already performing together and then being "discovered" by record label executives. In 1965, TV producers Bert Schnider and Bob Rafelson recruited four young actor/singers to perform catchy pop tunes while also acting in a television series in which performances were integrated into the shows' plots and were very influential in shaping early music videos. The Beatles were a direct influence on the conception of the Monkees, as they used rock band instrumentation and played more rock oriented music. With music produced by Don Kirshner, The Monkees became eventually dissatisfied with Kirshner's control over them. They became independent two years later, working on their own up to 1970, when the group first dissolved.
Other antecedents (apart from those already mentioned) exist throughout the history of pop music. The genre has been copied into languages and cultures other than the Anglo-American. The Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, appealing to young Latina audiences, was founded in 1977. Menudo had a convention unique among boy bands: when a member turned 16, became too tall, or their voice changed, they were replaced. The members of Menudo were generally aged 12–17.
The Bay City Rollers were a Scottish pop band who were most popular in the mid-1970s. The British Hit Singles & Albums noted that they were "tartan teen sensations from Edinburgh", and were "the first of many acts heralded as the 'Biggest Group since The Beatles' and one of the most screamed-at teeny-bopper acts of the 1970s". For a relatively brief but fervent period (nicknamed "Rollermania"), they were worldwide teen idols. The group were one of the first bands like The Monkees before them to take the formula shown by The Beatles and apply it to a teen market. The group achieved the same amount of success but for a limited period of time. At the peak of their popularity in the UK, comparisons were being made to The Beatles. Also by this time, Bay City Roller fans had a completely distinctive style of dress, the main elements of which were ankle-length tartan trousers and tartan scarves, the group using the benefit of merchandise and promotion.
In the US, the Cleveland-based power pop group Raspberries was generally interpreted as a "teen act", although all the band members played their own music. Vocalist Eric Carmen later commented, "It was not hip for people to like us, because their little sister liked us."
Bros (abbreviation of the word "brothers") were a British boy band active in the late 1980s and early 1990s, consisting of twin brothers Matt and Luke Goss along with Craig Logan. Formed in 1986, they scored multiple top 10 hits between 1987 and 1989. In Britain Bros also became the first modern era–style boy band to have a multiple platinum selling album with Push in 1988, which is still one of the most successful boyband albums in the UK. Other big boy bands in Britain during the late eighties were Big Fun and Brother Beyond.
Boston group New Edition was formed in 1978 and reached their height of popularity in the 1980s, making them often credited for starting the boy band trend in the 1980s, even though the term "boy band" did not exist until the 1990s. Maurice Starr was influenced by New Edition and popularized it with his protégé New Kids on the Block, the first commercially successful modern boy band who formed in 1984 and found international success in 1988. Starr's idea was to take the traditional template from the R&B genre (in this case his teenage band New Edition) and apply it to a pop genre.
Some managers in Europe soon created their own acts after being inspired by New Kids on the Block. First beginning with Nigel Martin-Smith's Take That in the UK who formed in 1990 and followed by Tom Watkins who had success with Bros in the late eighties and formed East 17 in 1991 who were marketed and pitted against Take That as rivals with a harsher attitude, style and sound. Since reforming after a decade-long hiatus, Take That have become one of the most successful groups in British music chart history. Irish music manager Louis Walsh, who had witnessed the impact of these British boy bands, put out an advert for an 'Irish Take That' thereby creating Boyzone in 1993. Let Loose formed in 1993, MN8 and 911 formed in 1995, and Damage formed in 1996 were also boy bands who enjoyed success in Britain; however by the late 1990s all these bands had run their course and split up.
All these artists were very successful on both the singles and albums charts domestically and internationally however with the emergence of Britpop and the commercial co-option of indie rock, many boy bands were ridiculed by the British music press as having no artistic credibility, although some bands, such as Oasis and Take That, did write most of their own material. The media attention was then placed on the "Battle of Britpop" and the bands Oasis and Blur replaced the importance and rivalry of Take That and East 17 as the two new biggest bands in Britain. However, other boybands found success in the late nineties like Five, Another Level, Point Break and Westlife. In 1995 successful German music manager Frank Farian who had been manager of Boney M and Milli Vanilli put together Latin American band No Mercy who scored a few worldwide hits during the mid nineties.
Although being American and the sons of Tito Jackson, a member of The Jackson 5, 3T had several hits singles across Europe in the mid-1990s, despite limited success in the US, and finished the second biggest selling act of 1996 in Europe behind Spice Girls.
With the success of North American boybands like New Kids on the Block in East Asia, Japanese entertainment company Johnny & Associates formed SMAP in 1992. The group enjoyed tremendous success, having sold over 35 million records. It paved the way for more Asian boy bands such as Arashi.
In the early nineties in North America, with New Kids on the Block's continued success and Color Me Badd also having success, boy bands became a continued staple of the Billboard charts. Continuing this success in the mid-1990s, most prominent boy bands were African American and had R&B and gospel elements, such as the group All-4-One that formed in 1993 and Boyz II Men that formed in 1988. Boyz II Men are also the most successful boy band act on the U.S. Hot 100 as well as the Australian Singles Chart. Although they had success on the Billboard charts, they weren't marketed towards youth but more towards adults. It wasn't until 1997 and the change to pop oriented groups like Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, NSYNC, The Moffatts, and Hanson that boy bands exploded commercially and dominated the market in the United States. This late nineties era marked the height of boy band popularity in North America which hasn't been seen since.
Arguably the most successful boy band manager from the U.S. was Lou Pearlman, who founded commercially successful acts such as the Backstreet Boys in 1993, NSYNC and LFO in 1995, O-Town in 2000, and US5 in 2005. Backstreet Boys and NSYNC became the two biggest boy bands in the late 1990s until the early 2000s, and Backstreet Boys went on to become the best selling boy band in history with over 130 million records sold.
In the late nineties in the UK, producer Simon Cowell (noted in the U.S. for the American Idol/X Factor franchise) is also known for having managed British boyband Five who were formed in 1997 and Irish boyband Westlife formed in 1998. Westlife was created by Irishman Louis Walsh as a replacement for Boyzone and was initially managed by a former member of the band Ronan Keating. Westlife would eventually overtake Take That in number one's tally in the UK although Take That's overall UK sales are still higher. In 2012, the Official Charts Company revealed the biggest selling singles artists in British music chart history with Take That placed 15th overall and the highest selling boyband act (9.3 million), followed by Boyzone at 29 (7.1 million) and Westlife at 34 (6.8 million). Even though Cowell is known to have managed several successful boy bands, he is also infamous for passing on signing two of the biggest boybands to emerge from the 1990s and 2000s, Take That and Busted.
With the continued success of Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, American and British groups like 98 Degrees, Dream Street, O-Town, A1, Blue, and Busted gained quick popularity both domestically and internationally. International boy bands would also occasionally spring up, such as the Moldovan band O-Zone (better known today as an Internet meme), and Overground. American Christian boy band Plus One also enjoyed brief remarkable success during this time.
At the height of boy band popularity in North America, MTV created their own parody boyband, 2gether. Like The Monkees in the 1960s, they were a manufactured act composed of actors. 2gether played off of the idea that every successful boy band must have five distinct personality types: the bad boy, the shy one, the young one, the older brother type, and a heart throb.
Since 2001, the dominance of traditional boy bands on pop charts began to fade in the western hemisphere, although Gil Kaufman of MTV has described "new boy bands" that are "more likely to resemble My Chemical Romance, Sum 41, and Simple Plan.
In 2001, Taiwanese boy band F4 (called JVKV since 2007) blew up big as a result of the success of their TV drama Meteor Garden. Their popularity spread throughout Asia. With their success, many other Taiwanese boy bands emerged around this time, such as 5566 and Fahrenheit. In South Korea, Shinhwa also spread hallyu wave throughout Asia such as Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. Also in 2001, a new all-male pop band and dance group boyband hailing from Japan called Exile debuted under Avex Group's label Rhythm Zone with 14 members, putting them on par with Super Junior, a South Korean boy band, who had 13 members at its peak. In 2005, TVXQ! rose to fame in South Korea and they were able to achieve considerable success in Japan and other Asian countries.
Japanese boy band Arashi has sold over 30 million copies of their records since their first release in 1999. They had the yearly best-selling single in Japan in 2008 and 2009. In 2003 SMAP released the single "Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana" that has become the fourth best-selling single ever in Japan, with over 2.93 million copies sold.
In North America, the Jonas Brothers rose to fame from promotion on the Disney Channel in 2008. Other boy bands like JLS and Mindless Behavior also emerged and experienced remarkable success around this time. However, apart from them, boy bands haven't seen the commercial boom experienced in the genre from the mid to late nineties in North America.
Moving into the 2010s, boy bands are still popular especially in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe due to the continued commercial presence and longevity of nineties boy bands such as Backstreet Boys and Westlife (before they dissolved in 2012), and the successful comeback of Take That in 2005, Boyzone in 2007, and New Kids on the Block in 2008. Some sections of the press have referred to these acts, particularly those who have reformed after a previous split, such as Take That, Boyzone, and 98 Degrees, as 'man bands'. These older generation boy bands chart alongside the new boy bands.
In the early 2010s, there was somewhat of a resurgence of boy band popularity in countries where the trend had not maintained, with the emergence of new boy bands like Big Time Rush, The Wanted, and One Direction and the formation of supergroup NKOTBSB which comprised members of New Kids on the Block and Backstreet Boys. NKOTBSB's success inspired boy bands who were fairly popular during the 1990s and 2000s to make a comeback, such as A1, Blue, 98 Degrees, Five, 911, and O-Town. Like 2gether and The Monkees, Big Time Rush was a manufactured act created for a television show.
In Southeast Asia, local boy bands also emerged as a result of the continued success of Korean and Japanese boy bands such as SMAP, Shinhwa, TVXQ!, Arashi, Exile, Super Junior, Big Bang, SHINee and EXO. One of the boy bands who emerged as a result of Hallyu (Korean wave) is Indonesia's SM*SH who enjoyed prominent success domestically. In the Philippines, a major boy band has been formed by bringing the first reality boy band search of the country called Pinoy Boyband Superstar which held mid 2016, after all the series of auditions, rigorous training and competition, the winners formed as a group called Boyband PH a five-piece Pinoy boy band which managed by Star Magic, considering the biggest superstar boy band of the Philippines by means of huge following on social media platforms and fan bases.
In South Korea, boy bands have been very successful. On the Gaon Music Chart year-end albums chart of 2016, nine of the top 10 and 17 of the top 20 albums are by boy bands or by subunits/members of boy bands. BTS had the yearly best-selling album, Wings, and also the fourth best-selling one. EXO had the second and third best-selling albums and a total of six of the top ten albums, including one by a subunit and a solo album by a member of the group. Other boy bands with albums in the yearly top 20 of 2016 are SHINee, GOT7, Seventeen, INFINITE and VIXX.
In Japan, Arashi continue to be very successful, being the best-selling music artist in Japan in 2016 by value of sales and also having the yearly best-selling album in the country in 2015 and 2016. Other successful Japanese boy bands in this decade include Sandaime J Soul Brothers, the second best-selling music artist of 2016 in the country and Kanjani Eight, the fifth best-selling music artist of that year in Japan.
Seen as important to a "boy band" group's commercial success is the group's image, carefully controlled by managing all aspects of the group's attire, promotional materials (which are frequently supplied to teen magazines), and music videos. The key factor of a boy band is being trendy. This means that the band conforms to the most recent fashion and musical trends in the popular music scene. Typically, each member of the group will have some distinguishing feature and be portrayed as having a particular personality stereotype, such as "the baby," "the bad boy," or "the shy one." While managing the portrayal of popular musicians is as old as popular music, the particular pigeonholing of band members is a defining characteristic of boy and girl bands.
In most cases, their music is written, arranged and produced by a producer who works with the band at all times and controls the group's sound – if necessary, to the point of hiring session singers to record guide vocals for each member of the group to sing individually if the members cannot harmonize well together. However, for clarity of each voice, recording each voice individually is most commonly the norm with most modern vocal groups. In recent years auto-tune has become a popular tool for boy bands who are unable to sing to a high standard. Some boy bands have come under fire for this issue of using auto-tune. Some have also come under fire for lip syncing in their performances as well, for example New Kids on the Block.
A typical boy band performance features elaborately choreographed dancing, with the members taking turns singing and/or rapping. Boy bands generally do not compose or produce their own material, unless the members lobby hard enough for creative control. However, some bands were created around the talent of a songwriter within the group like Gary Barlow of Take That or Tony Mortimer of East 17. It is not uncommon to find extra songs on an album written by one or more of the band members; however, their producers rarely use these as singles.
Since the 21st century, however, boy bands have been expected to write or at least contribute in some part lyrically to songs. Apart from the groups mentioned above who all had at least one primary songwriter from their beginning, other groups soon caught up. From the late nineties, members of Backstreet Boys who had previously used writers like Max Martin during their early albums began writing their own songs. Newer groups from late 2000s such as JLS have all made a point from early interviews that they write their own songs and hold their own image as this is an important part of marketing. Some bands like The Wanted have even spent time learning the craft of songwriting.
Individuals can also go on to achieve greater success as a solo artist coming out of a boy band having used the groups popularity to build on. Usually this signals the end of the group until potential future reunions. Examples of this include Michael Jackson from The Jackson 5, Donny Osmond from The Osmonds, Ricky Martin from Menudo, Justin Timberlake from *NSYNC, and Ronan Keating from Boyzone. Sometimes the most successful solo star from a band is not the most popular member such as Robbie Williams as opposed to lead singer Gary Barlow from Take That. Some boy band members have gone on to successful careers elsewhere in the media. Michael Dolenz of The Monkees went on to become a successful television producer, working for ITV franchises such as LWT and Television South.
Although most boy bands consist of R&B or pop influences, other music genres, most notably country music and folk music, are also represented. South 65 and Marshall Dyllon, for example, were both country music boy bands. Il Divo, created by Simon Cowell in 2004, are a vocal group that performs operatic pop in several (mainly Italian) languages. Since then operatic/classical boy bands have become quite popular and common, especially in the UK. Since 2001 there has been some crossover with power pop and pop punk from bands that play live instruments. Just recently some boy bands decided to go back to their original doo-wop roots, most notably, The Overtones.
Since the 2000s, groups such as Backstreet Boys and LFO have disliked the term "boy band" and have preferred to be known as a "male vocal group". Being categorized among boy bands was also the main reason The Moffatts split up. Boy bands have been accused by the music press of emphasizing the appearance and marketing of the group above the quality of music, deliberately trying to appeal to a preteen audience and for conforming to trends instead of being original. Such criticisms can become extremely scathing. Boy bands are often seen as being short lived, although some acts such as The Jackson 5, Backstreet Boys, Hanson, Human Nature, SMAP, Shinhwa and Westlife (before they split up in 2012) have sustained lasting careers.
Despite negative critical reception, boy bands continue to be generally successful, with some notable ones managing to sell tens of millions of records, placing them among the world's best selling music artists. The best-selling boy bands based on sales figures are: