The 7 Ages of the Boy Band


Yes, One Direction have a new album, and yes, suddenly respected music writers (both here and elsewhere) are adamant that the band has graduated from genuine teeny cultural phenomenon to, um, genuine non-teeny cultural phenomenon. Of course, if you’re old and jaded, you’ve seen this trajectory play out many times before. One Direction are just progressing through The Seven Ages of the Boy Band, a series of phases that lead from insane popularity through break-up, obscurity, and redemption. Here’s our definitive account of exactly how this narrative arc works!

The Teen Phenomenon Stage

Where it all begins, obviously. These days, this stage generally begins when the spirit of Simon Cowell arrives in the dreams of the boys in question, offering a Faustian pact that promises global fame in return for spending the next couple of years acting like a pop android. The beginning of the Teen Craze Phase often coincides with an appearance on the relevant country’s iteration of Pop Idol/The X-Factor/etc., and if all goes well, your band will soon be performing to hordes of screaming children, tweens, and teens.

At this point, your band members are largely indistinguishable to all but the screaming fans in question — casual fans may be able to identify “the blond one” from “the other ones,” but ultimately, each singer is a fresh-faced, conventionally handsome, clean-cut adolescent. And for now, who cares? Posters are printed, stickers are distributed, and parents scratch their heads at discovering that it is apparently now possible to go out looking like N*Sync (above) without getting beaten up.

The Poptimistic “I Love [Band] Unironically and I Don’t CARE What You Think” Stage

The initial phase of a band’s popularity is easy to parse: the fans are teens, the people who aren’t fans are grown men and women. But if you make it to this second phase, a strange thing happens: grown men and women start liking your band too. This happens in one of two ways. The first, and most intuitive, is that as you grow older, so do your fans. But we’re generally only talking second- and third-album timescales here, so there’s not a whole lot of time for fans to move from (pre-)adolescence into adulthood.

The other type of fan we’re talking about is the defiant poptimist, the one who’ll tweet things like, “Listening to 1D rn and if you’re not i feel bad for you.” It’s worth noting that there’s no irony involved here (which is good, because liking something ironically is pretty much the worst). And if you’re in the band, you don’t care either way: fans = success, right? For the rest of us, though, there’s always something slightly disconcerting in speaking to people at parties who are a) in their mid-20s and b) really do have an iPhone cover that features Harry Styles.

The Self-Expression, Potentially Drug-Related Banana Skin, Critical Acceptance Stage

Which brings us to where One Direction are at now. You’re all grown up! Basically everyone‘s heard of you, and even the most casual music fan can identify your Harry Styles/Justin Timberlake/Ronan Keating/Robbie Williams figure. They probably even know the first names of the rest of the group, and could make a decent stab at picking out which is which. Your core fan base still adores you, and now people are writing articles like this, arguing that people need to stop dismissing you as “just” a boy band. Things are great!

The only problem is, people do keep dismissing you a just a boy band. Goddamn it. Also, by this stage you’ve been in the band for, oh, maybe five years? You’re getting kind of sick of the whole squeaky-clean thing, especially since you’ve had girls hurling themselves at you for years and everyone else in the music industry seems to be taking a shitload of drugs and having a great time. So you decide, well, it’s time to start expressing yourself — your real self. This might mean you get some tattoos, grow your hair, flirt with bisexuality, or (if you’re the one who’s actually gay) come out!

It’s at this point, though, that the desire to define oneself as an individual can also manifest in… problematic ways, whether it’s growing dreadlocks (the one with dreadlocks from Take That), getting loaded with Oasis at music festivals (Robbie Williams circa 1995), or telling a tabloid that drugs are ace (the dude from East-17). Careful out there, kids. One misstep, and this stage is where it ends (until Stage Seven, anyway).

The Best-Of Stage

At this point, your boy band is pretty much ubiquitous. You’re at the zenith of your career. Of course, being at the zenith means that the only way from here is down — Cowell has moved on to his next evil master plan, your most recognizable/controversial member has probably moved on to a solo career and/or a stint in rehab, and teens aren’t really interested in you any more. This all means: it’s time to cash in! Cue a Christmas song, a bewilderingly lengthy best-of compilation, an increasing reliance on power balladry, and another big arena tour. Enjoy this phase. You’re grown men, you’re successful, you don’t have to report to Simon’s office at 6pm every day anymore. It seems like maybe this will last forever. But it won’t. The sun is already setting on your career. And once it starts sinking below the horizon, the light disappears terrifyingly quickly.

The Black-and-White Photography, All-Wearing-Suits-and-Covering-Sinatra Stage

There are essentially two options at this point. You either call it quits (in which case you can move straight onto Phase Six, and skip this section entirely), or you can stick around and follow your fans into middle age. If the latter option is viable (i.e., you don’t completely loathe one another, and none of your members has decided that the way forward is to make minimal electronic music influenced by Indian ragas), the best way to do this is to start making middle-aged music. It’s time to become…. crooners!

If things really work out, you might end up with a Vegas residency. Either way, it’s time to cover up the tattoos, purchase nicely cut suits, get someone to photograph you in black and white, double down on the power ballads, and start marketing to housewives. It’ll drag your career out a few years longer, and also open up a bunch more possibilities for Stage Seven.

The Break-Up/Very-Best-Of/Gold Collection Stage

Sooner or later, it’s going to be over. When that time comes, at least your collective bank accounts will be supplemented by the proceeds of a brand new best-of compilation, which will come in a classy package with gold lettering. Enjoy that cash — it could well be that you’ll need it.

The Globe-Conquering and Hugely Lucrative Reunion Tour Stage

Fast-forward an appropriate number of years. If you’re the one who went on to a solo career, try to not to do anything truly terrible. If you’re one of the others, try to avoid becoming a contestant on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! or something similarly degrading. Either way, steer clear of a drug habit that you probably can’t afford anymore, and try to avoid dying.

Ponder on the leaves falling from the trees, year after year. Watch as your legacy is slowly rehabilitated — eventually, the nasty music critics who never really warmed to you during Stages Two and Three above will stop writing unpleasant things about you and using you as punchlines. Your core fan base will have children who listen to their own boy bands, and your fans will listen to these bands and shake their heads in bewilderment and think about how much better you guys used to be.

Time will heal old wounds. If you’re the controversial/successful solo dude, you’ll start to think that, hey, those guys weren’t so bad after all, especially after some sort of promoter points at a figure with lots of zeroes at the end of it in the course of suggesting that you reunite. If you’re one of the other guys, you’ll start to think that, hey, the guy who quit wasn’t such a dick, especially after some sort of promoter points at a figure with a few less zeroes at the end of it in the course of suggesting that you reunite.

Whispers will start. And a couple of years later, after a well-publicized rapprochement, you’ll sign on for a Long-Awaited Reunion Tour™. Think of all that cash! Make sure you read the fine print this time. Get that money! Get all that money! After this, there is only death!