A million love songs later

By Natalie Hanman (THE GUARDIAN, 13/04/06):

Next month Planet Funk will become the first band to release a single exclusively via mobile phones. This month the song Crazy by Gnarls Barkley became the first track to hit No 1 on the strength of digital downloads alone. With the internet, mobile phones and multi-channel TV all vying for their attention, teenagers clearly no longer hold dear the habit of forking out pocket money on CD singles in Woolworths each weekend.

Which is fine by me. As entertainment audiences become increasingly tech- and media-savvy, they are gradually tuning their ears to less manufactured sounds. And while independent releases are finding larger and more varied audiences, the boy band, that bastion of prefabricated pop, is in danger of dying out. And no one seems to care.

Maybe the rot set in with the break-up of Take That in 1996, which sent devoted teenage fans into a swooning hysteria that future groups could never compete with. Maybe it was inevitable when Top of the Pops moved to the Sunday-night slot on BBC2 last year. As with other endangered species, disappearing habitats are to blame: the boy band’s traditional breeding grounds, both in print and on screen, have been eroded in recent years. Tellingly, Smash Hits magazine’s demise in February was mourned mainly by those who had read it religiously during its peak period in the 1980s; today’s teens hardly noticed.

The worshipful teenage gaze has shifted from pop posters on a bedroom wall to computers and the wealth of new, diverse music that such technology brings with it. While teenage pop mags slip into obscurity, increasing numbers of music fans are heading to websites such as Drowned in Sound, Pitchfork, MySpace and NME.com.

The pristine pout of a boy band has fallen out of fashion, replaced by a desire for something more real and challenging. In response to this demand, most record labels are scouring the country for the next Arctic Monkeys rather than the next Busted.

Being obsessed with a boy band took time and devotion, and they were about more than just the music: how much you fancied them was a major factor in your fandom. Now the immediacy and availability of more – and, some would argue, better – music leaves the boy-band format cold and out of date. Which «character» you wanted to marry is no longer an adolescent dream when you can chat with bands online, become their MySpace «friend» or meet them at a grassroots gig before they reach record-label fame. Furthermore, today’s digital music is cheaper or even free.

Ultimately, naff clothes, dodgy haircuts and cringe-worthy choruses packaged up into a plastic CD case are a fad worth forgetting. So why are groups such as McFly and Westlife still carrying the boy-band baton? We’re creating and finding our own countercultures now, so why can’t the music industry catch on, instead of continuing to force such manufactured inventions on us? Websites have given today’s teens an easy way to find and share good independent music, and technology is giving control to the consumer or artist rather than the music industry, from Mylo producing his top-selling debut album on his computer to fans setting up their own online record labels and Sandi Thom webcasting her way to a record deal.

Indeed Take That’s upcoming reunion tour only serves to remind us that a pop phenomenon like that could never happen in the age of the MP3 – such obsessive devotion to a fake creation takes too much time when there are more inventive, artistic alternatives easily on offer. Now that such bland big business is being challenged by grassroots innovation in all aspects of the arts, corporate record labels should dig a grave for the boy-band genre and bury it for good.