Which Direction?: The Homoerotic Masculinities of the Modern Boy Band

April 20, 2012
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Whether you saw their performance on Saturday Night Live, heard the insanely catchy “What Makes You Beautiful” playing over a mall sound system, or just happen to know a 12-year-old girl, it’s possible you’ve already encountered One Direction, the first truly viable boy band of the current musical era. The four British (and one Irish) teens were made into a group in 2010 during auditions for the UK’s X-Factor reality competition. Following their third place finish, they have made a remarkably quick transition to transnational tween stardom, complete with a solidly-booked U.S. arena tour and legions of screaming fans.

Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne, Harry Styles, and Louis Tomlinson, the five boys who make up One Direction, are a fascinating case study in the changing dynamics of the modern music industry. While they share similarities with American boy bands of the past (from New Kids on the Block to *NSync) and with those original moptops of the British Invasion, they also represent a shift in the way such bands are formed, marketed, and made visible to the public. But what interests me most is the way in which the boys’ open, affectionate, and even homoerotic interaction represents a new (and welcome) shift in Western youth culture.

Perhaps the primary appeal of One Direction as a boy band is the combination of youth, exposure, and authenticity that is inherent in their marketing. The boys are all between 18 and 20 years old, already younger than the boy bands of the late 90s, but their youthful image is exacerbated by the rough, unpolished style of their marketing. While bands like *NSync and the Backstreet Boys spent years honing their dance moves, media training, and constructed personality archetypes in countries like Japan and Germany before hitting the Anglo-American market, One Direction has boarded an immediate and unstoppable roller coaster of international fame. As a result of this compressed timeline, the boys can’t actually dance (as anyone who saw their SNL appearance could attest), and their encounters with the press tend to be awkward and unpracticed.

In the era of instantly-posted YouTube clips, personal twitter accounts, and livestreaming webcam video, the boys of One Direction aren’t just reality TV stars – they are reality TV stars positioned in such a way as to appear stripped of almost all mediation and editing. This aesthetic celebrates notions of authenticity and connectedness with the fanbase, following the model my colleague Lindsay Hogan has studied regarding the stardom of Justin Bieber. As a result, YouTube is flooded with videos of the boys acting young and goofy in casual (or perhaps “casual”) settings: teasing each other, playing games, and generally acting like the teenage boys they are.

These kinds of shenanigans are not new. They are strikingly similar, in fact, to clips from the videos my own tweenage musical love, Hanson, would sell to the fans on VHS. The boys of Hanson, like One Direction, were younger than their ’90s boy band counterparts and thus free to act sillier. But Hanson was a band composed of brothers, and thus their videos lacked the final element of One Direction’s “authentic” portrayal of boy band friendship: comfortable homoeroticism.

Even a casual observer of One Direction and its marketing would notice the fact that the boys can’t seem to keep their hands off each other. They hug, grope, and fall asleep on each other constantly, pretend to kiss each other for laughs, and joke about queer relationships between them – to the extent of planning out elaborate hypothetical Valentine’s Day dates with each other. They are also remarkably affectionate, proclaiming their love and devotion to the other boys in the group without a hint of irony.

This is not, of course, the first time the idea of the boy band has been queered. “Popslash,” the term for homoerotic fanfiction about boy bands in the *NSync/BSB era, was one of the first large-scale internet fandoms for so-called “real person” fanfiction. And charges of queerness have always been levied at these types of bands by anti-fans seeking to use sexist, homophobic language to devalue the music tastes of young women. But past incarnations of boy bands always kept up defensively heterosexual presentations, to the extent that *NSync member Lance Bass did not feel comfortable coming out of the closet until 2006 (long after the band’s indefinite “hiatus”).

There are many possible explanations for this phenomenon. First and foremost, the One Direction boys are all quite open about their heterosexuality, publicly tweeting with their current girlfriends and giving interviews about their exes. Their homoeroticism, then, can be seen as a variation on the “bromance” trend – they can play with queerness because their heterosexuality is constantly reinforced, both in the reports of their personal lives and in their aggressively heteronormative song lyrics.

Yet this seems an inadequate explanation when, unlike the highly-constructed joke setups of bromance comedies, One Direction relies so heavily on an aesthetic of honesty and authenticity. What seems more likely is a phenomenon like the one sociologist Mark McCormack presented in a Huffington Post report, which points out the ways in which British teen boy culture is becoming less and less homophobic and more and more accepting of demonstrative male friendship. While the equivalence with American school cultures is less clear, the boys’ rapidly-growing transnational stardom, despite no national differences in marketing, may point to an increasing acceptance of this gentler form of masculinity in the American classroom.

Whatever the explanation, the casual affection and homoeroticism of One Direction opens up new avenues for analysis in the study of tween music cultures. How, for example, is the target tween girl audience responding to the softer masculinities of these presentations? And what effect might this marketing have on tween boys, particularly queer boys struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality?

I don’t have the answers right now, but I plan to keep looking. As soon as I finish listening to “One Thing” on repeat.


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10 Responses to “ Which Direction?: The Homoerotic Masculinities of the Modern Boy Band ”

  1. Hannah on April 20, 2012 at 3:30 PM

    Thanks for this Jennifer. In conversation about this group with my colleague Ian Huffer I discovered that in Australia and New Zealand, One Direction are being target marketed not just to tween girls (as they manifestly are) but also to young men, after he showed me a full page advert for their album in a recent New Zealand purchased edition of the magazine Rugby League Week. I think this speaks to a lot of what you say about the group’s homoerotically charged masculinities. Especially the extent to which the open affection and homoerotic interactions you refer to can now be negotiated in areas and via channels that would formerly have been resistant if not aggressively opposed to such configurations of masculinity. Notwithstanding the homoeroticism of rugby league as a sport, its culture has traditionally been one associated with heterosexual working class masculinities, so I was surprised to see its fans being sold the album of a somewhat queered British boy band. But it does speak to increased cross-market cultural viability of these ‘softer’, ‘gentler’ masculinities to which you refer.

    We also talked about the persistent whiteness of British and Irish boy bands, notwithstanding the popularity in the UK of JLS (are they popular in the US???), nor the fact that gestures are being made to account for the social realities concerning the ethnic and cultural diversity of Britain and Ireland, which is reflected in the ethnic make up of popular groups like One Direction, and The Wanted, on who 1D appear to be modelled. What I mean by this is that both groups are comprised of four British and Irish members, fairly straightforwardly readable as white, and one mixed race member with a combination of white and South Asian heritage. Zayn Malik of One Direction is of white and Pakistani ethnic heritage. Siva Kaneswaran of The Wanted is of white and Sri Lankan ethnic heritage. While on the surface this does seem to speak to the ‘Mixed Race Britain’ [and Ireland] of which the BBC made quite a meal last year, their ethnicities are nevertheless downplayed if not subsumed by the larger discourse of whiteness at work in the mediation of these groups, which I hadn’t thought about or noticed until Ian pointed it out. Just look at how Zayn has been whitewashed on the cover of their album, which illustrates your piece. And if you google images of The Wanted, Siva is frequently the one standing at the back in partial shadow.

    • Lindsay Hogan on April 20, 2012 at 5:17 PM

      Wow, 1D is really advertising in Rugby League Week?! That’s so interesting. That really does signal a significant turn. Like you, I’m certainly intrigued by this as a possible signal of “softer, gentler” masculinities and/or queer readings of boy bands being legitimated by cross-market promotional tactics.

      • Hannah on April 20, 2012 at 6:50 PM

        Yes indeed. I know right. I was taken aback. But it certainly does seem to underscore Jennifer’s point in that regard, and to be indicative of broader shifts re. the viability of masculine intimacy as you say.

    • Jennifer Margret Smith on April 20, 2012 at 5:43 PM

      Hannah, thank you so much for this comment — both for providing the international context I’m lacking, and for bringing up the issue of race, which I alluded to briefly in an earlier version of this post but had to cut for word count. It’s fascinating to hear about this kind of advertising in non-traditional markets, and I also find myself curious about the “one half-South Asian member” phenomenon, especially coupled with obvious skin-lightening in promotional materials. I don’t have answers, but everything you’ve brought up only makes the entire issue richer for analysis.

      Also, while I’ve never heard of JLS, I’ve heard briefly about The Wanted (who I’ve heard described as “1D’s rival”). I’ll be curious to see if One Direction’s breakthrough in the U.S. will lead to more transnational importation of pop music and how those global flows will shape youth music culture.

      • Myles McNutt on April 20, 2012 at 7:13 PM

        Less apropos of this conversation and more apropos of yesterday’s UW colloquium: My favorite tidbit about The Wanted is that they’re being managed in the US by Scooter Braun.

  2. Lindsay Hogan on April 20, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    So many great questions here, Jennifer! Those animated gifs are awesome – I hadn’t seem them before.

    I’m really fascinated by this idea that these somewhat homoerotic moments might result from a combination of the band’s compressed development/promotional timeline, heavy reliance on digital/social media, and an attempted appeal to authenticity based on “behind-the-scenes-casual-fun-means-these-guys-are-“real”-people-not-just-a-manufactured-group-from-a-reality-show” type effort; as if somehow the structure and/or economic demands of the contemporary entertainment industry & its struggle to adapt to a convergent/digital media environment are allowing for a more visibly queered iteration of traditional boy bands. The fact that social media simultaneously serves as the place where they visibly perform heterosexuality/police their queerness by frequently tweeting to/about their girlfriends only further exemplifies how central new media platforms are to their process of signification & polysemic representation. What a rich case study!

    • Jennifer Margret Smith on April 20, 2012 at 5:46 PM

      Thank YOU, Lindsay. I find your work on related subjects really inspiring, and your talk yesterday definitely helped me to solidify some of the thoughts I shared here, especially in terms of social media-created discourses of “authenticity.” I’m still not sure what to DO with all this, but it’s certainly fascinating me.

  3. Lindsay Hogan Garrison on April 20, 2012 at 7:59 PM

    Timely post in the LA Times “Ministry of Gossip” column today on One Direction & The Wanted: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/gossip/la-et-mg-one-direction-the-wanted,0,5880342.story

  4. Branden Buehler on April 24, 2012 at 9:07 PM

    Jumping off the LA Times link above, I’m really fascinated with the ways boybands position themselves against each other, probably because I grew up in an era when middle schoolers like me had to choose between the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync, while underdogs like 98 Degrees and LFO were always struggling to find a niche of their own. Accordingly, I’ve found myself following this debate about The Wanted vs. One Direction with perhaps more interest than I should (and in the interest of full disclosure, I am definitely siding with The Wanted at this point).

    As the LA Times article points out — along with other sites like Vulture and Gawker, amongst others — The Wanted are being sold to American audiences as the wild playboys (but not TOO wild), while One Direction are being positioned as the (slightly) younger, more innocent band. For example, the video for The Wanted’s breakout hit, “Glad You Came,” features them partying in Ibiza and trying to hook up with all sorts of women — but only when they’re not too busy jumping off cliffs and hanging out in speedboats. Then there’s the song title itself, clearly a double entendre. Moreover, the band seems to love pointing out that it’s a double entendre. For example, the blog Idolator mentioned that the band was recently on a radio station morning show to perform the song. When asked, “Is this really a song about having an orgasm?”, they went ahead and “answered with a chorus of ‘Yes!’” Overall, you’re supposed to get the impression these guys are masculine bros and that they think about having sex with women every waking moment. One Direction, on the other hand — they’re just supposed to think about kissing girls all of the time. Maybe I should also point out The Wanted wear a lot of leather jackets and V-neck t-shirts. Meanwhile, as others have pointed out, pictures of One Direction tend to resemble images from a J. Crew catalog.

    However, in what I am sure is a completely unsurprising twist, the bands actually do not seem too dissimilar and, significantly, some of the overlap seems to go back to the argument that the comfortable homoeroticism linked to One Direction really is an outcome of British teen boy culture becoming less homophobic and more accepting of “demonstrative male friendship.” For example, the Internet abounds with old pictures of The Wanted playfully spoonfeeding each other, posing together shirtless for The Gay Times, etc. Importantly, this is when the band was just being sold to British audiences. Additionally, their previous videos, mainly intended for British viewers, tended to be less explicit about the band members’ sex drives. However, such moments of casual affection seem to be largely absent from the American coverage of the band. This omission in accompaniment with the “Glad You Came” video mentioned above, as well as instances like their radio interview, cannot help but make me wonder how these bands might be adjusted for American audiences if their popularity continues to grow. In other words, looking into the future, I’m curious whether future depictions of The Wanted in America will veer more and more towards the “defensively heterosexual presentations” produced during the last era of the boy bands, whether that comes from the fact they think that’s what American audiences want or because they’re trying to differentiate themselves from One Direction. While the video for “Glad You Came” seems to still straddle a line, balancing shots of the band’s sexual hungers with shots of the band members wrapping their arms around one another or sitting with one another on lonely cliff edges, the next video might not even allow such moments.

  5. Hannah on May 6, 2012 at 4:31 PM

    Jennifer – I have just seen a flyer for this Oxford University Press book ‘The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality’ by Mark McCormack, which I thought may be of interest re. your work on this topic: http://www.oup.com/us/catalog/general/subject/Sociology/SexGender/?view=usa&ci=9780199778249