My earliest memory of boy bands involves ordering a special Backstreet Boys concert on Pay-Per-View and inviting friends and classmates over to watch from my parents' living room. A few years later, I'd petition for tickets to see BSB live, some 200-miles from my childhood home—the result of inexperience purchasing things over the phone, and virtually no concept of geography.
With my parents and sister in tow, my first concert would be family affair—complete with a pre-show meal at Denny's. Surviving the two-hour drive was only half the battle; not cringing from embarrassment as my mother, burdened by a bad back, hobbled to our seats way, way up in the rafters was an additional struggle. Once there, my instincts to squeal, cheer and cry were thwarted by an unenthused male chaperon sitting behind me. (Guess my dad wasn't the only one in the building.) But this wasn't how it was supposed to go down, right? I wanted more.
Fifteen years later I had my first shot at redemption, visiting Boy Band Mecca in Hershey, Pennsylvania—a surprising setting for a pop music contingent that's traveled the globe. But the tourist-y town, with its picturesque homes and abundance of chocolate, was the location for the first annual Summer MixTape Fest, a two-day event boasting acts like the Wanted, 98 Degrees and NKOTBSB, the boy band supergroup consisting of both New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys.
With tickets, transportation and a favorable weather forecast, my mission was set: it was time to indulge in all my inner fan girl fantasies.
"I'm still all into the '80s boy bands and '90s boy bands so they're not comparable," said 21-year-old Shelly, regarding current boy bands like One Direction and the Wanted. Dressed in a NKOTBSB shirt, Saturday was the second time she'd seen the group live in the last year, and her opinion wouldn't and couldn't be swayed, no matter how many hugs British-Irish group the Wanted offered her from high above their pedestal on the stadium's North Stage.
From deafening screams breaking 100 decibels, to the horribly outdated fashions worn in attempts at seduction, we were not in 2012 anymore. Walks through the stadium's bleacher seats and bathroom lines took me back a good 20 years, introducing all who still dream of teasing their hair to the heights of Kelly Kapowski and haven't been able to part with their acid washed jeans, as well as some of the best ways to display Donnie Wahlberg's face closest to one's heart.
And of course, those who've commemorated their fandom through ink had no choice but to prominently display their badges of pride. This was August, after all.
With women the clear majority, seeing that rare breed of male boy band fan—as elusive as logic in an LMFAO song—demanded my attention. "I like some of the boy bands that are coming out; I think that they're getting back to their roots and they're the bands that I like," 20-year-old Sean told me, as he handed over a stack of bills to the cashier, in exchange for a couple of souvenir t-shirts to go with the "Once in a Lifetime" NKOTBSB top he was wearing. "The Wanted, they're very good at what they do. They've got that pop culture in them and they're not sucked into today's media." And then some.
PARKING FOR COUGARS ONLY
By traditional boy band standards, The Wanted break every conceivable mold, from not dancing—aside from Jay's occasional fist pump or Nathan simulated solo make-out session—to not apologizing about calling those pop stars who've come before them the b-word. Saturday's performance put these qualities on display, as the group casually went about their business, dressed in a mixture of styles ranging from jorts and a sleeveless tank emblazoned with the British flag, to a "Let's Get Wasted" t-shirt, worn by (the under 21) Nathan Sykes.
During the group's 5:55 p.m. set time, women sat on the ground sectioning off space for their late-arriving friends in between applying touch-ups to their face before their inevitable date with Donnie Wahlberg, Jordan Knight or Joey McIntyre. "You can't stand here, buddy. These seats are saved," one told an encroaching male—a.k.a the enemy—who was probably one of 100 seemingly dragged to the event by their respective wives or girlfriends.
Other stray dudes on the scene were notable for either wearing t-shirts of non-performing bands, in effort to prove just how much they were brought there against their will—Masscare or Beastie Boys—or trying to walk off one too many $8 Mike's Hard Lemonades, the stadium's drink of choice. By 6 p.m. things had officially transitioned into a bachelorette party, I being the lone attendee unwilling to share my "gift" with those onstage.
While some of the younger fans sang along word-for-word, 45 minutes with the Wanted were nothing but an excuse for my neighbor to catch up on her Words With Friends games. She was more interested in learning what I was writing down in my notebook than listening to the group's live version of "Heart Vacancy."
But when the time came for "Glad You Came"—her son's favorite!—she had found her sole, pre-NKOTBSB reason to party. "Do we have any cougars in the house?" Tom Parker asked the audience, to which her friend nearby responded, "I'll be your cougar, lion, tiger and cheetah!" The songs may be different, but feelings they evoke are still the same.
In Hershey men were on hand to be ogled and gawked at, allowing those who haven't let go of their dreams the chance to win the heart of Donnie Wahlberg, who'd gladly rip his shirt off for you until death do you part. At first it seemed LL Cool J would be the show's odd man out, the rare non-pop act in a sea of Hot 100 regulars, yet things instantly changed with the first lick of his lips, sending the crowd into a state of hormonal overdrive that wouldn't be satiated with a live version of "Call Me Maybe." Sorry, Carly Rae Jepsen, it's not you, it's your genitalia.
It was as if buying a ticket gave you the ability to pick up where you left off years ago, completing the unfinished business so many of us placed on hold once adulthood and our "real" lives began. But maybe we never had to in the first place?
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH: CAN THEY STILL PERFORM?
"But which one would you want to, like, talk to?" one 20-something girl asked her friend, as she remained pressed up against the metal barrier separating her body from the stage where Nick Lachey and friends would soon emerge. A shocking question, considering so many others were thinking of doing anything but talk if given the chance. The sun was setting, and bottles of empty 5-Hour Energy bottles littered the ground, giving hundreds the necessary power to wait out the reunion of 98 Degrees. After 10-plus years, what was another five minutes?
For Lachey and Company, as well and the groups making an extended "comeback" tour, choreography was pushed to the forefront, with Joey McIntyre auditioning for Magic Mike 2 with every pelvic thrust during NKOTBSB's two-hour-plus set, and Justin Jeffre searching for life's meaning with each "Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)" hip jiggle.
While the Wanted have built up their following on deliberately not getting down—at least in the Laurieanne Gibson-Wade Robson sense—and 98 Degrees remained focused on the sweet, Motown-inspired microphone choreography, NKOTBSB was busting moves harder than I'd previously seen. (Suck it, Timberlake!) Channing Tatum, you're on notice.
Between the two group, 98 Degrees sounded the best live, flooding the South Stage with harmonies on harmonies on harmonies, including an a cappella version of "She's Out of My Life" that led into a stellar Michael Jackson medley—picking up where they left off at their last show ... on September 10, 2001.
Drew Lachey showed off all he learned from his time on Dancing With the Stars, stepping out of his brother's shadow thanks to the stranger who advised him to step away from the bleach bottle.
All of these heartthrobs have aged, but Saturday taught me that NKOTB member turned CBS actor and burger entrepreneur Donnie Wahlberg is just as eligible, if not more so, to fans in their 30s and 40s today. The gusto with which he wears a bedazzled Pantera t-shirt and devilishly shares a peek at that still-impressive six-pack goes a long way. Stray shouts of "Oh my God, yes!" and "Amazing!" added reassurance that he could still be the perfect man for many.
"He's out there, you know, shaking his tail feather and cussing up a storm," said Lindsay, who traveled from Washington, DC with a friend for both Friday and Saturday's shows. "We were pretty into that." That the bands they've known and loved can grow with them, possessing zero shame about singing and dancing in the exact ways—or sillier—as they did before spouses, children and mortgages came into the picture, is what makes this already healthy fandom grow even stronger.
It's no secret that not every member has maintained his boyish good looks, but that doesn't mean they don't try. The Backstreet Boys looked to the younger generation for fashion inspiration, with Brian Littrell sporting Bieber-esque colorblocking and sneakers, and Nick Carter leaning on youthfulness associated with a letterman jacket, despite be 10 years beyond the typical graduation cutoff.
Outfits among all of NKOTBSB were generally flashier than I previously remembered—leather boots, sparkling skull belt buckles—with shirts and pants tighter than necessary, which in the case of A.J. McLean's "Party Rock"-inspired shuffling ensemble, didn't necessarily improve things.
But give him credit for trying. "Boy bands will never fucking die!" he shouted to a rowdy audience, who gave generous cheers for both his sentiment and use of colorful language. With body rolls and shiny accessories taking such precedence over everything else during NKOTBSB's set, it was clear the two groups were looking to fulfill what they believed were fan requirements for the evening.
"You have to have that fanfare," Lindsay added. "The way they look, and the way they dance, you know the whole get-up. And it's like buying power. If you don't like the four [members], you'll just take that one."
A BOY BAND FOR EVERYONE
In a sense, boy bands are the one musical genre untouched by time. Though years will pass, moms and daughters alike can enjoy the general music and the spectacle, bonding over the heartfelt promises and ageless eye candy, whether it's McIntyre or McGuiness. "[I'm] very excited to see [NKOTB] with the Backstreet Boys," said Kathy, a proud grandmother more than willing to admit she, too, has been "Hangin' Tough" since 1986, and seeing NKOTB concerts with her 30-year-old daughter since she was seven.
NKOTBSB fan Stephanie was also making the day about family, bringing her seven-year-old daughter Lexus—wearing her old, very oversized Backstreet Boys shirt—to her very first show. "They're sexy," she told me matter-of-factly, albeit slightly hushed as to avoided providing the definition of a word her stepdaughter has not yet added to her own vocabulary.
While the day was heavily rooted in nostalgia, which helped bridged the age gap and provide a little something for everyone, there were also nods to the future, as NKOTBSB invited the Wanted out for an encore of "Glad You Came."
It felt like a symbolic passing of the boy band torch, as an older, more experienced group still looking to make money off touring was acknowledging the rising competition.
The Wanted is an example of how the genre has changed over time, but it helps that groups of today—and likely tomorrow—still abide by similar guiding principle as NKOTBSB and the rest of the boy band OGs. Here are three crucial Boy Band Rules to Live By I witnessed in action on Saturday.
Rule No. 1: Must love Coldplay and/or some form or "harder" rock.
Back in the day, Nick Carter frequently peppered interviews with musings on Chris Cornell, and any other non-pop artists he'd listen to in his own time. For a band working so frequently with pop super producers like Max Martin, it makes sense young men would want to establish their own musical opinion or identity any way they could. For the Wanted, proudly announcing their love for Coldplay, and managing to look convincing while playing, er, holding, instruments, helps to convince doubters that they're not just puppets of the Great Pop Machine. They have opinions and taste all their own, that don't have to correspond with the music they're selling.
Coldplay is also the perfect middle ground to suggest such an idea, while familiar enough to boy band diehards that it won't risk losing them as fans. NKOTBSB opened their headlining set with a "Viva La Vida/The One/Single" mashup that incorporated their own melodic notes, while maintaining the iconic "Oh-oh-woah-ohs" crowds can't help but sing along to.
Rule No. 2: Must always serenade a woman in concert.
While many a male R&B star will politely ask his audience if he can "sing to this beautiful woman right here" taking time out of shows to let a female live out her fantasy is staple at boy band concerts. Each of Saturday's male acts, minus The Ready Set, selected women from the audience to croon to for a few minutes, resulting in a moment their friends on various social networks won't be able to stop from envying.
98 Degrees went the safe route, bringing Mama Lachey out for celebratory "Happy Birthday" serenade in her 60th year—but definitely not some tongue from Justin. Nick Lachey with more jokes!
The Wanted welcomed an all-ages group of women onstage to execute slightly awkward fake marriage proposals, while NKOTBSB scoured the crowd for females worthy of a close-up serenade, inspiring shoving and hair-pulling in the front row.
Rule No. 3 Must always make fans weak in the knees, regardless of their age.
Seeing Brian, Nick, Howie and A.J. closer than ever before made me smile, and brought back lots of feelings from my youth. Taking this all in as part of a job was a different experience, and while I enjoyed busting out the vintage dance moves and being a part of the stadium sing-alongs, after a long day fighting for crowd space in between crazed and horny women, a three-hour car ride and roadside meal at Wawa seemed like the best activity possible. But when walking through the parking lot revealed a very conspicuous member of the Wanted, standing outside their tour bus having a chat with his band members, the adrenaline began to build. The Wanted are still unassuming enough that I feel confident they'd say yes to my—or anyone's—offer to buy them a beer, as seen in the way they casually hung over barriers off-stage to watch the performance of NKOTBSB later in the evening, yet still possess such "star quality" that it took several attempts—and the relentless urging of a certain coworker—to make any type of interaction happen.
"You can do this, you HAVE to do this," I told myself while walking forward, hoping the sight of someone I'd spent so many hours writing about wouldn't suddenly disrupt the communication trail between my brain and my feet, causing me to inexplicably wipe out in the middle of an empty parking lot. One polite muttering of "Excuse me?" led to a friendly chat about what we both did, how we had previously worked together and when we could hook up again in the future—professionally speaking, sadly. There were handshakes, laughs and it all ended with a kiss on the cheek, leading me to believe I had achieved the ultimate victory despite not being without a serious case of butterflies.
Yes, I'm a 25-year-old woman who's gainfully employed, and should probably be "over" the phase of having semi-serious crushes on celebrities I'll never have a chance with. But for some reason, the ability to think rationally is irrelevant once you've stared deeply into the piercing hazel eyes of a man people pay money to see sing live about loving you—whomever you are—like no one else can. For a fleeting second, the years went whooshing by me and I started to picture myself evolving from normal American girl the tabloids struggle to properly identify, to a woman dressing for red carpet premieres and vacations in St. Tropez. Bring on the Twitter hate! My man and his large security detail will take care of me.