Safe Sexuality

The guilty pleasures of 'N Sync and the boy-band brigade

Anyone who watched MTV back in the Eighties and early Nineties, when Michael Jackson was still commercially and artistically relevant, remembers the almost daily reports of screaming, weeping teens around the globe, reaching supplicant toward their musical messiah. This would eventually translate itself across nations and cultures to occurrences such as the “cry parties” held by Japanese schoolgirls lamenting the death of Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. In the United States, too, such idol worship recently has manifested itself, and the boy-band concert has become the epicenter of the phenomenon. Its ridiculous exuberance is a subject of much derision among music scholars and general cynics, who see it as a weak recalling of the screaming-mob Beatlemania captured in Richard Lester's 1964 film A Hard Day's Night. However diluted the trend may be now, it does retain some of the essence and innocent excitement of youth, and, as demonstrated in the hearts and minds of those who follow the music, the bands and the boys.

Recalling a quote posted on the American Psycho Website months back -- “Adolescence is about two things: enthusiasm and moisture” -- I could scarcely think of anything else while in the presence of 30,000 shrieking teenage girls bearing witness at the altar of 'N Sync a couple of months back at the National Car Rental Center. Well, one other thought occurred to this frightened male: Don't upset the herd.

The men in attendance were limited mostly to more than a few unlucky dads who lost the coin toss some weeks before. I was there of my own accord, however, and I have to confess that I enjoyed it. Granted it certainly wasn't your average superobscure experimental noise band playing a set at a burned-out fire station on a Thursday night before eleven people, but it ranks among the better ways to spend a Tuesday evening. The show ended by 10:30, leaving plenty of time to do penance with Gastr Del Sol and Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.

While 'N Sync's music can be an unctuous, stomach-turning affair for the average Limp Bizkit listener, I found the facetiousness of its presentation more troubling than the vanilla-pudding innocuousness of the songs themselves. The prefab dialogue, the canned banter, and the rigid choreography all revealed a startling lack of spontaneity. Even the subtlest gestures rang false: Undoubtedly some fans read Justin's indignant removal of his earphone monitor as an impassioned moment, lost in the rapture of whatever love ballad he happened to be singing at the time, but one could imagine that too was scripted.

Nonetheless boy bands by definition are crowd pleasers, so no one went home disappointed by the absence of their favorite tune. Every hit was there, each draped in all the syrup and cellophane you could stand. It was damn near impossible not to get caught up in the energy of the crowd, the pyrotechnics, the sheer weight of the show. Each song, each pass of the boys over their adoring heads (by way of cables and, finally, a pneumatic stage lift) was matched with the same level of enthusiasm and the most deafening applause you've ever heard. It hardly mattered whether you knew the songs; the harmonies, the lyrics, and the gestures that accompanied them were virtually interchangeable.

Silly as it all is, there's something else at work in this latest installment of pop-culture postmodernism: Kids are becoming adolescents are becoming adults quicker than you can say Haley Joel Osment, and they're arguably more aware of, and susceptible to, advertising and role models and cinematographers and pop formulas than any generation before them. They buy the records they already know articulate the lifestyle they want to lead, the personality they want, the sex they want to experience, the aggression they think they're supposed to feel.

With boy bands it's the love of their life they expect to discover. Surely there are those fans who would do things to Nick and Justin that would make Lil' Kim blush, but the fantasy these groups are selling is true love. While Britney and Jessica and Mandy and Christina flaunt their sexuality via coquettish come-ons and a nymphet's sensuality in a brightly colored halter top, those boys are the real-life equivalent of Ken dolls -- no sex organs to interfere with the Malibu beach house and the pink Corvette the girls one day expect to own. (Even with 'N Sync's recent video, in which the band members-- as toy dolls -- break out of their plastic packaging on a store shelf, they're not fooling anyone.) All masculinity has been minimized into the safest possible image of manhood. Parents don't mind; they know these matrimonially inclined boys would never be discourteous or act improperly. In concert they've even sanitized that staple of male singers everywhere: the pelvic thrust.

It's the safest kind of sex that plays to the most idyllic dreams of the boy-band audience, the dream of true love that doesn't have to end in bitter divorce or a nasty custody battle. And what's wrong with that? Why lambaste the teens who currently are dominating the charts and ushering young girls to the brink of ecstasy? After all, there has always been a Milli Vanilli for every Madonna, a Bay City Rollers for every Marvin Gaye, a Shaun Cassidy for every Mick Jagger. Everyone has their own guilty pleasures, those songs you can't justify liking or loving. They are a part of pop music's foundation, from “Splish Splash” to “Pump Up the Jam,” and 'N Sync -- and its crazed-teen following -- is just another brick in the wall.

 
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