Boy bands are back (to the debatable extent that they had ever really left us) – and have cropped up in two very different corners of the television sphere. ABC’s Boy Band is dead set on jamming a new flock of floppy-haired, shriek-inducing teens into a meticulously predefined mold, with mentions of the “funny one” “heart throb” and “bad boy” sprinkled throughout the season premiere. In contrast, Viceland’s American Boyband is singularly focused on making the Boy Band mold obsolete. “So you see a group of kids like us and we don’t really fit …the term ‘boy band,’ but us calling ourselves that is tight for another group of kids who want to call themselves a boy band,” explains Kevin Abstract, the show’s central figure.
Through American Boyband’s jerky iPhone lens and Boy Band’s dazzling wide shots, Thursday nights now present an opportunity to see many different facets of the boy band coin. Are they a clean-cut collective of pretty boys with kicky dance moves? Are they a raw, van-travelling band of not-quite kids who make short films, are not well acquainted with showers and write rap lyrics on the wall? Or is there room for both? Regardless of where your loyalties may ultimately lie, we can explore a few basics that both boy band shows demonstrated so far.
1.Bringing the boys together in unexpected ways
“I had a heart that don’t speak to me anymore” – Kevin Abstract lyric
“I want to be what you always needed; Then I hope you’ll see the heart in me” – Jesse McCartney; Boy Band audition song
The first thing you need to know about American Boyband’s subject, Brockhampton, is that Brockhampton isn’t a band. It’s a collective of multimedia artists who met on a Kanye West fan forum. Founder Kevin Abstract fearlessly led the group to live in the ‘Brockhampton Factory,’ a South Central LA home that I can only describe as my personal version of hell (but which seems to work just fine for a group of young twenty-something males) – short on furniture, long on air mattresses, and using every available square inch – the walls, the closets, whatever’s available – to further their art.
Pulling a move far more traditional than a fan forum, the Boy Band ‘architects’ (ex-Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, ex-Spice Girl Emma Bunton, and current-Timbaland Timbaland) use the power of elimination (and, coming later this season, the voting power of the American people) to whittle out the perfect boy band from a pool of thirty. The architects’ professional duties are occasionally interjected by Emma and host Rita Ora fawning over a few of the more attractive contestants – a move that might be more cute than creepy if it didn’t have a bit of a Liam and Cheryl vibe to it.
Incidentally, both groups have brought in members for whom faith plays a large role (albeit manifesting in different ways). Brockhampton’s Ameer, one of the main focal points of the show’s third episode, alluded to an illicit past before describing the bible as “giving his moral compass steroids.” And ABC’s Boy Band judges literally leapt from their seat for contestant Jaden, whose intro packages featured scenes of his singing in church. “Some of the most amazing pop singers have come from the gospel world,” assured architect Nick Carter. And since both Ameer and Jaden have already expressed the importance of religion of their lives, I’ll be curious to see how their respective bands incorporate this part of their members’ lives as their respective seasons develop.
2.Look is everything
“I hate my yearbook photo; I hate my passport; I hate my last name; I hate everything it stands for” – Kevin Abstract lyric
“We’re just ordinary people. We don’t know which way to go” – John Legend, Boy Band audition song
The volume of hairspray necessary to hold onto Boy Band’s look for one night couldn’t fit in the u-haul that Brockhampton carted around for their cross-country tour. And though the Boy Band performers vary in their commitment to accessories (some opting for a simple chain, others with a dedication to multiple bejeweled rings), the tight-panted, longish-hair, charming-smiled look of the Boy Band crew makes them, at times, almost impossible to distinguish.
While the Brockhampton crew, in contrast, are certainly distinguishable, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about aesthetic. True, I may never get the significance of the vending machine and mannequin that make up their staging strategy. And the omnipresent helmet that Kevin Abstract seems so insistent on carting around trigger any reaction from my soul. But Kevin’s hood is always up. His selfie smirk in fan photos is always the same (even when, as in episode 3, he’s seething after a sound slipup at an Atlanta performance). And if there’s someone in a scene that’s randomly wearing a motorcycle helmet even though there’s no actual motorcycle in the picture, it is more than likely him. Kevin’s quirks don’t seem at first like they could ever be as mainstream as the alterna-Ken doll looks that grace the Boy Band screens – but if there’s anyone who could alter mainstreams perceptions of pop, he’s clearly the one to do it.
3.Live performances are HARD
“Sweaty palms as I walk down this empty road” – Kevin Abstract lyric
“What can make me feel this way?” – The Temptations; Boy Band audition song
Brockhampton’s one-month cross country tour, in the American Boyband spotlight, is every bit as rough around the edges as the filming and presentation of the show itself. “Everyone’s learning right now. Nobody’s really trained for it,” one Brockhampton member explained as the tour kicked off. Watching Brockhampton members’ scrappy scramble to address the inevitable challenges that this DIY approach raises is one of the most riveting features of the show. Time and time again, I find myself rooting for them to defeat all odds and wow the crowd in middle-of-nowhere Michigan (or wherever they happen to be that night).
The trials of this first tour experience were highlighted at a performance in Boston, where the audio cut off completely, leaving Kevin to ditch the stage and dance, along with the crowd, to a recording of his album. “Boston is wild. White people are crazy,” observed HK, the group’s creative director, referring to the fact that the crowd seemed to just enjoy Kevin’s presence as much as – if not even more than – the live performance that they had paid for.
Explaining the appeal of Kevin’s music, one young fan described it as “raw and personal and when you hear it it sounds like you’re hearing something that you shouldn’t be hearing.”
The thing is, ‘raw and personal’ is not quite the vibe you get from watching a 14-year-old named J Hype having a beatbox-off with Timbaland during the Boy Band auditions. And I, for one, would be curious to know which island ABC is using to import the bevy of teenaged fans whose high-pitched squeals supported the show’s performance of Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like.” Where Brockhampton performances thrive on raw emotion, Boy Band requires impeccably manufactured execution and demands perfection. The shots leading up to that Bruno Mars performance – long hours with a vocal producer, a musical director, and creative producers – demonstrated that the grueling audition performance, which dominated the first hour of the show’s premiere, was just the beginning.
4.It’s all about the band
“And this before I knew you, way before I knew you; Back when darkness was, all I had to hold” – Kevin Abstract lyric
“I held your hair back when you were throwing up” – James Arthur; Boy Band audition song
Kevin Abstract is clearly the star of American Boyband. ‘He’s going to be a f**** popstar. Superstar. Mega. Like arenas, all that sh**,” gushed an enthused fan with cherry-red afro and normal-colored facial hair. But for him, that’s not really all it’s about. “I want Brockhampton to be something that lives, like, way beyond me,” Kevin explained.
Kevin’s philosophy is echoed by Nick Carter during the Boy Band auditions. “I want to be in something bigger than myself,” one contestant explained, demonstrating for the judges that he envisioned a future in a band, rather than as a solo artist. “That is what I want to hear…that’s exactly what we want to hear,” gushed Carter, emphatically reinforcing the importance of the group (and ignoring his own solo career detour).
Whether your boy band tastes run in American Boyband’s raw and unfiltered direction, or you’d prefer a light dip into Boy Band’s foamy pop covers, the good news is that either way, it’s all about the band – and Thursday nights will have you covered.
New episodes of Boy Band air 8pm ET Thursday on ABC and are available the next day on-demand.
New episodes of American Boyband air 11:30pm ET Thursday on Viceland. Recent episodes are available on-demand.