In high school I was friends with a boy who, every six months or so, would jokingly tell me I had “peaked.” This subtle but effective jab forced me to consider a possibility that I, relatively sunny in disposition, would never have entertained otherwise: that a teenager might have already seen her life’s biggest high. He’d drop it in casual conversation — “Well, since you’ve peaked already, let’s go to IHOP” — and it went on for years. I assume this at the root of my fascination with celebrities trying to extend their half-life in public, and why the most I’ve ever been interested in Nick Carter and Jordan Knight and Nick Jonas is now, at the tail end of 2014.
For most celebrities — hell, most people — the fear (or the realization) that you’ve peaked is relatively easy to avoid. It’s healthy, at least, to operate under the illusion that you are still moving uphill: There are horizons left, and green lights, and more money, and the sex of your dreams. But the very nature of the boy bander seems to indicate a certain priority — fame, adoration — and also preclude an upwards trajectory after the age of, say, 20. What happens when the New Kids become the old kids? What happened to everyone else in *NSYNC?
Boy banders don’t transcend their beginnings except in the cases of spectacular instinct (Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake) or total change of market (Ricky Martin), and by definition they can never have second acts as boy banders: baby-faced ciphers luxuriating in the glow of whitewashed, nonthreatening masculinity and hamming it up through a choreographed routine. And, by nature of their category, these guys have been super fucking famous by the time they’re old enough to vote. They’ve had hundreds of stalkers, their faces covered in cutout letters and pink kisses; today they get whole oeuvres of fanfic, typed with the non-masturbating hand.
Boy banders peak early, and they peak obviously, and they peak hard. So what are they supposed to do on the downswing? Why are we so sure that they will fail?
Former teen heartthrobs Jordan Knight, Nick Carter and Nick Jonas are releasing new music right now. Now. In 2014. But together, their careers stretch back through 30 years in a sort of pop relay race, the baton passed over decades, each one getting five or so years of excellence and trying to stretch it out into 10.
Jordan Nathaniel Marcel Knight was born in 1970 in Massachusetts to a social worker and a carpenter-turned-priest. He was the youngest of six, a sibling group that included his future bandmate. Knight was 13 and in possession of a killer falsetto when he joined New Kids on the Block; over the next 10 years, NKOTB sold 70 million albums before they split up in 1994, which was the year before the Backstreet Boys released “We’ve Got It Going On.”
Nickolas Gene Carter did not actually sing on the studio recording of “We’ve Got It Going On,” because he was 15 years old and his voice was seesawing through puberty. Before that, he’d grown up near the New York/Pennsylvania border in a town where his parents owned a bar called the Yankee Rebel. He was a child actor, appearing briefly in Edward Scissorhands). He was 13 when the Backstreet Boys made their performance debut at SeaWorld. BSB’s debut album would go on to sell 14 million copies, and by the time the group broke up in 2006, they’d been together for 11 years.
The year that BSB broke up, Nicholas Jerry Jonas was 14 and he’d just signed his first record contract. He’d been performing for a long time: on Broadway by age 7, recording Christmas music for Columbia by age 12. After that, he tried to release a solo album, but the label put him with his brothers to form a group. The Jonas Brothers started opening for bigger pop groups (including the Backstreet Boys!) and appearing on the Disney Channel in various guises: They did a reality special, the movie Camp Rock and an episode of Hannah Montana that broke viewership records for basic cable (10.7 million viewers). The Jonas Brothers split up in 2013, eight years after they began.
You can buy an enormous amount of merchandise, still, with these three guys’ faces on it: calendars, posters, laminated backstage passes. (The latter sell on Ebay for $20; a Nick Carter-signed Backstreet Boys book sells for $75.) The boy-bander whose star has dropped is still in possession of a comet trail that moves capital, and all of these guys — Nick Jonas (22), Nick Carter (34) and Jordan Knight (44) — have tried lots of ways to reignite whatever’s left for burning. Carter starred in a family reality show (House of Carters, 2006), and E! just declined to renew his second attempt (I Love Nick Carter, 2014) for a follow-up season. Knight’s judged some reality shows (the American Idol spinoff American Juniors), appeared on them too (The Surreal Life, season 3). Jonas has only had a few years off, but he’s had his own post-band reality brush via his brother Kevin’s own E! show (Married to Jonas; he appeared in Les Miserables in London as Marius, filmed a thriller (Careful What You Wish For) and a TV show (Kingdom) both to be released this year, and recently signed to Wilhelmina as a model.
And then — honestly, I almost forgot to mention it — there’s the actual music situation. Carter and Knight have their duo Nick & Knight. Jonas has a solo career. They are all out there touring, purportedly shrugging off their old shadow while most of their promo inevitably revolves around the past.
Consider the aging boy-band singer. They are talented entertainers, trapped by the things that made them famous to begin with: their youth, which was fleeting; their malleability; their cutest-guy-at-Christian-camp vibes. Their bread and butter is a sound as depthless and earnest as a sixth-grade crush: an adult trying to replicate it would sound like nothing so much as a studio musician recording tracks for Disney On Ice. And boy-banders are performers, anyway, not musicians, and teen girls start wanting musicians around the time their first loves release album number three. Fluff only cuts it for so long.
What the aging boy bander does still have is the ability — the compulsion — to get their audiences to swoon. But when the teens are no longer willing to bop, who becomes their audience? Jonas is going after “the gay community.” Nick & Knight are mining from their glory days of yesteryear, appealing to the teen nostalgia of young moms. The overarching theme seems to be Boy Bands for Everyone. They’re taking a mode of salesmanship that’s traditionally worked on impressionable, wildly hormonal young girls and turning it towards two groups — the gays and the moms — who someone on their team decided would be the next-most susceptible.
In both cases, the PR moves have been defined from the start. Nick & Knight announced their partnership and first single on Good Morning America, they went on the Wendy Williams Show, they’re doing radio appearances on stations that play in dentist’s offices, they’re selling tickets via Groupon. When I saw them perform earlier in the month, not a single person in the audience (99 percent female, median age 35) was drinking. Their new album — a pastiche of kneecapped Christian rock, sappy adult contemporary and Justin Timberlake-Michael Jackson pop R&B — is like what’s left if you’ve had a boy-band album on the stove for too long, but in some ways, what they’ve set out to do is working. Playing relatively small venues, Nick & Knight can still be old flames. They’re pretty hot, to be honest. They drop to the floor and air-hump when they cover Ginuwine‘s “Pony,” and their fans — who have aged with them, who haven’t been out in awhile — scream.
Jonas, on the other hand, is trying a trickier game of arousing a strain of desire that is necessarily unrequited (unless he decides to come out). He’s been stripping down at Up & Down (“It was my first time at a gay club, and it was amazing,” he told an interviewer), playing “Guess the Bulge” on camera, hinting that his character on the new DirecTV series Kingdom may be gay. An interviewer asked him if he was a top or a bottom: “I mean, I’d consider myself more of a top, but I’d do anything for my amazing gay fans,” Jonas said. His messaging is mediated through the male body — in the lyric video for “Teacher,” a cut dude literally pulls down his pants to reveal “FRUSTRATED” written on the D’Angelo zone — and although I find this angle peculiar and slightly offensive, I applaud it for how it’s so aggressively queer. (The Marky Mark photoshoot! Jonas Christ!) But in terms of his music, Jonas is doing all the right things. Nick Jonas still carries the confectionary, top-line-prioritizing appeal of a boy-band album, but it’s slicker and smarter and quicker on its feet. Like Bruno Mars, Jonas does a great, declawed soda-commercial version of whatever artist he’s paying homage to (Prince, the Weeknd), and to his credit, his vocal charisma sells the album well and easily, sounding many more years away from “Burnin’ Up” than he actually is.
Both acts’ best new songs (“Paper,” “Numb”) are in the same mold: a sort of minimalist, slinky, slightly trapped Bieber-Timberlake R&B that the artists and their promo coverage alike describe, always hilariously, as “urban.” There’s something about the boy band that craves this; there are unfair things that get attributed to black teenagers — edge, formidable power, manhood — that are ruled out for the white boy and his band.
So instead they dance around what their name means. In a 2007 interview, Carter said, “We always thought of ourselves as a white vocal harmony group,” adding, “Maybe things started off a little boy-bandish but after a while you shed that.” His bandmate Brian Littrell said in a 2011 interview, “We were fans of New Kids, but were we really modeled after them? No. We looked at ourselves as Shai, Jodeci, Boyz II Men, the true vocal groups. That’s who we listened to and who we really wanted to be like.”
Shai, Jodeci, Boyz II Men: Those groups formed as teenagers as well, but there’s one big difference. And although we must acknowledge the storied American tradition of white artists biting black artists all the way to the bank, this avenue is generally blocked off to the boy-bander, whose whiteness is sweet and intractable enough for mothers not to be threatened by how their daughters have gone wild. The current wave of boy bands has found a certain new-media way around this edgelessness — One Direction, 5SOS and the Wanted casually walked into the fires of (respectively) Taylor Swift’s love life, Snapchat dick pics and Lindsay Lohan’s readiness to punch a psychic at the club — that may be a part of the same sea change that’s gotten Nick Jonas on the cover of Flaunt, but the lack of color, so to speak, remains.
So where, again, can we place our heroes? This year, doing promo for the Nick & Knight tour, Knight told radio.com: “We are now in man bands, which is a little better. We’re men… The world tells [boy bands], ‘You’re only here because you’re cute and you have fun songs.’ We’re proving that that’s not the case. There is substance behind our groups.” Oh, what a convolution. Man bands! “Substance”! What they’re really dancing around here, I think is soul. Without it, Jonas and Nick & Knight are still mostly operating on the premise they’re trying to hide. They’re still primarily cute, selling fun songs that sound focus-grouped, and selling them in the exact same old way: They’re your boyfriend, they’re the heartthrob, they’ll wear tight shirts and flex while crouching with the mic. Isn’t this fun, pretending?
They must think so. Why else do it? It can’t be easy to sit with your boy-band shadow every day. Jonathan Knight has had regular panic attacks since he quit; Lance Bass self-describes as a “cosmonaut” and posts random motivational reviews on Facebook about his inspiration, Dr. Seuss. Interviewers keep asking, “What’s it like to play the House of Blues after giant arenas?” and they say that it’s actually fun and intimate and better in so many ways. And maybe it is! Maybe there’s a security in the fate of the boy-bander, who has peaked so startlingly that there can be no confusion about the matter. They don’t have to go anywhere interesting, even though Jonas still might. Maybe it’s enough just to still be courting attention, trying to get those hearts in the crowd to pound like they used to. They know what they’re good at, and it turns out there’s still plenty left for them: green lights, good money and all the girls (and boys) of their dreams.