Pop vocal groups have always been a sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll. From the early doo-wop sounds of The Ink Spots in the ’50s to the Brill Building girl groups like The Chiffons of early ’60s, to the surf sound of The Beach Boys, the bubble-gum sound of Osmonds, Motown’s Jackson 5, and the ’70s Puerto Rican boy band Menudo, vocal-based groups have been a backbone of pop-rock history.

Inspired by the Jackson 5 from the ’60s, producer Maurice Starr created an urban vocal group with five (later six) young African-American males. New Edition, created in 1984, was a pop/R&B/hip hop amalgam that has been termed “bubble-gum urban” in its earliest sound. As it evolved, New Edition became the seminal launching pad for a new urban sound called “new jack swing” (see chapter on Contemporary R&B).

Following his success with the black-singers version New Edition, Starr created a white-version with a quintet called New Kids on the Block (NKOTB) in 1986 to appeal to the pre-teen/early teen girl demographic. NKOTB enjoyed chart success from the late ’80s into the early ’90s with “I’ll Be Loving You” and other teen-throb love ballads targeted at their fan base. Though they only had three #1 songs and only nine in the Top 10, the massive success of NKOTB was in the endless concert touring and mass marketing of the group.

NKOTBInto the early ’90s, after relentless touring and as many as 200 concerts a year, the group had developed an extensive worldwide following, an enthusiastic official fan club, and a sizeable licensing market (which included, among other items, lunch boxes, comic books, trading cards, and dolls). The tours, merchandising, pay-per-view concerts, and album sales reported to gross almost $600 million in 1991 alone. Though they would never again reach the success of the early ’90s, eventually breaking up in 1994, the highly-polished, all-vocal boy band formula of New Kids on the Block became the model for other pop vocal groups hoping to achieve the same success. One of the off-shoots of the touring of the Asian countries by NKOTB and the boy-bands to follow was the rise of their versions, as seen in the J-Pop in Japan and the K-Pop in Korea. For example, many of these groups, like Korea’s BTS, show the influence of the ’80s and ’90s American boy bands.

In the mid-’90s, manager/producer Lou Pearlman adopted the boy-band formula and formed a series of successful groups. Pearlman auditioned and formed the Backstreet Boys in 1993 and *NSYNC in 1995, though it was not until the end of the decade until they saw any chart success. Beginning in 1997 through 1999, these two boy “groups” (since they did not play the instruments on their records, the term “boy bands” is somewhat misleading), along with 98 Degrees were at the forefront of a wave of pre-adult girl heartthrob ensembles. Like the ’80s ground-breakers, New Kids on the Block, the wave of pop boy bands at the end of the ’90s were as much marketed products as musical performers. With much-publicized personalities, polished choreography, and multimedia fanfare, *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees, and others were gold mines of financial success for their producers, managers, and record companies. 

Justin Timberlake 01Matching the standard of the ’80s, the images of the ’90s boy bands were a ubiquitous presence in the culture of America and the world. While most of the ’90s boy bands evaporated into obscurity by the early 2000s, one member successfully transitioned from boy band to solo artist: *NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake emerged as one of the most significant pop artists of the first two decades of the new century. With five #1 and nineteen Top 10 hits, Timberlake expanded the look and the sound of the group into a solo career.

While the boy bands dominated most of the decade, two girl groups should be recognized as framing the pop male-group sounds. Prior to the reliance on image marketing, depending instead on the actual musical product, the short-lived trio, Wilson Phillips, would imprint the charts with three #1 songs in 1990 and 1991. Their 1990 self-titled debut album, which had two #1 songs, including “Hold On,” would go 5x multi-platinum, making it one of the fastest-selling debut albums in history.

In the latter half of the ’90s, another girl group would prove to be part of the pop-group phenomenon of the decade. Britain’s Spice Girls, which seemed to be carefully designed to be equal parts independent feminists, well-defined, sexy personalities, and light-hearted, fun-all-the-time ensemble, was promoted as Great Britain’s counterpart to America’s boy-bands. If the boy-bands of the ’90s were an extension of Motown’s Jackson 5, the Spice Girls were a reimagining of the Supremes. 

Spice GirlsDespite the original group having a recording career of barely two years (the five was reduced to four when Ginger Spice left in 1998), the Spice Girls tallied sales of over 37 million with their first two albums. With extensive touring and merchandise licensing of everything from posters to celebrity dolls, the group earned a reported gross of between $600-800 million. Even though the active years were few, the Spice Girls managed to sell over 100 million records, making them the most successful girl group in pop music history. Despite winning over 80 national and worldwide awards from MTV, Billboard, American Music Awards, VH1, and others, the Spice Girls never won or were even nominated for a Grammy.

With their dance-pop sound, iconic images, and brand sponsorship deals, Spice Girls became one of the most recognizable and most commercially successful groups of music history and one of the most significant cultural icons at the end of the 20th century.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.

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