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.
Into 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.
Matching 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.
Despite 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.