As a writer, I’m always reading something or wanting to read something. Not only do I feel that it makes my own writing better, but it’s simply something that I enjoy doing. Right now, I’m reading Brit Bennet’s novel The Vanishing Half, and I’m eager to dive into Frank Herbert’s Dune ahead of its cinematic adaption and Steven Hyden’s This Isn’t Happening. But most recently, I finished reading Maria Sherman’s excellent Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands from NKOTB to BTS. I’ve had my eye on this book for a while now, and I finally got around to checking it out roughly a couple of weeks ago, slowly making my way through it over that timeframe.
When I ordered Larger Than Life, I mostly expected it to be a typical book, meaning no illustrations, relatively straightforward chapters, and not much else in between. That’s not to say I was expecting anything bad. I just had my expectations thrown out the window in the best way possible. When it arrived to my place, I noticed the book was the size of a magazine, and it contained colorful, vibrant illustrations with humorous asides and sub-sections like “Conspiracy Corner,” “Were They a One-Hit Wonder?” and “Style Watch.” Larger Than Life absolutely subverted my expectations, and I’d recommend it to any fellow pop-culture obsessive who enjoys colloquial, fun writing because Sherman delivers on all fronts.
I decided to read this book mainly because it was about a subject area I knew little about. As someone who writes about music, I’m always looking to educate myself, listen to records I’ve never heard before, and brush up on my history. Boy bands are a cultural phenomena that’s been nearly ignored in critical discourse because it’s not “meaningful,” but if millions of fans flock to a group of artists, then it very much has to be meaningful, as it is for plenty of people. It reminds me of how early- to mid-aughts’ cultural criticism scoffed at pop music, particularly music that wasn’t made by “serious” cis-het white dudes. Because boy bands were mainly appreciated by women, they were viewed as frivolous and, ultimately, artless, and it feels like they still are. But Sherman dives into the history of artists such as Menudo, 5 Seconds of Summer, New Kids on the Block, One Direction, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, New Edition, BTS, and more in a way that hasn’t been done before, and it’s nice to learn about a genre so often disregarded in critical discussions.
The most experience I have with boy bands myself was my adoration of pop-punk in middle school. My iPod was laden with acts such as Blink-182, Fall Out Boy, All Time Low, and others. I knew Jonas Brothers songs because I watched the Disney Channel, but, as you could guess, my knowledge was admittedly surface-level. Reading Larger Than Life, however, provided me with more information than I could have imagined. There are even several glossaries (plural) to familiarize readers with the boy-band lexicon. There’s a section that lays out boy band commandments, such as “Thou shalt not grow a beard” and “Thou shalt respect a five-year life span.”
Some of the most intriguing sections explore the etymology of the phrase “boy band” and how modern fandom has come into existence, citing composer Franz Liszt and Lisztomania (you know, like the Phoenix song?). Others explore the corrupt music industry and the malicious intent of Lou Pearlman, who managed and conned Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, resulting in one of the most massive Ponzi schemes in history. Others are devoted to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records and how the globe’s most popular boy bands owe their respects to Black music.
Essentially, this is way more than a history book. Sherman covers a wide spectrum, paying homage to each vital facet of boy-band culture, such as the roles (i.e. heartthrob, bad boy, etc.) fashion, fandom, origins, conspiracies, and charts. Larger Than Life is for both the experts and novices, the aficionados and newcomers. It’s for the biggest fans and those wishing to learn more. If you love boy bands or music in general, Larger Than Life is simultaneously an amusing and informative read.