The Wanted and One Direction are killing it. This two-pronged British boy band behemoth has hit the shores of the U.S. hard with myriad magazine covers and morning show appearances—1D even became the first British group ever to see their debut album hit number one in the United States. They’ve sent Tumblrs and young fans into a tizzy, and set the stage for what could possibly be a veritable boy band revival this summer. But as K-pop expert Jeff Benjamin, and others, have pointed out, something’s off with these two bands: they don't dance in their videos.
What the hell?! As part of a generation that grew up during the boy band heyday of the late-90s, heralded by Olympians like Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC—groups with fierce style and unforgettable dance moves that permeated living rooms and spring breaks everywhere—we find this curious and straight-up tragic. Unable to bear the thought of a world without flying-V formation dance sequences, we surveyed the relatively recent landscape of boy bands to examine the state of choreography in boy bands today. Our goal wasn't necessarily to crown a champion, but to see—as you jump from New Kids to *NSYNC to today—to who falls and who gets down.
A TRUNCATED HISTORY OF BOY BAND DANCING
But first, a bit of history. While not always omnipresent, dancing has arguably remained a staple of excellent boy bands since Berry Gordy decided to hire dancer and vaudeville performer extraordinaire Cholly Atkins to teach his top Motown acts a few moves. Atkins’ contributions—even if they were simple synchronized steps—gave live performances by The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and The Four Tops an extra bit of oomph and made dance a necessary component of the complete package Motown promised. It set a precedent that carried into the 70s where even boy bands that played instruments like The Osmonds and The Five Jacksons would incorporate dancing into their live sets and TV appearances.
The 80s marked a boy band renaissance of sorts, led by arguably the first modern group, New Edition. Their dancing—perhaps more than killer hooks and tight harmonies—epitomized the e pluribus unum cohesion necessary for boy band success. Dancing allows for a flawless, cool and effortless coalescence of stylistically unique individuals into a unit mightier than any one boy bander alone. When it all comes together, the whole reigns supreme, but is clearly the sum of its each distinct, outstanding parts (see). The opposite: danceless videos, or sometimes worse, half-assed attempts, that are forgettable, awkward, or plain dull. At the very least, magic’s lost.
And now into the Octagon!
THE SCORING SYSTEM
What follows are videos from both One Direction and The Wanted and ten clips from the past 25 years examined and scored on a fairly subjective, somewhat arbitrary, but wholly authoritative-ish ranking system.
• Theme: Costume, setting, context
• Approximate Percentage Dancing: Equals seconds dancing / total seconds of video) x 100
• Execution: Complexity of moves, technique, how it fits with the music; or since we’re not experts: dopeness, does it make you go “ohhhhh shit”
• Band inclusiveness: Everyone knows who’s best in the group, but all members remain important)
• Intangibles: The things so great/bizarre things you can’t explain, but make the video all the better.
• Overall: We put the Pitchfork-esque hammer down and deliver our final verdict.
Obviously this is far from an exhaustive list (though it’s plenty exhaustive in other ways). With the focus on primarily better-known contemporary groups, we wanted to tip our hats to some forebears, but if we included all of them we might never make it out alive. Notable absences include: 90s British heartthrobs Take That and recent MTV Best Boy Band Champion Westlife (though neither danced that much anyway), Shakespeare scholars LFO, R&B heroes and pioneers Boyz II MEN, "Making The Band"-ees O-Town, the always hilarious 2ge+her, ostensibly lost exurban scenesters NLT, plus many, many others.
So are One Direction and The Wanted harbingers of a bleak Footloose-ian future boy bands are headed for? As we watched these clips we noticed dancing isn’t totally in peril, but we can’t ignore that the recent resurgence suggests choreography may be on its way out. We sure as hell hope not.
"What Makes You Beautiful" (2011)
Theme: Back to the beach, or back into last spring’s American Eagle promo video.
% Dancing: 1%
Execution: Thirty-five seconds in is arguably the one move 1D is capable of: The Hammer—and Harry Styles throws down his fist first, thunderous, after a Phil Collins drum leads into the massive chorus. Liam and Louis try to follow suit when the chorus returns, but after a disastrous attempt Styles, Supreme, has to school them on basics. Apparently fucking up The Hammer banishes you to an unknown netherworld somewhere below the dudes in LFO who aren’t Rich Cronin (RIP). Kneel before Mjölnir.
Band Cohesion: Everyone gets some time in the spotlight, but with no dance moves the group’s tertiary members gnaw at the strength of their leaders. The outliers are clear: Niall’s relegated to the nebulous purgatory of pathetic slo-mo glamour shots, and in true little-brother-tagging-along fashion, keeps his shirt on while the group frolicks in the waves (“So you don’t get sunburn,” said Mom). Then there’s poor Louis, who throws his arm around Harry like an unwanted hype man grasping for residual swag. Even the band’s female friends score more close-ups than Louis. How dare you let extras outshine you.
Intangibles: Harry Styles' majestic hair swoop wields the grace of a soaring avian coasting the atmospheric currents far beyond the stratosphere.
The track’s a total hit, but the lack of moves seriously highlights the group’s awkward, "X-Factor" bred disjointedness. This is what happens when one of the dudes you choose cowers at the thought of dancing.
"Glad You Came" (2011)
Theme: Ibiza bender with the boys with decidedly less ecstasy—and even less dancing.
% Dancing: 0.7%
Execution: Despite the song’s dance-friendly Euroclub vibe, these dudes can’t even be bothered to do more than pump fists, lift cups, and grind up on girls—a weakness befitting the song’s embarrassingly suggestive lyrics and uber-limp chorus. At most Max George manages a single dice roll flick of the wrist equal to about one-eighth of a Harry Styles Hammer.
Band Cohesion: Though not spread evenly, everyone gets to lip-sync and creep on some ladies. As far fostering egalitarianism, it’s a weak attempt, ostensibly founded on the viewers' inability to distinguish between members in a realm other than their clothes. It’s the minimum needed to unite top dog Max George and bottom feeder/bed-head afficianado Jay McGuiness, but both end up as part of the same blob.
Intangibles: McGuiness going full Kewl Dad BBQ Chic in that Hawaiian shirt.
“The Hardest Thing” (1999)
Theme: A Vegas showgirl proves her love to her boxer boyfriend by showing up to fight night and overcoming 98°’s grotesque attempts at dancing.
% Dancing: 5%
Execution: 98° keep barely two moves in their arsenal: a display case hand wave, and a point to imaginary tears with an imaginary handgun. Terrible. Head bobbing, fist clutching, and excessive kneeling down to the cameras to score face-time doesn’t cut it.
Band Cohesion: Even without dancing, each Degree manages to stand out some in the group shots. Nick Lachey, Jeff Timmons, and Nick Lachey’s Turtleneck lead; Drew Lachey tags along with a shred of self-respect left after he doffed that backwards cap; and brochacho Justin Jeffre brings up the rear, looking horrifically awkward and a little too much like Creed drummer Scott Phillips for comfort. Leaving each member to their own devices does keep the ship afloat–till it inevitably collides with the iceberg that is Jeffre’s bleached goatee.
Intangibles: Who wore it better?
98°’s slow jam roots may not be totally conducive to choreography, but if you’re going to pull any moves at all, at least try.
“Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” (1998 U.S. release)
Theme: Backstreet’s tryna get back but their bus broke down (for the second time!) in front of a haunted house! During the night, possessed by El Espirito, each are sentenced to a hellish dream world where they’re doomed to live out eternity as specifically un-specific horror movie stock characters.
% Dancing: 43%
Execution: A good chunk of the moves in the solo shots are plain corny, most garish, Nick Carter’s mummified lurches; but Howie Dorough conjures some charismatic, vampiric rocks and twists, and AJ McLean makes the most of the mini-crew he grooves with in his Phantom of the Opera shots. The ballroom sequence offers spirited choreography, but the movements can look jerky and goofy, like the inevitable “Cha Cha Slide” at a wedding.
Band Cohesion: BSB may have been the most even-keel boy band of the 90s. Howie and Kevin were obvious side guys, but alpha dog contenders AJ, Brian, and Nick don’t seem that far away as none had that super star oomph to push them into Timberlake-levels—or even Chasez-tiers. Brian never added serious pop pedigree to his pretty boy image, and while Nick seemed to assume the top spot sometimes, maybe he—plus The Shaq Conqueror and the rest of that wackadoo family—just got the most exposure. Watching the clip now, it looks like we might’ve all done goof'd and failed to hop on the AJ Express To Superstardom, which gives the chorus its quintessential cock-sure sneer and holds down the fort with assured moves.
Intangibles: Shoutout to Nick Carter’s Hardy Nickerson jersey. Go, Bucs.
Solid dancers all around, BSB usually threw something into the mix, even a AAA mid-tempo ballad like "As Long As You Love Me." They were an impressive group responsible for some monster bangers that still hold up, but without a member with that killer instinct, the BSB aura lacks something special.
BIG TIME RUSH
Theme: Snoop Dogg is hosting a super sweet 128th and needs the sickest group in civilization to take his unprecedented party to the “next level.” So out of everyone ever in the history of mankind, he gets Big Time Rush, the four chillest bros since the birth of music to headline his bash. The future is TRON-grade CGI (Sponsored by Red Bull).
% Dancing: 32%
Execution: Big Time Rush hails from the hyper-literal school of group dance, the kind taught in kinder-gyms across the country: A heavenward arm swoop to finger point while singing “I see that” or dropping down to the ground at “knock me down.” For flavor they add primitive forearm rolls, rudimentary hand shuffles, and their signature butter churns, all performed with over-exaggerated exertion that’s barely charming in junior high musical theater. Miserable. Hardly funny 15 views later.
Band Cohesion: BTR are so unremarkable they easily blend into each other, even with a pretty clear, but simple hierarchy, like what you’d find on—well, duh—a kid’s sitcom. Save for a few steps, none of these guys dance in their solo shots, just as a group; and as bogus as it is, it keeps your attention and Big Time Rush from falling apart.
Intangibles: Calvin Broadus can apparently travel through computer networks like a hologram or avatar, yet manifest in a physical form instantly without stress or concern. This ability seems to make him ageless, perhaps immortal. Plus, he can journey across the space-time continuum with enough power to effortlessly bring others safely through the event horizon. Snoop Dogg is beyond The Singularity. That 2Pac Coachella shit was only the beginning.
The absurd theme alone warrants a look, but BTR lack so much charisma they had to give Snoop two verses and a heavy visual presence to carry the video.
“It Happens Every Time” (2000)
Theme: Inception-level mindfucks in a Windows 98-washed world.
% Dancing: 63%
Execution: Though not throwing out the most inspired moves, Dream Street manage to get funky in that suburbanized hip-hop circa Y2K kinda way. With great attention to detail, the group remains solidly in sync during each messy shoulder shimmy, fierce head snap, or loose hip shakes; it’s all balanced with decent quick steps during the brief solo cuts, like Chris Trousdale’s Hulkish spin ‘n STOMP a minute in. Too bad their signature cross-armed jump punches look like something that starts a playground gangfight.
Band Cohesion: But damn do those big group dance sequences give the video a shot of luster. Sure it’s mostly variations on the same jelly-legged pop n glide, but all five nail it with competent coolness. Young Jesse McCartney and Greg Raposo (the tank-topped wonder) are front and center, but those passable dancing chops allow future frosted-tips aficionado Chris, rapscallion Matt Ballinger, and auxiliary bro and back-up muscle Frankie Galasso to shine.
Intangibles: The gross failure to depict innocent puppy love, offering instead creepy shots of tweens trolling for ass on the streets or in a field filled with pigeons and shit.
They may lack the raw steez to take home any sort of crown, but Dream Street’s output is still commendable and keeps the group from crumbling. It can be goofy as hell, but at least there’s heart.
“She Makes Me Wanna” (2011)
Theme: It’s The Wanted video on an immensely smaller budget, but with at least slightly more dancing.
% Dancing: 33%
Execution: JLS really only dance as a group, and those sequences are chopped up mercilessly—just one or two quick moves per shot before jumping to a different angle and side-step. This fractured style reveals a pretty pathetic attempt to manufacture choreographic continuity; and the cuts move so fast between one another it makes it impossible for anything to resonate. Looks like someone’s covering their asses for not knowing how to link successive steps.
Band Cohesion: Top billing is split between Country Club Vice-Treasurer Aston Merrygold, Marvin Humes, and unfortunately for everyone, guest whisperer Dev. But as unimpressive as those dance sequences are, they allot back-up members Oritsé Williams and JB Gill some crucial facetime while doing something at least slightly productive—even if it is just Free-Willying atop some rocks. Not even swaths of neon clothes can save JLS from their incredible blandness; at least they’re bland together.
Intangibles: What a dick move.
The sub-sub par moves give JLS some life, but Mr. Fusion ain’t around to turn their monotonous garbage into plutonium to get the flux capacitor… fluxing.
Next: Six more boy bands and awards!