Despite the fact that they will live on in immortal veneration in the hearts of young girls everywhere, it is a universal truth that the quintessential boy band has an expiration date as real and as vindictive as the black printed letters on the side of a milk carton. It’s that point where dreamy starts to turn to steamy—where pubescent glow begins to fade gradually beneath a five o’ clock shadow. In other words, it’s that poignant moment in a boy band’s lifespan where mothers start becoming increasingly concerned that their teenage daughters are lusting after a group of young adult males, minus the “young.”
Whether they go on to successful solo music careers, family life, or the dregs of reality television, it happens to the best of them—to *NSYNC, to Backstreet Boys, to Hanson, to Blink-182. I’m showing my age here a bit, aren’t I? Regardless, it continues to happen to the beloved boy bands of contemporary teens. The Jonas Brothers called it quits and went their separate ways, and now One Direction (still bleeding from the devastating loss of Zayn) may have seen the last of its perfectly disheveled front man, Harry Styles. Like the lost boys of boy bands past before him, Styles has followed the expected path from group to solo artist. Also like his former boy band buddies, Styles has used the departure from choreographed dances and sappy teenage love songs to reinvent himself as somewhat more adult.
It’s a common tactic to change one’s image when transitioning from a part of a Disney-approved whole to an individual. The sudden shift from doe-eyed to sex kitten is something we’ve become all too familiar with as it pertains to female stars breaking out of the wholesome confines of teen stardom. Similarly, when the boy leaves the band, he is often injected with a healthy dose of innuendo that takes him from boy to man in 10 seconds flat.
Not sure what I mean? Just take a look at some of the images of solo Styles that accompany his eponymous debut solo album, Harry Styles. Believe me, they look more like Mick Jagger in the throes of a wild afterparty than something you might see on a teenage girl’s bedroom wall. In Styles’ case, the transition is doubly effective as it impacts not just his look, but his sound as well, which obviously (like, too obviously) references that breed of sexualized, androgynous rock and roll icon à la David Bowie, Iggy Pop, or Mick Jagger.
In a way it’s an incredibly clever move from a public relations standpoint. At the later stage of a boy band’s lifespan, a decent proportion of fans are growing up alongside the members, losing interest in heartfelt gushy songs about unrequited love and looking for something a little rawer, more authentic, more adult. Leaving behind the fresh-faced boy band look in favor of something more current and appropriately sexualized ensures that not all the salivating, screaming fans get left behind to nurse their broken hearts. Rather, some of them are invited to continue their teenage fantasies at the adults table.