It is September 2, 2017. Four bright-eyed boys have walked into an X Factor audition to the legendary swagger of Will Smith’s “Gettin Jiggy With It” and, before they even have a chance to introduce themselves, something comes over the audience watching a live feed of their moment on the big screen next door. One woman nudges another and says, “look.” There is a gasp. Another woman says, with a tone of near-disbelief, “he’s so cute!” The group proceed to croon through a perfectly pleasant cover of “Señorita” and everything seems to be going alright. Then the camera pans to Simon Cowell, who is covering his face with his hands as though he wants to peel his own skin off like a sheet mask. “It’s not working for me,” he spits, “can I hear a different song?” Sombre faces and awkward eye contact ensue (shout out X Factor’s post-production). Then, the group launch into an original banger that sounds like it could’ve been a UKG crossover classic and the whole place goes off like “Agadoo” at a wedding. Everyone is up on their feet clapping; Dermot O’Leary is singing with his eyes closed; Simon is smiling that evil, knowing little smile that he does when he senses a lucrative opportunity. Rak-Su is born.
Four ordinary childhood friends from Watford, Rak-Su (whose name apparently comes from the phrase “tracks vs suits” AKA “music and fun vs adult life”) smashed through this year’s X Factor week by week to become the first act to win the competition pretty much exclusively off the back of original material. With a sound indebted to reggaeton, R&B and garage, Rak-Su are the first X Factor winner in years who stand a chance of being Actually Good. Or, at the very least, not destined to fade into an inglorious haze of sponsored Instagram posts, bitter tweets and appearances on next year’s X Factor.
Their first single “Dimelo” entered the charts at number two (it would’ve hit number one, had Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran not released “Perfect” the same week) and their mentor, Simon Cowell, believes they could match the success of One Direction, because of course he does. Between them they have all bases covered: they have the serious rapper (Ashley), the cheeky rapper (Myles), the really fucking good singer (Jamaal) and the beatboxer who can breakdance (Mustafa). They can also bust out some cute synchronized moves during a chorus. Refreshing vibe and charm aside, though, the reason Rak-Su have done so well is because we are long overdue a boy band revival.
Over the last few years boy bands like SMAP, Arashi, Big Bang, SHINee, EXO, and Kanaji Eight have dominated in Southeast Asia, South Korea, and Japan, with idol groups ever increasing in popularity and Arashi having Japan’s best-selling album for the last two years. Elsewhere, Latin American boy band CNCO have been touring with Ariana Grande and cleaning up at Latin Music Awards ceremonies all year. Also, Australia’s 5 Seconds Of Summer and British pop rock sweeties The Vamps have both had successful careers fusing the respective dynamics of Blink-182 and Backstreet Boys to greater international acclaim than Busted and McFly ever managed.
But the last successful boy band on a global scale was obviously One Direction. Besides them, western boy bands have yet to rise from the ashes of the late 90s/early 00s bubblegum pop boom. At least, not in any cool or lasting sense. Perhaps the dominating success of One Direction inherently overshadowed any similar efforts. Perhaps it’s more difficult to market boy bands as cool. But there has been a fairly consistent turnover of girl groups over the last few decades—currently cresting with Little Mix and Fifth Harmony—and the same just can’t be said for boy bands. Now, things are starting to change.
While Rak-Su reflect a potential shift in evolution from the generic mid-10s dance pop led by JLS and The Wanted in the UK, the other side of the Atlantic is primed for the impending explosion of PRETTYMUCH (as in, pretty much another boyband)—American-Canadian group comprised of five 18 to 20-year-olds who look, sound and move like NSYNC, updated for the Supreme drop generation. Though they couldn’t be more stylistically different, Rak-Su and PRETTYMUCH both signal the coming of a new dawn of boy bands—one by and for a generation who grew up on social justice hashtags and makeup tutorials, not one that involves the remnants of Blue dusting off their blazers to glowing reviews in the Bournemouth Echo.
Like all the best arranged pop marriages, the members of PRETTYMUCH were all pursuing solo careers before Simon Cowell (who else) merged them into a group. On March 18, 2016 they were thrown together in a house in Los Angeles, where—according to Variety—they have been living, “recording their debut album and perfecting their dance moves”. Made up of Austin Porter, Nick Mara, Edwin Honoret, Brandon Arreaga and Zion Kuwonu, PRETTYMUCH quietly toiled away, polishing their sound and refining their look before their name even landed on anybody’s tongue. It is a meticulously planned, carefully meditated #arrival—and you can tell.
Released in July, their debut single “Would You Mind” serves New Edition-style swingbeat verses with a powerful No Strings Attached-era pop chorus. The video opens not unlike the credits for a reality TV series, introducing you to each respective member as they stare down the camera and gesticulate in ways that subtly identify which “one” they are. A montage of iPhone and Handycam footage features them hanging out on rooftops and surrounded by towering palm trees over the sound of skateboard wheels grinding on pavements. Talking heads footage outlines their mission statement: “First and foremost, it’s a brotherhood, then we just make music on top of that”; “Being in the group is honestly one of the sickest things ever”; “It’s a good vibe to be in this band”; “We are a family at this point.” It’s like an advert for a reboot of The Real World starring a bunch of kids influenced by both One Direction and Odd Future. Directed by Emil Nava, the video is pointedly influenced by boy band videos of the late 90s and early 00s—specifically Backstreet Boys’ “We’ve Got It Goin’ On” and NSYNC’s “I Want You Back.” "I think a big part of me wanting to throw back to those eras [was that] they were such seminal moments, those Backstreet Boys and NSYNC videos," Nava told MTV, "almost referencing those old Beastie Boys videos, where it just feels so raucous and free."
PRETTYMUCH slot so perfectly into the current climate it feels wild that they didn’t come along sooner. Like Rak-Su, their dynamic is built upon the holy trinity of boy band components. They a) conform to current fashion and musical trends, b) each fall into a specific personality archetype, and c) manage to make choreographed dancing look cool and not like the “We Speak No Americano” scene from The Inbetweeners Movie. Unlike Rak-Su, these kids have already been groomed for fame. Edwin (the bad boy) started out as a YouTuber; Zion (the baby face) went viral covering Chance The Rapper’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses” on Vine; Nick (the “meet the parents” one) was on season six of America’s Best Dance Crew, Brandon (the goofball) had a career acting in adverts and was cast on reality show Majors & Minors aimed at getting eight to 16-year-olds a partnership with RCA; and Austin (the new zany indie archetype literally invented by Harry Styles) looks like he should have “pro-skater / represented by IMG models” in his Instagram bio.
Their favourite song to harmonize to is “If I Ever Fall In Love” by Shai, and they all have the date they moved in together tattooed in Roman numerals. It’s 90s nostalgia evolved to such a degree that it doesn’t even feel like a throwback anymore, styled ready to be shot for the cover of Wonderland. Above all else, it’s uplifting—firmly eschewing ballad territory like Five with better jeans. “We wanted to surprise people by bringing back an era of music that’s easy to dance to and all about fun!” Brandon told i-D earlier this month, in an effort to differentiate from the group from One Direction.
Realistically, there’s nothing new going on here. We’re not seeing anything we haven’t seen before with One Direction or Pussycat Dolls or Spice Girls. Although they’ve both put in groundwork behind the scenes, Rak-Su and PRETTYMUCH have been plucked out of the ether by the Simon Cowell because they represent fusion sounds that are currently doing well (reggaeton and garage in the UK, alt R&B and pop in the US) packaged for a global market of teenage girls. Interestingly, however, both groups are being sold as “feel-good” with a capital F.
“Positivity is something that’s so scarce. Everything plastered around the news media at the moment is negative. There’s not enough shine. I feel really glad to be part of a process willing to promote positivity,” Rak-Su member Jamaal Shurland told Evening Standard after their win. The same piece describes the group as an “antidote to negativity”, and the soundbites and creative influences that fed PRETTYMUCH’s “Would You Mind” video construct a similar narrative. If you want to be a cynical YouTube conspiracy theorist about it, it’s calculated move by Syco to plug a 1D-sized gap in the market while capitalising on the low mood of the populous at large by releasing high octane party music.
Of course, pop is meant to be escapist. Its main function is to sweep you up out of your thoughts on a cloud of alchemized harmonies, not smack you with a hard dose of realism. But everything about Rak-Su and PRETTYMUCH feels designed to be the 90s boy bands of now. Unparalleled force that they were, One Direction repped for a very bland era. They spent most of their time walking around the British countryside in formation wearing Topman T-shirts and singing whatever style of song was destined to do well that quarter, and that was fine—then. Both Rak-Su and PRETTYMUCH have sprung from a generation that has long been without a boy band to reflect its definitive characteristics, its particularities. You wouldn’t have Rak-Su without the second coming of grime elbowing room for diasporic sounds in the UK charts, and you wouldn’t have PRETTYMUCH without, well, Justin Bieber’s Purpose. So, if Rak-Su and PRETTYMUCH are going to represent Gen Z, it's worth asking: to what extent?
Gen Z are the ones who seem to be growing up Really Woke About Shit—Lorde in music, Rowan Blanchard and Amandla Stenberg in film—and so it seems logical that their pop stars should follow. “Feel good” doesn’t automatically equate to “depoliticized,” and boy bands now have an added responsibility to reflect the culture in which their fanbase is growing up. Are this lot going to do enough to hold up the young women who will inevitably line their pockets? Will they push back against the way boy bands have functioned since the 70s, or are they just another bunch of of good-looking lads who will make winking references to sex and cuddling to a largely underage audience for loads of money?
Rak-Su were quizzed about the #MeToo movement during that Evening Standard interview after emerging from “the X Factor bubble.” In response, they confirmed that “we are against sexual harassment and sexual assault” and “change is exciting, and highlighting that change is good.” Which sounds good but is also straight out of the Harry Styles manual of ‘vague comments about social progression’. As for PRETTYMUCH, "Would You Mind" could be read as an attempt to codify consent (“If I pulled you closer, would you mind?"). Equally, it could be read as ‘hehehe if I touch your butt that's OK right?' which doesn't teach girls that you can say 'nah, I'm alright, actually'. They haven’t spoken about it directly, but in a TRL interview they did claim that their second single “Teacher” is about “women empowerment, 100 percent!” “The way I hear it in my head is, you’ve got this girl and you’ve kind of lost touch with your game. You don’t know how to spit game no more, but she’s teaching you how she spits game. So you get macked, basically,” says Austin. ”Nowadays, a lot of girls be wearing the pants in the relationship, so they be teaching the man sometimes,” Zion adds.
Fair enough, to be honest. That’s probably as many feathers as any group of boys in their late teens / early 20s signed to Syco are going to get away with before releasing their debut album. Plus it's unfair to expect anyone to step out of puberty and immediately into a role in which they're totally clued up and vocal about equality. But it's worth noting that both Rak-Su and PRETTYMUCH are in the infancy of their careers and these issues are already coming up in interviews. Not even Harry Styles, one of the biggest pop stars in the world, is immune to criticism from his fans for failing to speak where he should. Any pop artists hoping to line this generation's bedroom walls are going to need to live up to its standards—which, as of now, includes being Woke™.
It's early days yet, but all the pins are in place to knock down. It’s been a smooth two decades since boy bands occupied the Billboard charts without releasing a succession of ballads or flogging a reunion horse in the process. If Rak-Su and PRETTYMUCH mean this generation are about to get their dose of dance routines and heavily merchandised pop via the age-old combination of streetwear and boyish charm, then let the feel-good fun begin. Respectfully, of course.
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