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March 05, 2019

How Growing Up With The ’90s Boy Bands Influenced India’s Now-Adult Fangirls

Text by Megha Shah. Illustration by Sachin Bhatt

Since The Beatles, boy bands have, over the decades, been generating pop pandemonium internationally. Despite the generations that divide them, these groups have preserved a time-tested ‘formula’ of upbeat harmonies and romantic ballads accompanied by signature looks and dance moves. Verve chats with a group of now-adult fangirls as they recall their all-consuming tween-age crushes and how that affected their cultural worldviews and perceptions of romantic love

‘Mrs Nick Carter’. These were commonplace words found in curly handwriting in my classmates’ notebooks in the all-girls school I went to in South Mumbai in the late ’90s. As customary as the half-played games of noughts and crosses on the backs of jotters or the lunch-break trading of stickers. “I’ll give you a fuzzy for your hologram.”

I personally liked Boyzone better. They seemed sensitive, more profound somehow to my 10-year-old self, than the shinier Backstreet Boys with their party numbers and synchronised dance routines. Besides, I’d never felt the allure of a curtain haircut.

Some of us had returned from our first trip overseas, bringing back My Little Ponies, Tamagotchis, Polly Pockets and the Barbie bathtub that pumped out bubbles, in our suitcases. And somewhere around then, a severe and impassioned boy band fandom crept into our lives, hitting us and the other young girls of elite urban India squarely.

We spent hours in front of MTV, gazing at the perfectly sculpted, attentive and emotionally available young men who crooned to us and promised us the world. We traipsed to Rhythm House after school and gifted each other cassettes of their latest albums. We quizzed each other with questions about who we would rather marry — Kevin Richardson or Ronan Keating — at sleepovers. We knew the lyrics of every song, even the rap parts (most boy bands of the era had a ‘rapping’ member who injected grit as required). Every time somebody asked me to sing something in front of friends or relatives, I chose Words. “This world has lost its glory, let’s start a brand new story, now, my love….”

Ever since the world has known pop music, fan culture has existed. Since the ’60s, when The Beatles burst onto television screens in the West, teenage girls have been screaming themselves hoarse over boy bands. The teen-idol baton has been passed on through the decades most recently to One Direction followed by Korean pop (or K-pop, if you’re pressed for time) bands like BTS — who are enjoying a moment internationally. But the modern blueprint of boy bands — a collection of young males of assorted vocal timbres and hairstyles whose harmonised voices and impressive cheekbones inspire crushes among girls — was invented in the ’90s. And this model has produced so many: Backstreet Boys, Boyzone, *NSync, Westlife, 5ive and more. In fact, the controversial factory system used to create the K-pop bands has been based on the perfected techniques of Lou Pearlman, the savvy but problematic band manager (turns out his talents included embezzlement and conning) who put together the original MTV-era groups, the Backstreet Boys and *NSync.

In India, the ’90s was also the first decade when Western fads properly invaded the culture and became the mainstream for the country’s urban, English-speaking population. For teenagers, the devotion was real, widespread and unrelenting. You had a crush on a boy band member as surely as you danced the Macarena or thought that a burger and coke at McDonald’s was the coolest meal you’d had. Which member you preferred was the only matter you differed on.

The architect of the K-pop system, Lee Soo-man, has called the process of manufacturing pop groups ‘cultural technology’, believing it to be ‘more exquisite’ than information technology, because it has the ability to touch the heart. And for those girls growing up in the ’90s and exposed to international TV, the phenomenon was one of the first emotional experiences they underwent and is significant in shaping their ideas of love, sexuality and self.

***

Why don’t you be my girlfriend?
I’ll treat you good
I know you hear your friends when they say you should ’Cause if you were my girlfriend
I’d be your shining star
The one to show you where you are
Girl you should be my girlfriend

“I fell in love with boy bands in the fifth or sixth standard,” says Aditi Mahtani, a 34-year-old Pune-based lawyer. “Boyzone, *NSync and Westlife. I listened to them on my Walkman, put their posters up in my room which I had bought from Archies and watched their music videos on TV whenever I was allowed. They were so dreamy with their blonde hair and blue eyes,” she laughs animatedly.

“When I got to standard eight I began tuition classes with students from other schools. I went to a girls’ school and had a younger sister, so it was the first time I had ‘boy friends’. I remember it hitting me then that boys around me didn’t look like that,” she exclaims. “It’s not as though I had no idea what Indian boys looked like, I wasn’t crazy, but I had spent so much time dreaming about white boys, and that was discordant with the reality.”

Most of the women I spoke to attribute a portion of their fascination to the boyish good looks of the band members and a good old case of ‘xenomania’. The country had opened up its economy to foreign investment in the ’90s, bringing American and European pop culture — the ‘cooler’ alternative — to our living rooms. And suddenly there was a large portion of privileged urban Indians growing up entirely on Western entertainment, believing the culture it represented to be their own. “Their singing talent was definitely not part of the appeal, says Shara Batliboi Siddharth, a 31-year-old marketing manager. “Well, it wasn’t something I was judging anyway. More to do with the haircuts, eye colour, and a fascination with firang boys.”

And surely, Nick Carter’s bowl cut and AJ McLean’s super gelled spikes slowly became popular haircuts for Indian boys of the generation. They couldn’t acquire the coloured eyes and porcelain skin, so they adopted the white sleeveless vests, baseball caps and baggy pants instead. In fact in the early 2000s India saw its very own version of the global fad, unimaginatively titled A Band Of Boys, who belted out catchy songs about love, danced enthusiastically and demonstrated the same brooding arms-crossed poses while dressed in all-white ensembles, much like the Backstreet Boys.

“Boy band members had become the reference point for what teenage girls wanted their boyfriends to look like. In my head, Ronan Keating was my boyfriend,” says Mahtani. “And to be honest, he’s still the best one I’ve ever had.”

***

I’m never gonna treat you bad
‘Cause I never want to see you sad
I swore to share your joy and your pain
And I swear it all over again

In the ’80s and ’90s there weren’t too many mainstream examples of positive masculinity among Indian male celebrities for the newly Westernised generation of tweens, who had the unique advantage of accessing other options. A vast majority of Sunny Deol’s famous dialogues were about being a mard and the qualities that make a good one. Although known as the era when the more boyish and charming Shah Rukh Khan movies hit the theatres, girls still had to make do with characters like Rahul from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) who believed that girls can’t play basketball, sulked when he lost to a girl and only fell in love with women who sported long hair and saris.

But the ’90s boy bands weren’t afraid to be emotional, sing about holding hands and dance while wearing a pair of glittery dungarees. They were grown men who cried and embraced and exposed their vulnerabilities while always keeping the focus on their fans. They looked directly into the camera and spoke to many a willing heart. They were engineered to sing and look like good boys that Mom would approve of, but also had pierced ears and sometimes took their shirts off. In fact most of them were well into their twenties (by the turn of the millennium Richardson was 30 years old), sported muscles and some even had beards. Yet they skated through with the tag of ‘boy’ bands, an irony that was entirely lost on my 10- and 11-year-old classmates.

“Boys my age were too immature and there were no attractive idols on TV,” says 28-year-old Aalia Mansukhani, a PR professional. “But I felt ready, even at that young age, to have a meaningful relationship. I felt safe with a boy band, they were never going to break my heart.”

***

Am I original?
Yeah
Am I the only one?
Yeah
Am I sexual?
Yeah
Am I everything you need?
You better rock your body now

“I remember when Boyzone came to India to perform (in 1997). They decided to go to Bengaluru (then Bangalore) because the Shiv Sena government had banned them from performing in Mumbai. All my friends travelled there for the concert but I couldn’t because I was in the school play and my principal didn’t allow me. I was heartbroken,” says Riddhi Shah, a 36-year-old media professional now based in San Francisco. “Along with my friend (who also couldn’t go) I watched all the news coverage from Mumbai and we wept our eyes out. They came to Mumbai for a private performance later. However, we weren’t allowed in because we weren’t 18.”

Almost every fangirl-and-pop star relationship that I encountered while researching for this article appears to have had the power to affect the individual in a real way. Was the infatuation, then, in any sense, like falling in love? “I think in some sense it was,” says Batliboi Siddharth. “Young girls in their friend circles picked one band member each and considered them as their dream boyfriends. Two best friends can’t like the same band member. Because ‘Nick is mine and AJ is yours’.”

But Shah attributes much of her attraction to groupthink. “Boyzone kinda spread like a virus in our ninth standard class. I’m not sure how it started but one person liked them and then suddenly everyone loved them.” This makes her question the genuineness of her own feelings.

“Around the same time, I also became obsessed with Ajay Jadeja, the Indian cricketer. I think that was actually more real. I was into cricket for a couple of years and loved this persona of a funny, witty cricketer. My friends thought he wasn’t good-looking, but I held onto the crush. It was sort of a thing I did on my own versus following my friends. I think I’ve always been attracted to the funny ones and I wonder if Jadeja set the tone for that.”

***

Show me the meaning of being lonely
Is this the feeling I need to walk with?
Tell me why I can’t be there where you are
There’s something missing in my heart

Rarely does a girl hold onto this all-consuming obsession beyond her tween years; she inevitably grows out of it. That shelf life might be further shortened by the disdain that prototypical pop stars attract from music snobs. If you’re not a part of the demographic boy bands target, it’s plausible you believe them to be cheesy and their fans hopelessly unsophisticated — who else would fall head over heels in love with pretty lads who just repeat the same chorus 10 times over?

Keith Duffy of Boyzone in an interview illustrated his own son making this point to him when he told him to park away from the school because “Dad, you weren’t in U2”. It’s possible though, if you dig deeper, to see that the music is not critiqued as much as the groups’ target audience is; music that has a mass pop appeal, and mainly female listeners, is automatically considered ‘bubblegum,’ or ‘juvenile.’

While Shah looks back at her infatuation as “definitely embarrassing”, for others like Mansukhani, the derision is offensive. “There are plenty of obsessions that manifest typically among boys, such as football or gaming, which are considered cool or a part of ‘boys being boys’. When their emotional state is dependent on their favourite team winning a match or when they scream and emote at a match it’s considered acceptable, but when girls display similar behaviour at a concert, it’s considered silly and frivolous. Isn’t that a double standard?”

And for many women now in their thirties, like Batliboi, it’s a time they look back at fondly. In fact, last year when Boyzone’s Duffy and Westlife’s Brian McFadden performed live as a part of their Boyzlife tour in Mumbai and Bengaluru, much of the audience of the sold-out concerts consisted of women between the ages of 30 and 50. “I’d go back and do the same thing over again if I had the choice. And I would probably be nostalgic if I ever had a daughter go through a similar phase in the future. I think boy bands are still great, but today I judge them on their music and not on their looks,” she says. “On another note, the Backstreet Boys have a new song that has entered the charts right now and it’s pretty cool!”

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