British boy band One Direction, five strapping lads who met as contestants on the U.K. version of The X Factor, have captured the hearts and ears of pop listeners since that fateful talent contest aired in 2010. In late March their album Up All Night debuted at No.1 — a first for a British band — and their success, along with the success of compatriots like Big Time Rush, has prompted a wave of commentary about the return of the boy band.
There’s just one thing missing from a genuine boy band moment: girls.
Not fans — the One Direction guys have no shortage of wannabe girlfriends — but colleagues. The 20th century saw two great waves of male vocal pop music (one beginning with doo-wop in the 1950s and one centered around the 1990s) and female pop vocal groups were an important component of both historical moments. In uncomplicated music’s surprisingly complicated history — racial politics! demographic changes! global business! — certain factors in the cultural environment primed listeners for lyrical bubble gum from both sexes. And, judging from those factors, One Direction’s success means America is due for a girl group.
After all, listening technology from Spotify to iTunes is kind to pop. “Sometimes I call this the third age of Top 40. The first age was the Top-40 radio and the second age was MTV videos; this age is the era of the mp3. All three of these moments are more about the single than the album,” says Eric Weisbard, editor of Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music. “Other times there’s more of an emphasis on music that’s connective to a particular scene, genre or authentic approach.”
And singles, available online to worldwide audiences, mean pop can be truly popular. Warwick, who teaches a class at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia about the history of rock music, says that even six or seven years ago she would never have been able to name a single song that every student in a lecture all would know. Today it’s easy. (It’s “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele, for the record. No pun intended.) “We’re back, I think, in the sense of having a mainstream,” she says.
One Direction’s success is proof that there are people out there who want to listen to that mainstream music. A lot of people. And they are probably teenage girls. And those teenage girls probably want to listen to girls singing. “There have been people in the music industry who have made the claim that girl listeners, who are the primary audience for both, are more interested in hearing boys sing to them,” says Weisbard. “The counterclaim, which is that girls also can identify with what girl groups are singing about, has been powerful.”
The place of teenagers in society is also an important factor. Warwick notes that teen pop — music not just appealing to teenagers but inherently about the experience of being a teenager — experienced its bumps in popularity just when the baby boomers and then their children were adolescents. Although demographics don’t point as obviously to a pop music moment in the near future, she says that we’re seeing “a renewal of interest in teen culture,” whether it’s Bieber Fever or adults reading The Hunger Games. “It’s not surprising that a male harmony group would catch people’s ears at this moment,” she says. “So it would be wonderful to think that female groups would follow on.”
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If North American pop charts are destined for the Shirelles to One Direction’s Drifters, the Destiny’s Child to their Backstreet Boys — who will it be?
They will probably be British. England has a storied history of producing pop groups, and British audiences continue to care more than North American audiences about singles charts and talent contents. Yes, there are hugely successful K-Pop and J-Pop groups — including the fantastic Girls’ Generation, a nonet whose song “Oh!” will make you forget you don’t speak Korean — but Weisbard says that English-speaking countries still generally limit their pop idols to English-language singers.
They will probably be a trio. Warwick points out that three is the optimal number of women for a vocal group. Four or five men can each sing a different vocal part, from falsetto to bass, but the smaller female vocal range means that five women risk muddling their harmonies.
They will probably make an effort to look or sound unique, but that will probably be on purpose. Part of having a pop-music moment is openness to manufactured groups…like One Direction. But managers have very different ideas about how to put together boy bands versus girl groups. “The Spice Girls were sort of packaged as being a little bit about diversity and somehow the boy bands, like the One Directions, I’m not convinced they are,” says Weisbard. “It seems to me boy bands are about a very particular paradigm that gets repeated over and over.”
With that in mind, TIME predicts the next big girl group: Stooshe.
They’re British! There’s three of them! They’ve got a crazy look and diverse backgrounds but they were recruited for membership! Stooshe was nominated for the BBC’s “Sound of 2012” list, and we bet it won’t be long before the one direction their sound moves is west, to American airwaves.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rcxnwv7yaQk]