CBC Music wanted to get a better understanding of the rise and fall of Canadian boy bands. Over the course of a few months, Holly Gordon, Melody Lau and Andrea Warner interviewed some of the members of the biggest acts from the ’90s and ’00s, the executives and marketing professionals who tried to replicate a quintessentially American success story here at home, as well as pop culture experts to help analyze this surreal but special moment in Canadian music history.
No matter how hard Canada tries, there’s one thing it can’t get quite right: boy bands.
But boy, have we tried.
The fever pitch of Canadian boy band success and market saturation came in 2000, one year after Backstreet Boys (BSB) hit their pinnacle in the United States. But the race had been on for a few years. BSB and NSYNC were circling each other in America — both bands emerged out of Florida, specifically, in the mid-’90s — and as fans began to swoon and swarm around the world, the Canadian music industry wanted its own piece of the boy band billions.
Teenage family band the Moffats left country music for pop and made their major label debut in 1998 (Chapter 1: A New Beginning), Montreal’s Sky released its major label debut in 1999 (Piece of Paradise), and SoulDecision, B4-4 and McMaster & James arrived with their major label debuts in 2000 (No One Does It Better, B4-4 and McMaster & James, respectively). Also active during this time: Wave, Voices in Public, 3Deep, Identically Different and Distinct Nature.
There was a lot of dyed hair, some unfortunate soul patches, a bit of choreography, a few coordinated outfits, and pop melodies for days, but mostly what made a boy band a “boy band” was its targeted fanbase: teenage girls. And while audiences showed up in the thousands across Canada to support these acts — even helping their songs dominate the year-end charts in 2000 — none of the Canadian bands would make it out of the decade intact. Most barely made it to 2005, and arguably, we haven’t had a boy band since. Meanwhile, in America, BSB are still together, and in the two decades since the height of their popularity, the States also gave the world the Jonas Brothers, adopted England’s One Direction and finally welcomed South Korean boy bands BTS and Super M with open arms.
So, what is it about Canada that makes us unable to keep a successful boy band industry afloat?
Maria Sherman, boy band expert and author of Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands From NKOTB to BTS, has some thoughts.
“In doing some of my research, I was really kind of fascinated to learn that a lot of these Canadian groups were either brothers or they created themselves. They were friends who got together and started making music, which is also really unusual in the boy band story,” Sherman said in an interview with CBC Music. “When you look at the ones that go on to sell bajillions of records, they typically are created by some industry Svengali who has orchestrated and strategized every single step of their development. So they’ve created a product in order to sell, and that’s how they explode beyond anyone’s imagination.”
There are also strata within the boy band genre, Sherman explained. With the success of BSB and NSYNC, there were other American attempts to capitalize on the boy band trend. O-Town, 98 Degrees, LFO and the like wanted to be phenomena like BSB and NSYNC but had to settle for second tier.
“The marketplace gets oversaturated because everybody’s like, ‘Oh, boy bands are doing well and everyone’s a boy band now,’” Sherman said. “And it’s unfortunate because I feel like there were a lot of boy bands that didn’t get their shine internationally.”
Without an international platform, or at least an American co-sign, Canadian boy bands couldn’t break out. Carla Palmer, who’s now a director at CBC Music, knows boy bands. She worked as the West Coast promotional representative for EMI, and accompanied both the Moffatts and Sky on their promo tours of Western Canada. Palmer was also the marketing manager for the first and second BSB western Canadian tours, as well as NSYNC and Spice Girls, while working for MCA Concerts (now Live Nation).
“We had some good names that did well in Canada, but did they cross over into America?” Palmer asked. “And did they leave the territory? So, was their success due to Canadian content, or was their success due to the fact that they were a strong band?”
In most cases, it was all about the marketing.
The Moffatts: then and now
Clint and Bob Moffatt say they never considered the Moffatts a boy band, but they stop mid-denial. “I guess we are a boy band,” said Clint on a Zoom call, looking over at his identical twin, Bob, sitting next to him in his Nashville home. “I think we were boys in a band, you know?”
The power of marketing
The key to being a successful Canadian boy band in the 1990s was authenticity coupled with malleability. Whether they wanted to be known as a boy band or not — and most often, the case was not — bands needed to toe the line between boy band and whatever band they identified with, crafting a we-want-to-root-for-you story and image that would attract as many fans as possible, while hopefully alienating no one.
Beth Waldman led EMI’s publicity efforts for Sky when the band first formed, and later worked with SoulDecision and the Spice Girls. She said for Sky it was about playing every market possible, whether that meant fighting for a piece of the American boy band pie or embracing the DIY musician side. James Renald and Antoine Sicotte were two best friends and musicians from Montreal who formed a band, and their bilingualism, coupled with their penchant for Quebec fashion — and the star status of Antoine’s father, Quebec actor Gilbert Sicotte — quickly cemented their hometown star status. Waldman said EMI positioned Sky “as stars from the get-go,” with a sound and slick pop look that appealed to teenage girls as well as their moms, charting on Top 40 radio and adult contemporary channels simultaneously. But Sky wanted their fans to know they played their own music.
“Part of what we did to sort of set the tone quite early was … we took them across Canada with a full band, huge upfront dollar investment, but we had a full band,” Waldman said. “And just to show that these guys are talented musicians. And that helped really gain respect. So we sort of played both sides of the coin.”
It’s the story behind most of Canada’s boy bands: they never intended to call themselves boy bands. (With the exception of B4-4, whose members were transparent about wanting to perform hits, no matter who wrote or performed them.) It was a sub-genre that labels used to find an audience, and it was lucrative. McMaster & James and SoulDecision would go on to open for thousands of people while on tour with NSYNC, while SoulDecision and Sky would both go on to play for some of their biggest crowds while opening for Christina Aguilera. The Moffatts were the Canadian openers for Britney Spears’ ….Baby One More Time tour. As Waldman pointed out, all of these Canadian groups opening for pop divas was “great placement.”
“We were playing shows to, I would say, 19-, 20-, 21-, 22-year-olds, but when we were opening for Christina Aguilera and NSYNC, it was a much younger crowd and that, to me, was where those guys [boy bands] would be marketed towards that crowd,” SoulDecision’s Trevor Guthrie said. “So for us, I was thinking, well, we’re not being taken as a boy band. We’re getting an older crowd. We played clubs. But at the end of the day, that’s how we were perceived.”
In the end, it was all about reaching every fan possible. “[For Sky], it was really, you know, shaking people’s hands across the country, but with a band and doing live performances, it wasn’t lip syncing ever with them, right?” Waldman said. “So I think with them, it was really about differentiating them from a lot of the other boy bands and really not calling them a boy band [laughs]. Which, when you look back at it, maybe it’s a grey area. But I think it worked.”
Sky: then and now
Montreal duo Sky would go through three lead singers before breaking up for good in 2005, but it humbly began as a project between Antoine Sicotte and James Renald, two budding best friends who hit it off in music school in the early ’90s.
“We had a lot of control,” said Sicotte, of the band’s relationship with EMI. “I think that the vision was not exactly the same in the sense of what we saw in us and what they saw in us…. But because we had a lot of creative control, we were, I think, able to find a good middle-of-the-road path.”
“Back in the boy band days, I appreciated it,” said McMaster & James’ Luke McMaster, of opening for BMG labelmates NSYNC. “I was grateful about the opportunity. But I don’t think I fully understood that machine that drives the whole thing. The amount of money that was being spent on, say, a video like ‘Love Wins Every Time.’ I mean, to spend $145,000 on one video with a helicopter in it these days, you can make three, four or five albums!”
In the case of the Moffatts, the only literal boy band on the list, the brothers were game to go all the way, and EMI was there to support them. Their story was already solidly wholesome: triplets and an older brother, touring as a family band. By the time they signed to EMI, they’d already been playing as a band in Canada and then the States for years, having transitioned from country to pop, and edging on rock.
“Deane Cameron, may he rest in peace, was the president of EMI,” said Waldman. “He was a musician. He was Tom Cochrane’s drummer. The way he ran EMI was, ‘We are going to break Canadian talent.’” The plan was to sign a band that already had talent and charisma, not to manufacture it in order to sell records. (Universal, on the other hand, “had a TV show where we searched out a band and put them together,” remembers Waldman. Called Popstars, the global franchise was the precursor to American Idol, which Universal would also later be involved with.)
The EMI approach worked perfectly for the Moffatts. As teenagers, they were chameleons who were able to embrace the boy band aesthetic while exploring other sides of themselves. Brothers Bob and Clint remembered EMI Canada being “so on board” with what the siblings wanted to do that they usually felt in charge of their future. Add that to their opportunity-focused father, considered an unofficial fifth member of their band, and the Moffatts couldn’t lose.
“The Moffatts were great with the kids,” remembered Palmer. “Their parents made them go to a kids’ hospital every single time they were [on tour] and I was ... really impressed with the empathy and the ease that these young boys had in talking to these people. Kids, mainly girls. I thought that was really a good way to give back.”
Friendship. Family. Accessibility. Record labels that wanted to invest. It seemed like Canada’s boy bands, intentional or not, had everything going for them. But as Sherman pointed out in her book Larger Than Life, the term came with a ceiling.
“The fact that they’re called boy bands, it makes it seem like they can’t grow up.”
B4-4: then and now
Of all the boy bands in Canada, B4-4 was the closest approximation to the stars south of the border. Although the trio, comprising twin brothers Ryan and Dan Kowarsky and friend Ohad Einbinder, was not manufactured by a record label, they did approach the music with a boy band mindset.
‘Boy band’ is a dirty word
Sherman struggled to find the etymology of the term “boy band” when writing her book. “Maybe it’s because it is a dirty word and people didn’t want to claim ownership to it,” she pondered. But Sherman ultimately landed on a quote from BSB and NSYNC impresario Lou Pearlman that points to its potential origins in 1980s Germany. “Years ago, the groups that were over there were actually bands playing music,” Pearlman once told author Frederick Levy for The Ultimate Boy Band Book.
“Though they might have boys in them, they were bands because they played music,” he continued. “A group that would dance and sing was determined to be quoted a ‘boy band.’ It started back to the times of New Kids on the Block, and it also dates back to Take That. Once they had those bands, because they didn’t play instruments per se, they called them boy bands, like boy toys. So they’re referring to a combination of boy toy, and they’re a band, so they made it boy band.”
“By combining those terms, you’re sort of taking away any street cred of a rock band and you’re softening it,” Sherman noted. The term comes off more juvenile, boyish and approachable to the masses. Critics over the years were integral in sanding down U.S. boy bands and their merits — real talent, skilled choreography and accessible melodies — transforming strengths into stereotypes to scoff at or mock. Songwriting credits are also often challenged if not entirely overlooked, but some boy bands have penned their own music, especially Canadian acts like SoulDecision, McMaster & James and the Moffatts.
“It wasn’t bad, but it was tough trying to be taken seriously after that,” SoulDecision’s Guthrie admitted, referring to how the boy band label affected his band’s validity.
McMaster & James’ Rob James echoed that sentiment, acknowledging the “boy band” label wasn’t terribly harmful, but was “just a little inaccurate because we were less like the traditional boy bands and we were more like Hall & Oates.” The negative connotations of the term “boy band” trickled down to influence those groups’ critical standings, earning them poor reviews, making them the butt of jokes and rarely landing them nominations for awards like the Grammys and other institutions that held themselves up as bastions of critical taste.
But the support and capital of young women is what led to groups like BSB and NSYNC topping the charts and breaking sales records. That kind of power and influence cannot be understated and if critics looked past the hysteria, they would also see that many of these groups made great music. Boy bands all over the world have pushed back against the label, from NSYNC’s Lance Bass to various members of One Direction, because they demanded to be taken seriously.
Sherman thinks that we’re finally reaching a point where groups are embracing the title. From Brockhampton’s proclamation (“Just by putting the name ‘rap’ on yourself, you’ve set a limit — but a pop star can do anything,” member Ameer Vann told Beats 1 radio) to BTS and the K-pop industry revolutionizing boy bands, groups now are finally seeing the potential of occupying this space.
McMaster & James: then and now
They were inspired by Prince and would have liked to grow into Hall & Oates. Instead, McMaster & James was a briefly buzzy boy band that rode the small crest of Canadian success through one album cycle in the last heady days of a robust record industry that had no clue something as dull-sounding as “file-sharing” would be its downfall.
‘Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie’
Sherman has a simple explanation for boy bands’ mainstream success but critical invisibility: “run-of-the-mill misogyny.”
She argued that the devaluation of boy bands always goes back to the groups’ audience: young women. Because the music press was, and continues to be to varying degrees, controlled by men, it often misses the value in what young women listen to. “I think because boy bands are always kind of written about through the lens of this image of some hysterical teen girl, they’re never taken seriously,” Sherman said. “It’s kind of strange that they’re always described through their audience and not the musicality.”
Bands were uncomfortable with the boy band name because they’re not taken seriously, while the teenage girls — and moms — who made up boy bands’ core fanbase were responsible for the bands’ mainstream success. As Pitchfork critic Brodie Lancaster wrote in 2015, “In fan-dominated spaces, teen girls are the ultimate authorities.”
“I think a lot of it being targeted towards young women makes sense because they’re cute boys with guitars, or they’re singing or frolicking on beaches,” said Sherman. “That’s always going to be interesting to young women. Young straight women, primarily.”
During the heteronormative heyday of ’90s boy bands, the pull of teenage girl fandom wasn’t lost on the bands, even if they did want to expand their audience to an older (and likely more male) crowd.
“For us, our audience was going to be young girls because we were young guys and they [EMI] found it. They found the right audience,” said the Moffatts’ Clint. “So I think that now, you know, our audience is just a reflection of our age and it’s a reflection of the type of music and more and more guys like our music now just because we’re older and maybe a little bit more relatable. But I think it was definitely directed by pop and I think that was maybe a bit of a struggle with us, too, because we wanted to not necessarily just be lumped into the boy band thing.”
“But for us, man if there were 5,000 girls out there or 5,000 guys out there, it didn’t matter to us. The fact that we had an audience was powerful,” added Bob. Clint remembers the few teenage boys he saw attending their shows being jealous of the band members, sometimes throwing eggs at them.
“Being in a boy band, having a primarily female audience was just imposing a threat to males,” adds Clint. “I mean, it was just like, you know, we were a threat. All the girls are screaming at us. There was some jealousy.”
That the gender divide devolved into jealousy instead of musical appreciation is unsurprising. Why would teenage girls be interested in the Moffatts’ music for any reason other than the four cute boys? Instead of being appreciated for their fervour and buying power in an industry that lives or dies on fandom, their love has often been regarded as inconsequential, uninformed, a phase. Teenage girls’ devotion is powerful enough to propel an entire touring operation and globally sold-out tours, but not quite so powerful as to move the needle on Grammy consideration.
“I still think that boy bands writ large and their fans — there’s still a lot of progress to be made,” said Sherman. “Like even a timely example would be BTS: they are written about in mainstream U.S. media, but it’s primarily just for the records that they break. It doesn’t seem to be very critical beyond that. I think in the last couple of years there’s been more of a shift. But then when they got No. 1 this week with their first English-language single, ‘Dynamite,’ we saw a lot more critics, like, ‘What’s happening here?’ And to me, it’s like, ‘Well, girls have been talking about this for years, guys!’”
SoulDecision: then and now
Trevor Guthrie used to deny being in a boy band. Nowadays he just shrugs, smiles and begrudgingly admits that that was the truth of SoulDecision — or at least that was the way they were perceived by everyone, including their record label. “You can’t change that, right?”
Sherman added that she does think people are digging into “the sociopolitical identities and elements to music more so than they were in the past.” People are stretching to think about music outside of their own experiences and perception, and she credits a lot of that to increased diversity in the music press.
“Obviously there’s still a long way to go,” she said. “But I think when you see more writers of colour, you’re going to see more artists of colour covered. If you see more women writing, you’re going to see more writing about the interests of women. And that’s not a bad thing. I really appreciate that shift. It’s not perfect, but we’re inching toward some sort of appreciation.”
These days, the pushback on the “hysterical teen girl” image is stronger. When Rolling Stone asked Harry Styles in a 2017 feature interview if he “spends pressure-filled evenings worried about proving credibility to an older crowd” after having left One Direction to go solo, he did not have time for it:
“Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music — short for popular, right? — have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.“
Canadian boy bands: their legacy
It’s easy to say that Canada’s boy band legacy failed to match up to the success of America’s, but the reality is that the two countries operated by their own sets of rules. If our neighbours south of the border created the modern-day boy band template, then Canada’s attempt at selling its own version was like fitting a square peg into a round hole.
Some of our acts were too old, others didn’t have the right number of members (duos aren’t commonly looked at as a boy band), and almost none of them had dance choreography as part of their repertoire. (With the exception, again, of B4-4.) Canada’s boy bands were mostly just bands, complete with capable instrumentalists, that fell into the wrong category at the right time. And whether or not those groups pushed back against the boy band label, all of them benefitted from the unique marketing. Opening spots for American superstars like NSYNC, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, the chance to perform for thousands of pop music fans, and feeling a fraction of the limelight that their U.S. counterparts experienced may feel like a consolation prize, but was actually considered a huge victory for some of these groups.
For as much as Canada had succeeded with solo pop artists (Alanis Morissette, Céline Dion) and rock groups (the Band, Barenaked Ladies, Rush), pop groups were new terrain and boy bands were the most viable acts. “Any group of cute young boys was going to be somehow pushed into the boy band schema,” Sherman said, pointing out that Canada wasn’t alone in the boy band competition.
The U.K., home of proto-boy band the Beatles, also made a strong run at boy band domination in the ’90s and ’00s with BBMak, Five, Westlife, McFly and Busted — all before delivering us the boy band saviors of the 2010s: One Direction. But with BSB and NSYNC already taking up so much space at the turn of the millennium, that left very little room for others, as Sherman notes: “They were all kind of trying to access the same marketplace because you have something like Backstreet Boys and NSYNC selling so exorbitantly well, some of the best-selling records of all time.”
Even more boy bands
SoulDecision, B4-4, the Moffatts, Sky, and McMaster & James weren’t the only boy bands coming out of Canada in the ’90s and early ’00s. Here’s a quick overview of even more acts trading in this coveted, but cursed, sub-genre.
“I kind of compare it to, like, in the mid-’90s, where every major label was trying to find the next Nirvana and they just ended up signing 1,000 mediocre Nirvana wannabes,” Sherman continues. SoulDecision’s Guthrie added that, with the oversaturation of the U.S. market, Canadians needed to perform above and beyond expectations to get attention. “There’s a lot of great Canadian talent and sometimes they’re just one song short of breaking that market,” he said. “It’s tough.”
Few people extol Canada’s boy band legacy nowadays, but that doesn’t mean that the country’s general pop presence hasn’t strengthened in recent years. Even though we failed to boost our boy bands, Canada has gone on to produce some of the world’s biggest pop stars. Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Drake, Avril Lavigne and Carly Rae Jepsen are just a few of the many artists who have broken through and smashed records, establishing the country as a pop force.
For artists like Bieber and Mendes, who could’ve easily fit the boy band mould, their success rides off new technological advances, post-Napster, that groups like SoulDecision and the Moffatts missed out on. Bieber became a YouTube sensation and caught the attention of American manager Scooter Braun and R&B star Usher. Mendes followed a few years later by blowing up on Vine, a platform where a young Mendes performed six-second song covers. While Bieber performed some choreography live, both those artists became overnight sensations for their musical talents, playing the drums (Bieber), guitar (both Bieber and Mendes) and piano (again, both Bieber and Mendes), falling in line with the Canadian boy band lineage that was established in the early 2000s.
And while K-pop has taken the boy band torch and sprinted ahead with a new model of superstardom, Sherman said the “ebbs and flows” of the boy band trend could very well open up to a future Canadian boy band breakout.
“I don’t know if now is the time,” she cautioned, “but that’s not to say that there couldn’t be in the future. [Canada has] created great boy pop stars so who’s to say that Canada’s not going to make a great boy band. I would love it. I welcome it.”
Writing by Holly Gordon, Melody Lau, Andrea Warner
Website by Geoff Isaac
Original artwork by Ben Shannon
Editing by Jesse Kinos-Goodin, Jess Huddleston, Robert Rowat