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The New British Invasion: Boy Bands

Inside the wild rise 
of One Direction and the Wanted

Andy Greene May 08, 2012
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One Direction

It was a scene no one has witnessed since the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync ruled the charts more than a decade ago: On March 12th, 15,000 shrieking teen and preteen girls crammed into a Today show taping at New York’s Rockefeller Center to catch a glimpse of One Direction, the chart-topping new British-Irish boy band. “A lot of people have been camping out all weekend for these five young guys,” said co-host Natalie Morales. “One Direction mania has taken Manhattan!”

And One Direction didn’t come alone ”“ another U.K. boy-band crew, the Wanted, just scored a Number Three single with “Glad You Came,” beating One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” at Number Nine. “Two years ago, we were playing to seven people in a club,” says Wanted singer Tom Parker, who got his start in a Take That tribute group called Take That II. “Now we’re playing arenas and stadiums. It’s crazy.”

The Wanted

Over the past few months, One Direction and the Wanted have been crisscrossing North America, causing Beatlemania-level ”¨pandemonium wherever they stop. When One Direction played a recent Canadian TV gig, they found thousands of fans in the streets. “Seven people got taken away with hypothermia because they camped out in the night in the freezing cold,” says One Direction’s Niall Horan. Adds his bandmate Harry Styles, “Having girls screaming your name isn’t something you get used to ”“ it’s weird.”

The Wanted have similar tales: “In Dallas, this one girl jumped on the bus right before we left,” says group member Max George. “She refused to get off ”“ ”˜I’m not going anywhere! I’m staying here and traveling with you guys, my parents are fine with it.’ Our security had to get a bit rough.”

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One Direction got their start when all five members were solo artists on the verge of being tossed off the U.K. version of X Factor. “I had a bad feeling that maybe we shouldn’t lose them,” says the show’s creator, Simon Cowell. “When they came to my house in Spain, I knew they’d be huge within a millionth of a second after they started singing. When they left, I jumped out of my chair and screamed, ”˜These guys are incredible!’”‰”

Cowell assembled the teens into One Direction and signed them to a record contract, and within months the five heartthrobs were being greeted by screaming fans everywhere. In March, their LP, Up All Night, debuted at Number One in the U.S., knocking Bruce Springsteen from the top spot. No British group had ever debuted at Number One with its first release ”“ including the Beatles.

Unlike previous waves of boy bands, who spent years playing malls and schools, One Direction exploded thanks to an aggressive social-media strategy built around a contest called “Bring 1D to US,” in which fans competed to get the band to come to their city via Twitter and YouTube-based challenges that encouraged them to recruit their friends. “Columbia began working on the campaign months before they arrived,” says their manager, Will Bloomfield. “These guys live online, and so do their fans.”

And both of the new groups break the Nineties boy-band mold of choreographed dance moves and coordinated outfits. “We all play instruments, we don’t dance, and we don’t dress how boy bands should ”“ I have black jeans and Converse on right now,” says the Wanted’s Parker. Adds One Direction’s Horan, “We can’t dance, so we couldn’t help it.”

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The timing of the new British invasion couldn’t be better. Other recent tween-pop stars, from the Jonas Brothers to Miley Cyrus, have declined in recent years, and Justin Bieber celebrated his 18th birthday by moving toward Justin Timberlake-style R&B with his new smash hit, “Boyfriend.” That leaves a big gap for radio programmers seeking clean-cut teen pop. “Miley went from her concert crowd being six- to 12-year-old girls to her gyrating on a pole,” says KISS FM’s VP of programming, John Ivey. “One Direction has social media, big single sales and can sell out shows.”

And Cowell is confident that the phenomenon is going to get even bigger this year. “Most things in music go full circle eventually,” he says. “Just when you think it’s doom and gloom and you have to spend millions of pounds on marketing, you discover this amazing thing called ”˜fan power.’ It’s amazing, and it’s free. I love it.”

One Direction were even forced to turn down a request from the Obama family to visit the White House. “We met Michelle Obama at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards,” says Styles. Adds Horan, “I’m a big Obama fan. They invited us for the Easter Egg Roll, but we couldn’t go because we have an Australian tour. There aren’t many times you turn down an invite to the White House.”

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