Say It Ain't So-Town: Making the Band is Cancelled
Making the Band caused me no small amount of embarrassment among my friends, family, and co-workers; my admission that I actually watched a show featuring the writhing, shrieking, spandex-clad teenage boys of O-Town was often received as though I had admitted to bestiality. Come to think of it, they would have treated bestiality with more understanding.
"But the whole band is fake," they would say, somehow believing that this fact had escaped me. "Can't you see that these kids are just being told what to do? How can you watch such pre-fabricated, manipulative pap?"
And that, my friends, was the deceptive brilliance of Making the Band. We were shown -- almost gleefully -- that the fix was in, and were never meant to believe otherwise. We were given all the evidence we'd ever need to condemn boy bands as artificial, callow marketing shills. When three of the five members displayed an almost surreal inability to sing, Making the Band cheerfully showed how studio "sweetening" transformed them into Mario Lanza. When the time came for press ops and photo shoots, we saw each member assigned a "stylist", whose job it was to create that member's image. Voila! Clean-cut Valley kid Jacob is suddenly Edgy Guy, with dreadlocks, goatee, and a pair of blue jeans straight from a threshing machine. Presto Change-o! Groggy, talentless Trevor is now The Soulful One, sporting oversize aviator glasses and looking like an underfed Lenny Kravitz. At no point was any of this purported to be a natural or personal evolution. We were here to watch five young men fill five preconceived roles, and they didn't care if we knew it; in fact they wanted us to know it. We were privy to every cynical, staged, factory-molded moment of this band's development.
Why the full disclosure? Why would any manager reveal, in no uncertain terms, a band's complete lack of participation in their own careers?
Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Lou Pearlman. The string-puller behind both 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys, Pearlman was left high and dry after both groups sued to be released from their contracts in the late '90s. The two bands went on to greater fame and fortune elsewhere; Pearlman was left holding a handful of what-ifs. Vowing to rise again, the vaguely-reptilian mogul followed a familiar tactic, assembling five pleasant-looking young men, all of whom could shuffle on cue and look dreamy on command. There would be just one catch this time: with O-Town, everyone would know who the real talent was. By showing the group's assembly, training, and rollout on national TV, it would be clear that Pearlman, not the band, was the creative force at work. He would decide the group's final lineup. He would pick the songs. He would decide how "street" each member should look. And when the band members got uppity or out of line, he would smack them down in front of the whole audience. This would be his final revenge against 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys. By showing how utterly irrelevant the group's members actually were, Pearlman would accomplish the one-two punch of shaming his former charges while establishing himself as a genius -- a Malcolm McLaren for the new century.
And it worked, kind of. The Friday-night show had an almost fanatical following among my musician friends, as well as the many "High Fidelity"-type wonks who populate the local record stores. They reveled in every gory detail of the band's adventures, often sending long emails to each other, recounting that week's shameless manipulation of the five youths. "This is great," said my friend Clyde, commenting on a recording session that proved Trevor to be wholly incapable of staying on key. "I always knew these kids couldn't really sing, but this is amazing." Another acquaintance, commenting on O-Town's overnight image makeover, noted, "This is so formulaic as to be unbelievable. I keep waiting for one of them to start wearing a woolen cap."
In the end, though, it was this warts-and-all depiction that doomed Making the Band. No 12-year-old wants to think of her favorite group as a sham; the success of boy bands depends on blind, defiant belief in their legitimacy as artists. With Making the Band, that was impossible; no amount of naiveté could hide the astounding lack of talent possessed by the five members of O-Town. No glowing profile in Tiger Beat would counteract the irrefutable truth: that O-Town (and, by extension, every other teen-pop act) are a bunch of kids doing exactly what adults tell them to do. For Making the Band, -- and for O-Town -- this would be a mortal wound. Record sales were lukewarm, and ABC was sharpening their swords.
By pulling back the curtain on his operation, Pearlman may have accomplished his goal of devaluing boy bands -- the charts show a recent drop-off in their sales -- but he did so at his own expense. Lou Pearlman has alienated the demographic that Making the Band most needed to survive. A legion of 20-something fans may be nice, but it won't keep you on the air at The House of Mouse. The name of their game is youngsters, and revealing their idols as gawky, untalented mooks who just follow orders isn't really a winning strategy.
So, goodbye, Ashley, Jacob, Erik, Dan, and Trevor. Your records may have flopped, your show may have been cancelled, and any promise you held as professional musicians may have vaporized long ago, but you'll live on in our hearts as a constant reminder of what happens when reality threatens commerce. And Jacob, cut off those dreadlocks; you look like a putz.
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