When Melissa Lonner, senior entertainment producer for NBC’s “Today,” booked Brit pop quintet One Direction in January, she scheduled the group for a routine in-studio performance. But once news broke that the boyish fivesome would be at 30 Rock, a deluge of fan emails flooded the show’s inbox, forcing NBC to relocate the appearance to Rockefeller Plaza. That was when the New York Police Department got involved. Spurred by reports of swelling public appearances by the band in other markets like Toronto and Boston — the latter of which attracting some 5,000 screaming fans to Natick Mall — the NYPD contacted NBC security to ensure measures would be taken to maintain order.
When the group often referred to as 1D finally did appear in midtown Manhattan on March 12 — the day before its chart-topping debut, “Up All Night”, arrived on Columbia Records — an estimated 15,000 fans descended on the plaza, spilling onto the surrounding streets. It was an unprecedented turnout for an act that had yet to release an album stateside. (“Up All Night” debuted at No. 2 in the United Kingdom when it was released there on Nov. 21.) But even beyond that: The crowd for 1D — which consists of Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles (ages 18-20) — ranked among the biggest “Today” has seen. Only Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Chris Brown have drawn that kind of turnout to date.
“Keep in mind, Justin and Chris have had hits in the U.S. and are known in the U.S.,” Lonner says. “One Direction is relatively unknown with no hits yet. They basically exploded, and all the adults are saying, ‘Who are these people, and how do they know about it?’”
In April, another all-male English import, the Wanted — a quintet with a style a bit more built for the post-teenage demographic than 1D — is booked for an in-studio performance at “Today.” The appearance comes in anticipation of the April 24 release of the Wanted’s self-titled debut, a seven-track EP arriving on Island Def Jam and complemented by a 10-song deluxe edition. The group’s full-length debut, Battleground (Island Def Jam), which appeared in the United Kingdom in November and is slated to arrive stateside this fall, is certified gold there and has already spawned two No. 1s on the U.K. chart. According to Lonner, if the demand for the Wanted is anything near that of 1D, “Today” will once again move the show outside. With extra security in place, of course.
Not since the reigning days of Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and 98 Degrees have boy bands crashed pop culture with such fervor. In the past few years, solo starlets including Bieber, Gaga, Katy Perry and Rihanna have presided over the pop charts. But as summer approaches, 1D and the Wanted are spearheading what could very well be the next boy band boom. The story is a familiar one: Backed by big-name managers, fresh-faced groups assemble, win over potential fans through grass-roots marketing, attack the charts with slick pop fare and sell out tours in seconds.
Without so much as releasing an album in North America, 1D and the Wanted have already accomplished feats that took past boy bands years to achieve. Ahead of “Up All Night”‘s U.S. release, 1D’s breakout single “What Makes You Beautiful” became the highest-charting debut for a U.K. artist on the Billboard Hot 100 since Jimmy Ray’s 1998 hit “Are You Jimmy Ray?” when it bowed at No. 28 on Feb. 22. (“Are You Jimmy Ray?” entered the chart at No. 26.)
In the United Kingdom, “Beautiful” is mammoth: The summery track entered the singles chart at No. 1, selling 540,000 copies (according to the Official Charts Co.) and winning Best British Single at the BRIT Awards in February. In the United States, 1D has shut down malls with in-store signings and appearances from coast to coast. Fans even chased the group’s car through Manhattan following a performance at Radio City Music Hall on March 9, where it appeared as the opening act for fellow boy band Big Time Rush on the sold-out Better With U tour. 1D and the Wanted have contemporaries — Big Time Rush, JLS, Mindless Behavior and others-but while all have found success at retail and on the road, that success pales in comparison to the explosive rise of the two British acts.
This week, “Up All Night” tops the Billboard 200 with 176,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan, unseating Bruce Springsteen and holding off Adele to make 1D the first British band — let alone British boy band — to enter the top spot with its debut album, something not even the Beatles could accomplish. (The Fab Four’s 1964 Vee-Jay Records debut, Introducing . . . The Beatles, reached No. 2.)
Despite still being a month out from its domestic debut, the Wanted has also soared in the States. Last August, Island Def Jam went to radio with “Glad You Came,” from the group’s U.K. sophomore album, Battleground.
Initially a slow build, “Glad You Came” took flight after the song was featured on the Feb. 21 episode of “Glee,” breaking the record for highest-charting single by a British band since Take That’s 1995 hit “Back for Good.” The Take That track reached No. 7 on the Hot 100. “Glad You Came” sits at No. 3. In January, the group made its U.S. debut on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” accompanied by a sold-out stateside trek that ran from January through February. When the Wanted returns in April, the group will have already lodged two No. 1 singles in the United Kingdom.
Simon Cowell, who signed 1D to his Syco Records imprint after the group’s appearance on the U.K. version of “The X Factor” in 2010, is no stranger to boy bands. In 1999, Cowell, working with 1D manager Richard Griffiths, helped male pop group Westlife sell more than 40 million albums worldwide, according to Griffith’s company Modest! Management. The demand for all-male pop groups may appear to be sporadic, but according to Cowell, it always comes in algorithmic waves.
“It’s a track-oriented chart at the moment,” Cowell says. “When we used to put records out years ago, two singles was the norm, three singles was a lot. And you have these solo artists now who could be, with collaborations, putting out seven or eight singles a year.”
Cowell credits Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun — who also manages the Wanted — as the drivers for putting young adult stars back on the map. “I’ve done this long enough that everything in music and entertainment in cyclical,” Cowell says. “[Even if] you go back to the Motown days, every time, it always comes back to 12 o’clock. It felt like that time again.”
A full version of this article can be found in this week’s Billboard, which arrives in two Tiger Beat-tastic versions (1D and The Wanted).
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