One Direction, Unadulterated Joy, and Girl Worship: An Interview With Maria Sherman, Author of Larger Than Life

Maria Sherman has written for just about any outlet you can think of — NPR, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, NME, MTV, SPIN, Glamour, Pitchfork, Remezcla, and on and on — but she wasn’t sure she was ready to tackle a book just yet. That is, until an editor reached out and said she’d be the perfect choice to write one. The result: Larger Than Life: A History of Boy Bands From NKOTB to BTS, just out from Black Dog & Leventhal.

It’s already gotten a ton of attention, including mentions from, well, NPR, Rolling Stone, MTV, and on and on. A snip from a review by Cat Zhang at Pitchfork: “Larger Than Life’s real strength is its recognition that boy bands, like many cultural entities, exist at the intersection of multiple overlapping and conflicting forces.” Indeed! Larger Than Life is a fun, dot-connecting, intersectional, and informative tour of the boy-band universe from a writer who’s both a fan and a sharp-eyed critic.

Musing editor Steve Haruch interviewed Sherman about the book, what makes a boy band and more. Get your copy and check out the conversation below!

Steve Haruch: Can you talk a bit about your background as a listener/observer of boy bands?

Maria Sherman: Certainly! I self-identify as a late in life boy band fan. Because of my age, my childhood lines up with the Backstreet Boys/*NSYNC Y2K era of boy band fascination, and while I did love those acts, I found myself more inclined to the Blink-182 pop-punk that received major play on TRL during and immediately following their careers. One Direction opened my eyes in 2011 — I became a fan, and then curious about them and the boy band phenomenon on general. Why weren’t those groups given the same critical consideration as other pop stars? Especially when this music is so formative for so many? And so, I’ve written countless articles on the topic, eventually leading to this book.

SH: Ah! Since you mention Blink-182, that leads me to another question: What is the difference between a boy band and just a band that has cute guys in it that is trying to get girls to like them?

MS: Public perception, LOL. I consider Blink-182 to be, like, the world’s first pop-punk boy band, but that’s a contentious stance to take. Boy bands tend to write songs from a place of girl worship, Blink-182 were very harmful in their depictions of women. There are other reasons, too: Blink, even though their chords were soft and muted, still presented as more threatening and delinquent to parents than, say, the virginal, un-tattooed skin of Nick Carter. Also, they played instruments, which the popular boy bands of the time did not. I think it’s a variety of factors more so than one hard and fast rule.

SH: Taking the difficult stances! A related follow-up: What was it about One Direction that drew you to them? And can you talk a little bit about that lack of critical consideration?

Maria Sherman (photo by Jatnna Nuñez)

MS: It’s a bit of an ineffable quality, really — One Direction accomplished within me what all boy bands hope to accomplish within their fan base: giddiness. Well, not giddiness, but a feeling of unadulterated joy. They were playful, and they made playful music meant to make the listener feel good. More than that, One Direction meant to embolden young women, which is something I’ve always valued.

As for a lack of critical consideration: I think much music press is founded on the idea that innovation and authenticity are the qualities that make art good, and because boy bands are historically not songwriters, they’re written off. But why, then, do people write so eloquently about other pop soloists and not One Direction? I think there’s still work to be done in divorcing boy band fandom studies and thought from the dangerous, misogynistic image of a “hysterical” young woman. And for what it’s worth, 1D did a lot of co-writing. 🙂 I’d also like to quickly add that there are many other factors, and someone should write an entire book dedicated to boy band press!

SH: Calling all authors! Well, you have certainly done a lot for — I hate to use the word “elevate” — adding to the discourse around these bands and writing about them in thoughtful ways. So, about your book! How did the idea for it come together?

MS: Thank you very much! That means a lot, and I’m not alone in this: Brittany Spanos and Brodie Lancaster are my boy band journalist heroes. As for the book: I think I always wanted to write a book about boy bands, or fangirls in some capacity, and when my publisher reached out about doing a boy band book, I couldn’t say no! My editor cold emailed me, said she wanted me to write a book, which is a bit unusual, I think. I didn’t have an agent. I also didn’t think I was in a position to write a book — I’m still fairly young, and my writing gets tighter and cleaner and smarter as time goes on, it felt premature — but I knew I had to do it. And I’m so thrilled I took the leap.

SH: That’s amazing! Also, the illustrations are really great! Can you talk a little about that process?

MS: Thanks so much for saying that. Alex Fine out of Baltimore illustrated this book, and he’s a total genius. I was always a fan of his work at Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek prior to collaborating with him, getting his talent was a dream come true. Working with an illustrator while writing a book is so interesting: I asked for images as I wrote, but really wanted his input as much as possible, and I think we found a good balance as time went on. Plus, he was super receptive to all my neurotic notes about BTS’s bone structure, so for that I will always be grateful.

SH: That’s funny. It’s also great that it was a collaborative project as well. The denim-on-denim spread is just incredible. So, the subtitle is “a history of boy bands from NKOTB to BTS.” How do you see the evolution of boy bands over that time? And where do you see things headed?

MS: I think the subtitle is a tease, because I really start the book in the 1800s with a very, very, very brief dip into male vocal group tradition. BTS seems like a logical place to end, because they are the biggest boy band on the planet currently. Tracking an evolution of boy bands is so fascinating because some of the same players will appear time and time again (there’s a lot of Maurice Star, Lou Pearlman and Simon Cowell in the text) but their sound and structure and personalities progress with a shifting culture. They’re sort of a microcosm study of youth culture in each era. As for the future, well, I hope to continue to see non-Anglophone acts like BTS dominate. Music is so global now, and that only means more opportunities for creativity in the boy band space.

SH: For sure. OK, one more question. We always ask: What’s your favorite thing about independent bookstores?

MS: Everything! That’s a silly answer, but it’s true. I guess I would say the expert curation and knowledgeable staff. Shopping at an independent bookstore is an experience, and one that I’ve valued my entire life — even before I loved boy bands, ha!