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I Survived Boy Band Fandom: Notes on Devotion

Jonas Brothers memorabilia

March 14, 2018 | by Christina Zammarelli

My mother is moving out of my childhood home, which has forced me to physically confront a graveyard of past iterations of myself. The most recent of these deaths looms largest: The innumerable posters, concert t-shirts, regrettable Camp Rock merchandise like a million commemorative headstones. My artifacts are not unique; prized possessions of this nature are so often relegated to caskets. Boy band fandom cultures have proven to be self-perpetuating, self-cannibalizing beasts. Every few years, the cultural need for sanitized, non-threatening consumable sex-laced pop music met by a new crop of boys — destined to be taken for deities. I came alive in a church devoted to the Jonas Brothers.

I was an early convert, a future disciple at the upper end of the Disney Channel-viewing age demographic, when three brothers made their name on the network. Covers of classic Disney songs, animated series themes, and a calculated guest spot on Hannah Montana planted seeds that flowered into a formidable cult. Multiple international concert tours, nine Top 40 hits, two No. 1 albums, a Grammy nomination, and Camp Rock-adorned home goods all available for a very reasonable price at your local Target followed.

Live shows were our chapels, every performance a riveting sermon. The music itself was serviceable pop rock; the songwriting spotty but with definite gems in the mix. I don’t cringe when I listen to it now — except at the Common collaboration “Don’t Charge Me for the Crime” (that shit did not age well, not that it was ever good in the first place). The shows crackled with electricity. Stage presence obviously ran in the family: each brother smirking with different touches of cockiness while thousands of disciples ate up every flip of their hair. Nick, the self-serious heartthrob. Joe, the bombastic bad boy. And Kevin — forever described as the nice one — ultra-professional and just happy to be along for the ride. They took pride in always having a hand in crafting the music and always playing their own instruments; there was talent there. But while it was about the music, it was never really about the music.

The specifics of my tribe don’t really matter; I know a lot of useless facts about three people I have never met (though not for lack of trying). This acquisition of Jonas knowledge was not simply an academic pursuit, it was theological. The act of investigation, memorization, and cataloging meaning as much as the information and artifacts themselves. For all intents and purposes, this worship became my thing. Some people play basketball, while others take up violin. I chose to wallpaper my bedroom with a disgusting number of posters ripped out of teen magazines and have encyclopedic knowledge of three boys’ favorite foods and movies at the ready at all times. And yet, as opposed to making a sport your world, a certain amount of disdain and condescension came with my zealotry.

Boy band fandom culture is widely regarded as teenage girl frivolity. The brothers themselves chafed at the term “boy band” and always seemed to cringe when it was used to describe them — a yearning for credibility and respect the term did not allow for in the wider culture. There always seemed to be a certain amount of aversion to the swaths of teen girls worshipping at their feet. The disdain was not as nuanced among those who this church was not serving. Condescension is not something unfamiliar to a teenage girl, but I’ve never felt more patronized than when I was being told how I would regret wasting my time on some lame boy band. Of course, that only further radicalized my fervor.

Female sexuality is about as taboo in modern society as male sexuality is pervasive. There is so much shame in simply discussing such things. So let’s say the thing that no one ever says but everyone knows to be true: Boy band fandoms are often bastions of female sexual awakening. Personally, I would be lying if I said that was not true for me. The sanitized sex marketed by male pop groups is charmed, allowing teen girls to develop their sexuality in a safe space they are culturally sanctioned to inhabit. Sex, as it is sold to us in the vein of American Pie, is harsh and unfriendly to a demographic it simultaneously infantilizes and fetishizes. The well-trodden ground of boy band fandom culture is maybe the most important outlet for teenage girls to access such a commodity in a way that feels natural and hospitable to them. The irony is not lost on me: This attribute of the boy band phenomenon is precisely what devalues it within our current cultural framework.

It is somewhat of a masochistic endeavor, fandom. Devotees get very little return and are constantly striving for more. There is a distance between the disciple and the martyr that simultaneously entices and divides. That gap is closest to being bridged during mass. In a stadium of shrieking zealots and their parents, I was chosen to be blessed. In a sea of hands, mine was grabbed by a one Joe Jonas. After being smushed to the front of the stage about a dozen times whenever a Jonas would come near, I made it to the very front of the eager mob. He reached out into the crowd and just like that, he picked me. His skin was surprisingly soft and his grip gentle as he crooned. His hand clutching mine, my body became a relic — a thing to be cherished and revered. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such unabashed joy. My mother would tell the story about how she knew it was my hand he had grabbed by my sparkly nail polish. I felt alive every time I heard her tell it.

And it was all downhill from there — until it wasn't. A Little Bit Longer and all its ephemera was probably peak Jonas — the lead single “Burnin’ Up” being their most successful song, along with their Disney Channel original movie Camp Rock premiering simultaneously to the kick-off of their tour in support of the album. The band was on every talk show, every award show, every stage. Their faces were plastered on bedding, jewelry, party supplies (gotta love that magical Disney merchandising). I own a Camp Rock popcorn bowl, for chrissakes. Lines, Vines, and Trying Times felt just as frenetic as their previous release in terms of the energy around the Jonas Brothers as a social epicenter. But then, the backstage videos were fewer and farther between. The album cycle slowed down. The live appearances petered out. There was a yearning that was forced to persist until it wasn’t quite so pressing anymore.

When the collective mania ceased to exist, and the men behind the curtain began to reveal themselves, the parishioner became secular and I slowly became a person. A person who screamed at euphoria from a sea of believers, reveled in her own desire, had loved a thing so much it hurt, found her tribe among the likeminded, and was never short of devotion to give. My objects of worship were no longer holy, but they’d served their purpose.

With hindsight, it’s so obvious this was not sustainable; the boy band phenomenon burns bright and fast. One of the Jonas Brothers last singles before implosion was “Pom Poms.” Something about that song always felt gross to me. My aversion to it is something I think directly relates to the combustibility of boy band fandom cultures. Up until this song, the Jonas Brothers were sexual figures but they never directly engaged with that in a public way. They alluded, they danced around it, used their sex appeal to their advantage — but this song is anything but subtle in its embrace of sexuality. The innuendo pervades, “More to love when your hands are free / Baby put your pom poms down for me.” The accompanying salacious video combats any doubts about the song’s subject matter. The sex-positive feminist I’ve become sees no issue with this; sexuality is normal and engaging with it more as one ages is to be expected. My music journalist partner thinks it’s their best song, which is probably true on an objective level given that it came so much later in their run. But the band singing that song and performing in that video is not the Jonas Brothers as we the devotees knew them. The Jonas Brothers were safe havens to crawl inside of and thrive, and there is no room for male sexual desire in such a place.

It really is no surprise the band never released the album that “Pom Poms” was meant to be on. The Jonas Brothers grew up as everyone is wont to do. But as we have seen every five to 10 years or so, the proverbial boy band fails to thrive after a few years of constant worship. Such was the case with ‘N SYNC, The Backstreet Boys, and One Direction. Members start to get frustrated with the constraints of such devotion. We get our Justin Timberlakes out of this phenomenon — a class to which Nick Jonas is currently trying to prove he belongs with his R&B-inflected offerings. Conversely, Kevin’s most recent work of notoriety is his 2012 E! reality show "Married to Jonas" with is wife, along with some entrepreneurial endeavors. Joe, with his relatively successful dance rock band DNCE — that includes former Jonas drummer Jack Lawless — is carving a slightly more interesting path. But for some odd reason, this 24 year old can’t really get into the current iterations of her teen idols. I can’t imagine why.

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