Popping The Question: Can a British Boyband Make It In The USA?

Take That, Westlife, Five, Busted, McFly, JLS. They all tried to replicate their British success in the USA and not one of them succeeded. I’ve decided to investigate why the Yanks don’t care for British boys, and why the Brits keep trying regardless.

Last night I chanced upon some clips from the TV series America or Busted on YouTube, which showed British mid-00s boyband Busted attempting to break the USA. They were one of the biggest bands in the UK at the time, but they couldn’t stop there. As all pop acts know, if you break America you break the world. Sadly for Busted (but not so sad for me… or McFly!), the title of their TV show turned out to be prophetic. They messed up their own chances of US success by believing that because they had earned “a bit of cred” in the UK, they somehow had the right to skip repeating the early stages of their UK career where they had been marketed to the young teen audience. Their bad attitudes would have made the US label send them packing if the lack of public interest hadn’t done it for them. And the experience was so traumatic for poor misunderstood indie boy Charlie that he quit the band a few months after returning to the UK, so Busted were indeed bust.

With Busted’s faux-American accents, Dawson’s Creek references and Blink 182 influence, you’d expect them to stand a better chance than a more typically British band. Unfortunately the US punk-pop connoiseurs and even the teen-pop fans saw right through them. Why would they need British imitations when they already had the real thing? The same mistake is frequently made with UK R&B acts, such as JLS. Although British urban music increasingly has its own individual charm these days, JLS are among those UK R&B acts who still look to the US for inspiration. It’s simple logic that if you want to sell someone something they already have a lot of, it needs to be better than what they already have.

While the track that was chosen for JLS’s US launch, Everybody In Love, is a strong commercial song which fit with the sound of the US charts at the time, that was exactly the problem. When asked to choose between an American or a foreign artist releasing very similar songs, Americans will almost always go for Americans. The reasons for this reflect the difference between American culture and that of other countries. The USA has ingrained its own superiority into its culture and the public are conditioned to believe that they are at the cutting edge, despite the fact that anyone who follows trends in music, fashion, technology or any other area can see that they are typically several years behind the UK and the rest of Europe. Because so much American media is seeded out to the rest of the world, this ideology is believed by non-Americans too. Whether you’re in the UK, Russia, Australia or Japan, everyone wants to make it in the US and that’s where everyone looks for the next international superstar.

One of the ironies about Busted’s failed US launch was that a few years later two of their biggest UK hits, Year 3000 and What I Go To School For, were used to very successfully launch a new band: The Jonas Brothers. It turned out that an instrument-playing boyband was exactly what the US wanted – just a little more American and a little more Christian too! Another interesting link between British and American boybands is the fact that the Backstreet Boys and *N Sync owe their success to Take That. Both bands got their first record deals in Germany to a label desperate to find the band to take the boyband baton from Take That, who had just broken up at the time.

There is also the very important element of attainability when it comes to boybands. The belief that one of these boys could be your boyfriend is integral to a teenage girl’s boyband fandom, and that is far more believable when the boy in question lives in the same country as you. I believe this was one of the main reasons why the Backstreet Boys and *N Sync were never as big in the UK as the British boybands who were around at the same time. Acts like Five and Westlife released similar music, but it wasn’t a patch on the quality of their US counterparts, yet in the UK they far outsold the American boys. For example, the BSBs album Millennium went platinum (over 300,000 sales) while Westlife’s Coast To Coast went 6x platinum – that’s over 1,800,000 sales!

Although there is a history of huge boybands in the US, with groups such as The Jackson 5, The Osmonds and NKOTB playing big roles in boyband history, America hasn’t yet contributed anyone of note to the current boyband wave. While JLS, The Wanted and One Direction are all achieving no.1 hits in the UK, in the US the only new boybands on the scene are acts like Midnight Red (a pointless imitation of the BSB boyband style) and Mindless Behaviour (who have huge potential but it’s so far unfulfilled). I find it hard to believe that with the boyband trend having made such a strong return in the UK that it won’t be replicated in the US, but apart from Mindless Behaviour I’ve not heard about any new American boybands who stand a realistic chance of serious success. Is there a group waiting on the sidelines about to take over at any moment, or could this be an opportunity for one of our British groups to step in and take the crown?

The two main contenders, since JLS have pushed their attempt quietly under the rug, are of course The Wanted and One Direction. The Wanted have already begun their US launch, with a re-produced version of All Time Low released last month. So far it’s appeared on Radio Disney and not much else, but with the boys not yet having spent any serious length of time over there this is to be expected. Personally I’m hoping that they take the fact that the song’s not gone anywhere at all without full promotion to suggest that it probably won’t be worthwhile wasting some of the most important months of their career in the US for the tiniest chance of success. Look at the historic examples and it’s obvious why they shouldn’t bother. I might even email them this article to persuade them!

As for One Direction, they have some big factors against them (in particular their lack of vocal or dance talent, both attributes that US boybands are known for) but they have a few things in their favour too, one being Simon Cowell. They’re the first X Factor act that Simon has been fully behind since Leona, and that suggests to me that if they do get a US launch Simon will be name-dropped at every opportunity. And with The X Factor US about to begin, that will also help American audiences to understand what 1D represent. However, if they were to perform on The X Factor US or any other show where they had to sing live I think they’d end their chances in a moment. While they’re a fantastic pop proposition, they don’t have the basic talent level necessary to compete with the standards that American audiences will expect.

So there’s a little hope for a UK act to buck the trend, and it would be great for One Direction or The Wanted to prove that it is possible, but I wouldn’t bet 5p on it happening. It’s not such a bad thing, though. There’s something special about the insular British pop world which we’ve all grown up with, and if we don’t have to share our best acts with the rest of the world, well… it’s all the more for us!


  1. Love the topic, and I've wondered about it as well. You missed one boyband that is making some noise right now in the US: Big Time Rush. Their hook, as with the Jonas Brothers a few years ago, was that they had cable TV exposure to get the pre-teens interested, and then it built from there. If Nickelodeon tweaked the the Big Time Rush formula just a bit, I bet they could break through on a much bigger scale, and I also bet that if JLS signed on to do some type of TV show for Nick or Disney, they'd be massive.

  2. I have considered before that Big Time Rush could be 'the one'. They certainly are in the lead at the moment and if they released new music which was a sufficient improvement on their previous work, they could blow up. I've just not seen anything to convince me that they've got what it takes yet.

  3. I should probably add my two cents worth of input here. Whether or not a boyband (or any band for that matter) breaks the US
    boils down to one simple factor – over-the-air radio airplay. DJs do not get to pick the music played on radio anymore. Corporate
    stooges claiming to have done extensive market research are the ones picking the music. It is questionable as to whether they can even grasp what good music is. This has been the case since 1995's telecommunications deregulation act in the US. This is around the same time that bands like that Take That and East 17 were taking the rest of the world by storm. So the preferential treatment for American musicians is not reflective of American culture but is more reflective of the culture of playlist programmers at over-the-air radio. Given that almost ALL over-the-air radio stations in the US are owned by a single company, the playlists are identical across every station. This is a fact that became possible with the deregulation act in 1995. The “culture” of American radio playlist programmers seems quite perplexing. While we live in a world of endless appetite for diversity, these playlist programmers go out of the way to reduce diversity – which is quite contrary to the some of the tenets of good media. It would explain why an artist gets a lower number of singles reduced in the US than he or she does overseas. American artists are no exception to this rule. Furthermore, radio playlist programmers are hell bent on playing the same 10 songs produced by the same 4 producers on high rotation. When the idea is to undermine diversity, what chance to overseas bands stand? If British boybands got US radio airplay, their fortunes in America would be VERY different. The truth is, the golden standard of what a boyband should be has been set by Take That. Take That has essentially dissolved every notion of what a boyband should be. Their longevity is a plain fact. Their ability to transcend generational boundaries has been proven. They have a career despite NOT being at an age where they could be used as merchandising tools. It is a shame that America has no idea about the existence
    of Take That and still think that NKOTB is the golden standard for boybands. And of course, if the music isn't played on American radio, the average American assumes that it probably wasn't “good enough” to be on radio (I have actually heard people say this!). It is a reflection of our geocentric arrogance
    and misplaced sense of superiority.

  4. Thanks for your comment Pranav, it's very interesting to read the American perspective. Airplay is a massive factor in the UK too, but because the country is smaller it is possible to get in the charts just by extensive online promotion and incessant gigging. In the US you can get attention and drive sales in those ways too, but not enough to get in the charts and achieve serious nationwide success.

  5. Thanks Jessica! I personally think online promotion and gigging should be the way to get attention but you are right about the relative size of the two countries changing the impact that non-radio promotion has. That being said, I do get the impression that in the UK, “larger than life” success is tied to music being embraced by BBC Radio 1 (a critical factor in Take That's comeback).

  6. I think the US used to be about radio play to break through, but not so much anymore. When you think about how big Justin Bieber is, he's actually only had one Top 5 hit. Same thing with the Jonas Brothers. But despite that, they've had multiple hit albums due to exposure in other formats and other marketing tools. It's becoming much more difficult to predict where the next boyband will come from because we don't know where technology will be in a couple of years.

  7. @John: True. Having a demographic-specific marketing campaign can go a long way for an artist or band. Justin Bieber was aimed at the pre-teens (I didn't realize he has only had 1 top 5 hit). I think the Jonas Brothers were a Disney Channel thing. I guess I keep forgetting that boybands are target-specific merchandising tools before they are musical entities. I guess that is part of the reason I don't like most of them – except for Take That and East 17. I did like the first Backstreet Boys album (the one that was released overseas first) but everything after that was underwhelming at best. When I think of Take That and East 17's inability to break the US, I think of them as just being victims of the geocentric arrogance that has dominated radio since the mid-90s. The truth is, both these bands could have cracked the US without a Bieber-style marketing campaign since they had really solid music to begin with – IF their stuff was played on the radio.

  8. The thing is american boybands never start out as just boybands- they have another talent (generally acting on disney/ nickolodeon tv shows). the americans don't seem to have the same hunger for quartet and quintets of attractive young boys as the british do and with america being such a vast country to be famous there you have to be really talented- an asset a lot of popular british boybands lack.

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