Zayn and Nora's Infinite Playlist: Did Romcoms Beget Boybands?
If music be the food of love...
It took me way too long to realize my Backstreet Boys fanaticism was tied to You’ve Got Mail, and that without “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” quotes like “Don’t cry, Shopgirl” wouldn’t have sent me over the emotional edge. I was late in realizing NSYNC paved the way for my slow-burning zest for Sleepless In Seattle, and that without When Harry Met Sally, New Kids on the Block would’ve meant a lot less to all of us. Frankly, I had no idea that my two great loves — pop acts and romcoms — were the anti-Harry Potter, in that they both live if the other survives (and were arguably codependent). The likes of Justin Bieber, Zayn, and One Direction were born out of the mythology of romantic comedies, and for that we must all be grateful.
Which sounds like a stretch, I know. But the more you listen to Top 40 male crooners, the more this argument holds up. (She screamed into the night.) Unrealistic romantic expectations, accessibility to all audiences, and even being lovely to look at — since the cinematography of You’ve Got Mail is on par with One Direction’s video for “Night Changes” — define both the Non-Threatening Boy™ trope and the great romantic comedies of yore, creating a landscape of idealism and the mythology of all-consuming love, of which we — consumers of mainstream media — know all too well.
Upon its release in 1989, Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally upped the romcom ante. In it, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal’s characters navigate the changing nature of their friendship and eventually realize they’re in love with each other and have been for some time. Billy shows up to Meg’s New Year’s party (after running through the streets), declares his love, and after a montage set to “It Had To Be You,” the film ends with them giving us their wedding details in the same spirit of the older couples featured throughout the movie. It is heartwarming, it is tear-inducing, and it very easily makes you question the intentions of any/all male friends (despite them being very clear you’re a like a sister to them, seriously).
Then, in May 1990, New Kids on the Block released their biggest single, “Step By Step,” a song that builds on the mythology of a Harry/Sally relationship from the viewpoint of a guy trying to convince a girl to acknowledge him romantically. (“Hey girl can’t you see / I’ve got to have you all for me / And girl yes it’s true / No one else will ever do”)
And while the song is catchy, designed to suit boyband-appropriate choreography, and sung by a squad of dudes who most certainly weren’t pining over just one person, it complemented the Ephron-instilled mandate by sending the same message as her ‘89 masterpiece: somewhere, someone is noticing you. Because maybe love, actually, really is all around.
Which is why boybands — and solo artists in the same realm — have continued to thrive alongside romcoms as time has progressed. In 1997, NSYNC sang about its subject with unyielding adoration in “God Must’ve Spent a Little More Time On You” (a middle school dance staple), similar to the way Dennis Quaid’s character looks at Natasha Richardson in Nancy Meyer’s The Parent Trap (1998). Then in 1999, Backstreet Boys gave us “[I Want It That Way]9https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4fndeDfaWCg),” a song whose lyrics wax poetic about crossed lines and miscommunication in the same realm as You’ve Got Mail. (“But we are two worlds apart / can’t reach through your heart”)
And finally in 2002, Justin Timberlake released “Like I Love You,” his first solo jam, and one that spoke to a Very Special Someone who doesn’t get how much she’s adored. (See: “Ain’t nobody love you like I love you / You’re a good girl and that’s what makes me trust ya / Late at night, I talk to you / You will know the difference when I touch you”) Which arguably mimics the relationship between Hugh Grant’s Prime Minister character and his secretary in Richard Curtis’ Love Actually (2003), which actually (#LOL) marked the end of the romcom/boyband parallel.
This is because as the naughties progressed, romcoms gave way to dramedies as our increasing cynicism (and movies like Valentine’s Day (2009) — ugh) called for a much-needed genre overhaul, leaving the golden age of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan behind. But we still weren’t entirely dead inside, which meant we still needed a hook from which to suspend our romantic ideals.
So enter: Justin Bieber, One Direction (RIP), and now Zayn, whose penchant for singing with their hearts on their sleeves echoes the sentimentality threaded through '80s and '90s pop culture. These artists are earnest and their lyrics are cringingly transparent, with references to famous ex-girlfriends (Bieber, singing about Selena Gomez) to current flames (Zayn, singing about Gigi Hadid) filling in the space left by our lack of bankable romantic comedies. That’s because by explicitly singing about the real details of their lives, these artists have created their own romcoms, spinning words and visuals into detailed narratives the likes of NSYNC and BSB didn’t have the capacity to. (Likely because they were micro-managed bands concocted by Lou Pearlman, a criminal — and the Internet has also created a demand for very personal connections with select famouses.)
So now, days after the release of Zayn’s solo debut — an album rich in references to his current girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, and any/all consensual sex he’s had, ever — we can finally see the effects of the romcom/boyband crossover glory days, as artists like him rise up to create a hybrid of both (regardless of how self-serious they may seem as artists). Ultimately, without the past — without pop music that mirrored the mandate of the era’s most popular and loveable films — today’s musical landscape would look quite different.
Thus leading me to my final question: which came first, the romcom or the boyband?