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The Backstreet Boys and the Cheerleader Effect

The Backstreet Boys and the Cheerleader Effect

Why trench coats, tight vests, and bucket hats suddenly became attractive

This week, amidst a sea of midterms, friend drama, and adult responsibilities, my mind could  focus on only one thing: How did the Backstreet Boys manage to look so sexy in absurd 1990s fashion?

Let me backtrack quickly and explain how I got to be so obsessed with one of the most iconic boy bands of all time—and, by consequence, their decade of glory. I’m a Friends fanatic and often watch brief snippets of episodes during study breaks. I tend to watch clips from earlier seasons set in the mid-1990s, so my “suggested” tab always presents me with an array of music videos and trailers from that decade. This week, the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” was first on the list. Suddenly, I was thrown back in time, once again that three-year-old sitting in the back seat of my mother’s car, listening to those catchy, upbeat tunes. As I sat on my computer, a wave of nostalgia was released, and for the next hour I cruised through BSB music videos, reveling in the songs and fangirling over how incredibly attractive I found each band member.   

But once I stepped back and actually took in their look (or, as we say today, their “aesthetic”), I realized it was intrinsically terrible. From A.J. McLean’s collection of tight vests (which no doubt later served as costume inspiration for the Jersey Shore men), to Kevin Richardson’s flasher trench coat, to the entire band’s matching white baggy trousers, BSB’s fashion choices just kept getting worse.

Since these were the clothes that were in vogue at the time, it makes sense that BSB fans found the outfits and the men wearing them full of sex appeal. But I am a modern girl with modern fashion tastes, yet I still found myself incredibly drawn to the band’s aesthetic.

I am under the spell of the “Cheerleader Effect.” This phenomenon, also known as the group attractiveness effect, dictates that people standing in a group appear more attractive than they would appear as individuals. Made famous by How I Met Your Mother, the “Cheerleader Effect” says that people in a group look better than they would each look as individuals. The members of a group balance out with one another.

In “I Want It That Way,” a group of mildly attractive young men wearing similar fashions stand together, singing passionately at the camera. Despite their bucket hats, awkwardly-hanging jackets, and baggy dad jeans, their confidence, smooth voices and synchronization make them awfully sexy.

So do we think that something is “fashionable” just because we see a large group of people wearing it? In itself, the archetypal Ivy League douchebag look—comprised of high socks, boat shoes, checkered shorts and a too-tight Polo—is hardly fashion forward. Yet, when tons of men standing together all wear this attire, it’s attractive. But take one of them out of the group and put them on a campus of a university in, say, Italy (where the style standards are completely different), and they will look like, to put it kindly, an absolute idiot.

The same goes for girls. Going back to the 1990s, the Spice Girls made some questionable fashion choices (latex bodycon dresses, neon feathered boas, and platform boots to name a few). Yet the public worshiped them. They became style icons of the decade, giving off an aura of coolness and blithesomeness.

 So would these bands have had the impact they did, had each person been a solo artist? The Spice Girls’ explosion of color and idiosyncrasy, and the BSB’s part-flasher, part-Jersey Shore looks worked because they were all peculiar together. As a united front, they set the standards for what we now see as absurd 1990s fashion. Collectively, each band became that group of cool kids who looked hip no matter what they did or wore. Together, they were golden.