The reunion is a standard moment in a boy band’s life cycle. The New Kids on the Block are still touring — on land and on water. The Backstreet Boys reunited in 2015 with a documentary chronicling their history, came back again with a Vegas residency, and periodically trot out new songs and old-school choreography. (The world continues to wait on NSYNC, presumably because Justin Timberlake is busy making derided albums.) Yet as successful as these tours are, a whiff of desperation tends to cling to them. There’s a nagging feeling that necessity — rather than artistic inspiration — is what really brings these (older and wiser) men back together to revisit their hits with an audience that grew up adoring them.
The Jonas Brothers’ recent comeback, in contrast, is transcending the nostalgia circuit. Nick, Joe, and Kevin initially conquered tween hearts through the Disney machine in 2007. And, as with any boy band, each member had their role: Joe was the heartthrob, with architecturally flattened hair and doe eyes seemingly able to peer into a teen girl’s soul, Nick was the group’s cutely curly-haired auteur, Kevin was the random older one (Chris Kirpatrick played this role too perfectly on NSYNC). Their music was catchy and perfectly crafted pop rock. They could serenade fans with the country-tinged “When You Look Me in the Eyes” provide lilting love songs like “Lovebug,” and sell punky ’tude with “Burnin’ Up.”
There was merch, and sold-out arena tours, and fanfic (with oddly specific imaginings of the brothers’ quotidian reality: “Nick woke up to the bright sun in his face, and the smell of his brothers smelly under arms.”) Yet what most people still remember are the promise rings. They weren’t even unique to the brothers within the Disney stable; Miley Cyrus also wore one. But the cultural fascination with male virgins made them the most famous — and surveilled — possessors of Christian virtue after Britney Spears and before the recent Bachelor Colton Underwood.
Yet beyond their famous purity rings and tabloid-friendly dating lives, the brothers struggled to successfully define themselves musically as they (and their fans) grew up. Their last studio album underwhelmed commercially in 2009, prompting a hiatus, and their last musical incarnation struggled to gain a foothold before they officially disbanded in 2013. Over the last few years, Nick and Joe (alongside his group DNCE) have been busy establishing solo careers.
But in the midst of BTS mania and the continuing fascination with boy band lore, the brothers came back together last year for a Backstreet-style Amazon documentary that would look back at their trajectory. They also embarked on making music together, and their musical reappearance is achieving surprising success on the charts: The first single off their forthcoming album, “Sucker,” shot to the top of Billboard last month, becoming their first-ever No. 1 song and biggest hit so far. And their recent single “Cool” immediately jumped to the top of Itunes and was trending at No. 2 on YouTube. Last week it debuted in the top 30, and the brothers just announced the songs are part of a new album: Happiness Begins.
The Jonas Brothers are now the first boy band to reach No. 1 in almost two decades. Thanks to the synergy of their evolving celebrity and their skill at crafting bops, their comeback is actually breaking through beyond simple nostalgia.
The Jonas Brothers almost never existed. Nick Jonas was originally signed as a solo artist to Columbia Records, before an A&R exec decided to package him with his two older brothers — Joe and Kevin — into a group in 2005. Their first album, 2006’s It’s About Time, included leftover songs from Nick’s solo effort, some of their own compositions, and covers of ’90s boy band LFO and British pop punk band Busted. They opened for groups like the Veronicas and Jesse McCartney, and the brothers used MySpace to cultivate a fanbase. Still, the record underperformed and they were dropped by the label.
Their subsequent success — with the 2007 follow-up Jonas Brothers — came not thanks to some kind of major reinvention, but with their backing by Disney, and its Hollywood Records label, which gave them a built-in platform and audience. They had already written and contributed to Disney soundtracks in their Columbia days, so the move made sense. But Disney was less interested in their songwriting than their marketability. The Disney effect started with a video and promotional blitz for a song originally from It’s About Time, which they didn’t even write. It was a (sanitized) cover of Busted’s “Year 3000” in which the brothers sing about traveling into the future to find (inexplicably) “boy bands” and to discover that their records outsold Kelly Clarkson (random but it rhymed).
They nabbed the opening spot on Miley Cyrus’s tour and the first album went platinum, effectively going from opening act to arena headliners in six weeks. They were quickly turned into Hannah Montana’s favorite band on her show, and their songs and videos were in heavy rotation on Radio Disney and the Disney Channel. By the time of their second album and arena tour in 2008, the now-famous purity rings had become a talking point and major press angle around the group. And though it might seem like the kind of detail engineered by Disney, the purity rings story actually slipped out by accident. “Of course you got three young boys wearing rings on their fingers so everyone was like, ‘Are they married already? What’s going on here?’” Joe recently told James Corden. “We were in an interview one day, the guy asked about it, we were like, ‘We don’t talk about it,’ and he was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to say you’re in a cult.’”
Once the story came out, the purity rings became the kind of detail that non-tweens used to differentiate the group from One Direction, and a major angle for fans to latch onto. "People were coming up to us, saying, 'Thank you so much, I'm waiting because you guys are, too!' And we just thought, No! That's not what we're about," Joe later wrote in a New York magazine essay looking back at that moment. It was only after their recent reunion that they revealed how the rings became a major talking point they were forced to contend with.
Even at the time, the brothers struggled to define themselves as a tween franchise. They got their own Disney show — Jonas — modeled off the Hannah Montana franchise, playing everyday high schoolers who also happen to be rock stars, but by then, Nick was 17, Joe was 20, and Kevin was 22, and the teen appeal didn’t read as authentic. (In the first episode, Nick admonishes the other two when they ask him about the girl he’s crushing on. “Crushing? What are you, 11?”) Their music never quite transcended the Disney audience and never even reached the success of, say, Miley Cyrus. To put it in perspective, by 2010, Cyrus’s first Hannah Montana album had sold 3.7 million copies, while theirs had moved 1.9 million units. And their fourth — and final — studio album may have debuted at No. 1, but it stalled and only sold 757,000 units.
Their busy dating lives became catnip for fans and tabloids alike, though some stories only came to light years later, once they left the Disney factory and became more open. Joe dated Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato. Nick dated Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus (and later wrote romantic odes about marriage foreshadowing his — rather precocious — nuptials to Priyanka Chopra). But their relationships were also a sign that they were aging out of their wholesome Disney franchise.
By 2010, according to leaked Disney research, the ruthlessly fickle tween audience was obsessed with a different kind of franchise: Twilight and star Taylor Lautner. “If you went to school with a JB backpack, other people might think you’re dorky,” one young girl told Disney’s marketing team. “People are wrong when they say the bubble has burst,” manager Johnny Wright told the New York Times, defensively, in a piece wondering if the group’s time was up.
“We are focused on longevity and transitioning to a slightly older audience,” Wright said. “When you do that, you risk losing some of your core fan base.” They parted ways with Disney’s record label and took a hiatus as a group to focus on their own projects, but they struggled to create cohesive solo sounds. Nick went first, and despite using Prince’s former band members in a stab at rock authenticity, he failed to make an impression with his side project (the ambitiously named Nick Jonas & the Administration). (His drawing power on Broadway was also questionable.) The following year, Joe’s first solo effort flopped. Kevin successfully starred on his own E! reality TV show, Married to Jonas.
When the brothers first reunited in 2013 — for a summer tour and a fifth album titled V — fans were excited. They had purposely taken their time to work on their songwriting craft — the Disney association had unfairly made them seem like a prefab band — and were even planning on self-releasing their album. But it proved hard to grow up with lyrics like “baby put your pom poms down for me,” and the promo singles didn’t have a big impact. (Only one ultimately charted, outside the top 50.) Nick’s dance moves in a marching band–inspired video also unintentionally explained why the brothers never danced.
Their album was scrapped and the tour was canceled amid reports of a then-unexplained “deep rift within the band.” “We think it’s time that the Jonas Brothers comes to an end,” Kevin said the day of their announcement on Good Morning America in October 2013. Nick later revealed that he was the one who shocked his brothers by breaking up the band two days before their comeback tour.
Thanks to their own breakup and their ever-evolving dating lives — including Nick’s widely covered celebrity wedding to Priyanka Chopra and Joe’s engagement to Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner — the brothers became, in some ways, like a musical version of the Kardashians, always keeping fans on their toes.
In the split’s aftermath Nick became the biggest solo star. He went from twink to hunk, with savvy, winking gay-baiting Instagram shots and underwear layouts (and bold fashion choices that made his bulging arms as iconic as his brother’s flattened hair once was). “Jealous” established him as a sexy, falsettoing master of butch pop masochism, in thrall to women for whom he puffs his chest and remains in chains. Joe, whom the label wanted to turn into a Justin Timberlake clone, found his own brand of rock pop at the hand of Swedish hitmakers, and their odd sense of English vernacular gave him a huge international hit about cakes by the ocean with DNCE. Kevin did a second season of Married to Jonas (and random Real Housewives of New Jersey cameos).
By the time they came back together for the Amazon documentary last year, the move felt like another tool in the multimedia arsenal — including reality television, Vegas residencies, and social media — that allows pop stars to extend their life cycles in a more organic way. Originally the plan for the documentary was “just to tell our story — our childhood into our career together,” Nick said. But making music grew out of the experience of creating the film, which inspired the brothers to write 30–40 new songs. And though they’re all credited on the songs, the first image posted to their Instagram and the cover of “Sucker” seems to suggest Nick is now front and center and the star of the group.
He’s the opening voice in both singles and videos, and lyrically, “Sucker” is in line with his deeply hetero meditations on submissive men: “I’m a sucker for you,” he falsettos in the chorus, “say the word and I’ll go anywhere blindly.” “Cool,” which name-checks Jane Fonda and James Dean, sells shamelessly retro Bruno Mars corniness without the edge. In the video, the group sing for bingo night retirees in Miami Vice–inspired duds. Amid the monotony of sad pop EDM and moody trap flooding the airwaves today, the songs’ throwback, cheery, summery, pop rock energy — with actual melodies and catchy chord changes — has caught on in a different way. The full album, dropping on June 7, is called Happiness Begins, which really captures their new mood. (The cheekily butt-centric cover feels all Nick.)
Unlike, say, Justin Timberlake, whose recent attempt at repackaging himself fell flat, the Jonas Brothers are finally succeeding at selling themselves to a willing audience — perhaps one that never left them, but simply grew up too. Their significant others — Priyanka Chopra, Sophie Turner, and Danielle Jonas — all play big roles in the Favourite-inspired video. (So do Nick’s arms and hairy chest.) Game of Thrones even gets name-checked in the lyrics for “Cool.” In some ways, their newfound success — unprecedented both for the group and their individual careers, in which they have never scored a No. 1 hit — also suggests that it now takes three full brands to make one big pop impression.
Before they disbanded, Rolling Stone pointed out that the brothers were stuck in “musical world purgatory, where they’re not scoring hits, but still too fresh to tap their fans on the nostalgia circuit.” But in coming back together as grown-ups and full-fledged stars, the brothers didn’t just tap that circuit. It might sound like a corny Disney song from their early days, but they seem to have become the unit they were always meant to be. ●