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Arts & Culture | April 9, 2013

On Sunday, March 24th, the band Emblem3 played a sold-out show to an audience of shrieking tweens at the Paradise Rock Club. In fact, without having released a single album, these surf-bro heartthrobs sold out their entire East Coast tour. They’ve got washboard abs, an avid social media following, and a record deal at Columbia. Take note: Emblem3 may well be the next big thing in pop music.

This is a bold statement, considering that band-members Wesley, Keaton, and Drew name Sublime and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as major influences, bands that are neither poppy nor current. Indeed, Emblem3’s particular blend of ska, rock, pop, and rap can sound like a musical time capsule from the 1990s—not exactly top 40 material.

Emblem3 is a prime example of the strange star-launching power of TV singing competitions. The band finished fourth in the second season of the American X-Factor. Because singing competitions are decided by popular vote rather than industry wisdom, victors are not guaranteed successful careers. More often, it is the runners-up who go on to pop stardom. As a judge and executive producer on the X-Factor, Simon Cowell uses this fact to his advantage, scouting and grooming the competitors for his own label, Syco Entertainment.

Emblem3’s trajectory may sound familiar to fans of a certain British boy band–One Direction. The group was assembled by Simon Cowell during season seven of the British X-Factor, and while they finished third in the competition, they’ve been winners when it comes to album sales. In 2012, they made history as the first British band to top the Billboard 200 with a debut album.

When Emblem3 auditioned for the X-Factor this fall, Cowell swiftly staked his claim, clearly hoping to duplicate One Direction’s successful boy band formula. From the beginning, however, Emblem3 resisted the boy band label. As they were quick to point out, all three boys play their own instruments and write their own material. Unlike One Direction, they arrived as an already formed band, with their own sound and their own agenda. For their audition, the band broke with the traditional model of singing competitions and performed an original song, a funky ska-inflected ode to Los Angeles entitled “Sunset Boulevard.”

Throughout the competition, the trio tried, with limited success, to stay in control of their career. They quickly distanced themselves from song choices like Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” and fought hard for less poppy fare like Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way.” When they were voted off the show, they looked relieved, and after their elimination, Wesley told reporters, “We’re happy because we can go make some badass music now and not be under any restrictions.” In fact, the band never really escaped the world of The X-Factor.

Cowell quickly signed Emblem3 to a new branch of Syco Entertainment under the direction of Savan Kotecha. Something of an industry wizard, Kotecha is an X-Factor vocal coach and the songwriter behind One Direction’s three biggest hits. And now, for all their early protestations against One Direction comparisons, Emblem3 is looking more and more like a boy band. All three of the band-members are able guitarists, Keaton plays acoustic bass, and Drew plays a mean ukulele. At the Paradise last week, however, the trio rarely picked up their own instruments. They sang with a backing band and occasionally a backing track as well.

Composed of five mediocre vocalists, One Direction relies heavily on its backing track of pre-recorded and auto-tuned harmonies. Keaton, Wesley, and Drew are significantly stronger singers and more confident performers. For a band like Emblem3, the backing track feels redundant and stale, leaving no room for spontaneity. It is as though the music industry no longer trusts its talent to be talented. “Chloe,” the band’s first single, is a Kotecha co-write. Much like One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” the song reassures tween listeners that their insecurities are baseless. On “Chloe,” Kotecha deals in the same hopeless clichés with lyrics like, “If only you could believe in yourself in the way I believe in you.”

It’s no surprise that Kotecha would recycle so blatantly. As it turns out, exploiting female insecurity is quite lucrative, as “What Makes You Beautiful” peaked at number four on the Billboard Hot 100. On the other hand, Kotecha has left Emblem3’s distinctive sound mostly intact. In 2012, the songwriter told Billboard Magazine that he purposefully wrote “vanilla” music for One Direction, veering away from anything “rhythmic” or “urban.” With “Chloe,” however, Kotecha actually highlights Drew’s melodic rapping, and on the bridge, allows for a tiny of hint of ska influence. Most importantly, “Chloe” has the makings of a smash hit. The chorus is tremendously catchy and a little outrageous, opening with the line, “Chloe, I know your sister turns everyone on.” The single doesn’t even have a release date and yet most of the girls at the Paradise already knew the words, having watched shaky YouTube videos from earlier tour stops. In the few months since the X-Factor, Emblem3 has already recorded its whole album but as yet, they do not have an album title or a release date. In fact, during an interview at New York’s Z100 radio station, Wesley explained that the band is still in the process of “killing babies,” or eliminating songs from the final track list.

In the meantime, Emblem3 seems to be in limbo as they figure out what kind of band they can be. It may be that Cowell and Kotecha are slowly molding Emblem3 into another vanilla boy band. On the other hand, it may be that the members of Emblem3 are pioneering a different path and forcing 90s rock back into pop music consciousness as they go. The band’s reception at the Paradise seemed to be evidence of the latter. Music critics tend to dismiss the significance of the tween audience. But if there is anything to learn from the careers of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, or Taylor Swift, it is this: as go the tweens, so goes the nation. The girls who showed up hours in advance to see Emblem3 at The Paradise shrieked and sang their way through the concert in home-made fan t-shirts. They took endless videos on their cell phones and desperately stretched out their arms to grab Wesley’s hand. And they enthusiastically sung along to covers of Sublime’s “Santeria” and Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” They did the same at every tour stop including two back-to-back sold-out shows at Chicago House of Blues. If that isn’t evidence of a change in pop music, I don’t know what is.