We start with a riddle: four twenty-something pop singers, usually greeted by throngs of hyperventilating girls, pile out of a car and land face-to-face with a woman old enough to be their mother. How many seconds before they lose interest?
The typical young man would be scanning over my shoulder in the time it takes him to say, “Excuse me, ma’am.” These guys, however, belong to Nickelodeon’s boy band Big Time Rush, and their behavior would make any mom proud. They have no idea yet that I’ll be interviewing them, but they smile and extend hands. They politely ask if they’re in the right parking lot in Columbus, Ohio. When it’s clear we’re all in the wrong place, they chat about the two dogs that have joined them for their 60-plus-city concert tour.
James Maslow, 22, unzips a cat-size carrier to reveal Fox, a 1-year-old Alaskan Klee Kai. “I’ve always loved big dogs,” he says, shrugging his shoulders. “He’s a husky I put in a dryer.”
A few steps away, Carlos Pena Jr., 22, furrows his brow as he coaxes his 2-year-old German shepherd, Sydney, out of her crate. Booties are strapped to her front feet. Carlos squats and looks into the dog’s eyes as he speaks. “She burned her paws on the tarmac,” he says. “They said she’ll be fine, but she’s hurting right now.”
Kendall Schmidt, 21, and Logan Henderson, 22, join James in consoling the pooch. “You’ll be okay, Sydney.” “Good girl, Sydney.” “Aw, poor Sydney.”
A cynic would say this is just part of Big Time Rush’s happy act. A cynic would be wrong.
Over the next four hours, these band members mix it up with dozens of strangers during a photo shoot for PARADE at Grandview Heights High School. They never complain or swear, never throw a fit. They are a frenetic bundle of inside jokes and gentle ribbing, relying on each other to get through all the leaping, dancing, and running in polyester school jackets required on this 96-degree day.
When asked if they like each other as much as it seems, they light up like fireflies. “Yeah,” says Logan. “We argue like brothers, but we love each other.”
Good thing. They’ve been virtually inseparable since 2009, after Nickelodeon cast them as a frolicking foursome that becomes a pop band and sings through life’s capers. The show’s creator, Scott Fellows, modeled the story line after the 1960s show The Monkees, though in this version, the squeaky-clean leads started as high school hockey players. But as with their TV predecessors, Big Time Rush have become an offscreen phenomenon, complete with hit records and countless girls whose knees buckle in syncopated swoons at the sight of them.
“This is not a new story. It started with Frank Sinatra and all those screaming bobby-soxers,” says pop culture critic Elayne Rapping, professor emerita of American Studies at the University at Buffalo. “You’d rather have girls attracted to the good boys like Big Time Rush.” Her laugh is full of mischief. “I was attracted to the bad boys. I loved the Rolling Stones.”
The Rolling Stones? One look at Mick Jagger and Mom banned him from our house. No matter. Being the oldest, most dutiful child, I was drawn to the good boys.
I was in first grade when the Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964. That night, I sat frog-legged in front of the TV, mesmerized. I’d just met my future husband. I was sure that Paul would wait for me. Of course, millions of girls just like me were planning their own nuptials to John, Paul, George, or Ringo.
But it’s the music that really weds us to our memories. I cannot hear “Penny Lane” without thinking of the barbershop I passed on my way to West Elementary School. I listen to Paul McCartney sing “Michelle” and remember whining to Mom, “Constance? You had to name me Constance?”
When my daughter fell hard for the Backstreet Boys, I became a fan just to be in her orbit. She was a moody 12-year-old hiding behind a block of bangs and the slams of a bedroom door, but there was one way to coax her out. “Hey, honey?” I’d say innocently. “How ’bout playing ‘I Want It That Way’?” She’d slide the CD into the living room stereo, and we’d sing along softly together. “‘Yeah, you are my fire ’”
When Nickelodeon created a boy band for a new generation, they selected their Fab Four from among thousands of hopefuls. It was the band members themselves who came up with the name Big Time Rush, or BTR to fans. (“They had Go Big Time,” Logan says, “but we couldn’t stand it.”)
More than 6.8 million watched the official series premiere on Jan. 18, 2010, catapulting the show into Nickelodeon’s ratings stratosphere. Both of the band’s albums, BTR in 2010 and Elevate in 2011, debuted in Billboard’s Top 15. A theme in all the music: Every girl is beautiful and can break a cute guy’s heart.
Not all TV critics have been kind, but the members of BTR have a sense of humor about who and what they are: grown men pretending to be teenagers in a band born for TV. The show requires them to be over-the-top silly, but they’re serious about their music; like prefab boy bands before them, they’re learning to exercise creative control. They cowrote eight of the songs on Elevate.
If you want to get to know the guys of BTR, do not ask about dating; past missteps have made them fiercely protective of their girlfriends’ privacy. But ask how they’re growing as artists and you’re in for an enthusiastic tutorial.
“The second time around we were like, ‘This is our band. We should be contributing to what it is,’” says James.
Kendall raises a foot and wiggles it. “We also decided, ‘Hey, we’re grown men. We can pick out our own shoes for the cover.’”
Their concerts are ambitious and tightly choreographed. Their early days of small venues have grown into arenas packed with screaming girls, many as young as 6. An entire generation is now weaving memories with BTR. The band knows this and treads gently, each member taking turns as group ambassador.
After one photo setup with more than a dozen Grandview Heights girls, James shakes the hand of each one, asks her name, and thanks her for agreeing to be an extra. Carlos makes small talk with them during a break. After each round of racing down a hallway, they check the mood of the girls, who can’t stop giggling.
“You okay?” “Sorry it’s so hot.” “We really appreciate you being here today.”
They know what it feels like to be treated badly by someone they admire and don’t ever want to be the jerk who harpoons dreams. “How many artists have you seen just walk away and act like it’s not important?” Kendall says.
Carlos nods. “I hate meeting my favorite bands because then it just ruins it.”
“Yeah,” James adds. “They act like they’re better, and nobody’s better than somebody else. By all means, we’re not perfect, but I think the least we can do for our fans is be nice.”
Often, they hear from girls who confess to being despondent but find hope in the music and antics of BTR. “It’s a little hard sometimes,” Kendall says. “To think that you could’ve affected somebody like that is difficult. And for me it’s always a hard one when you see a girl cry.”
They focus on the upside of celebrity, Logan says. “For us to even say hi to someone, to change their day around or change something inside of them—that’s a pretty cool feeling.”
We’ve come to the end of the shoot. BTR’s publicist promises that lunch is waiting at the arena, where they’ll rehearse for hours.
This time, each young man gives middle-aged me a hug.
I leave hoping that fame never changes Kendall, Carlos, Logan, and James.