The Garmlich effect

What happens when you combine a crowd of screaming middle-school girls and a manufactured boy band at the State Fair? O-Town hits the G spot!

Ashley Parker Angel makes the girls scream.

Ashley Parker Angel makes the girls scream.

Photo by Daniel Kaake

My photographer and I have been abandoned by our media escort in the midst of 16,000 teenage girls. After 10 minutes of attempting to force a path through the adolescents packed around the California State Fair’s Golden One Stage like lip-glossed sardines, she admits defeat. With a look that says, “every media professional for herself,” our escort points in the direction we should head and disappears into the Mossimo-clad masses.

Feeling a bit desperate, the photographer and I plead with the crowd and flash our press passes. Eventually, we resort to pushing the pre-teen fans as we inch our way toward the stage. It is not an easy task.

In a matter of minutes, O-Town will begin its performance. The group, whose progress from open auditions to current touring is the focus of ABC’s reality show Making the Band, is the latest in a string of five-member boy bands created by the engineers of the Backstreet Boys and ’NSync. The young fans, enthralled by the prospect of seeing pop stars who have been target-marketed to their exact demographic, have fallen victim to the Garmlich effect.

Jacob Underwood - the “tough one.”

Photo by Daniel Kaake

First brought to the light of popular culture by the creators of South Park, the Garmlich effect explains why corporate-manufactured boy bands—with their cliché lyrics, formula personalities and two-album shelf life—attract huge fan bases and incredible revenues. In one episode, the kids of South Park form their own boy band, Fingerbang! They perform at the local mall and sing such lyrics as “Girl! Girl, you’re my girl! My girl! Girl.” When the children consult Chef, their mentor and elementary-school cook, on the secret of boy-band success, Chef explains the Garmlich effect. “It’s the law of physics that states that if one girl screams for something, it will make other girls scream … until all girls within a five-mile radius are screaming. Once you get girls screamin’, you can’t stop ’em! They’re crazy!” Though largely ignored by modern science, the Garmlich effect fueled the witch trials and propelled the Beatles to stardom.

It is a force to be reckoned with.

When we reach the stage, Svala, Iceland’s answer to Christina Aguilera, is exiting with her two backup dancers and a notable absence of musicians. Although there is still another act before O-Town, the audience is already shrieking like a Songs of the Blue Whale tape on fast forward. There is a millisecond set change (eliminating musicians really cuts the lag time between acts) before Kaci—Florida’s answer to Christina Aguilera—emerges with four backup dancers and strikes a pose to Madonna’s “Music.”

Kaci looks twice her 13 years in tight jeans with a lace-up crotch, a white halter top and rhinestone belly chain. She gyrates her nonexistent hips, leans on her male dancers and talks to the pre-teen audience about the incredible pain of being dumped by someone you gave your heart to. It seems wholly inappropriate for an audience of middle-school girls, except that the crowd is filled with teens similarly dressed in second-skin jeans and backless shirts. Art in a halter top imitates life in a halter top.

Kaci shakes her 13-year-old stuff.

Photo by Daniel Kaake

When Kaci leaves the stage, the hysteria builds. Girls with the band members’ names written on their shirts and bodies gather in front of the stage. They wave signs ranging from the sweet “I love you, Dan” to the brazen “You bring the whipped cream and I’ll bring the cherry.” The crowd erupts into a spontaneous “O-Town! O-Town!” chant. The cheerleaders in the audience stand and wiggle their spirit fingers.

A voice booms over the crowd. “Here they are! Jacob, Trevor, Dan, Erik and Ashley!” Curtains at the back of the stage drop to the floor and there they stand. The crowd, already hyped, goes frantic. Girls press their training Wonderbras against the stage barrier. Hundreds of fans rush forward against the temporary fence lining the seating area. Security guards run to hold up the fence before it caves. A police officer waves a roll of yellow caution tape and orders the girls back, but she is ignored. The Garmlich effect recognizes no uniformed authority.

The collective screaming of 16,000 girls is louder than a legion of banshees flying across the moors, more piercing than 10,000 Michelin tires peeling out simultaneously. It’s impossible to absorb the force of it and still form a complete thought. Many moments pass before I remember there’s a band onstage.

Jacob Underwood is the rebel, with his dreadlocks, goatee, black clothes and studded belt. Erik-Michael Estrada is the slick-haired Latin lover. Trevor Penick sports an Afro and loose-fitting athletic clothes. Dan Miller is the clean-cut Midwesterner with button-down shirts (unbuttoned) and a groomed beard. Ashley Parker Angel is the blond, All-American boy with jeans strategically ripped around his thighs.

One of 16,000 pining fans.

Photo by Daniel Kaake

Whenever an O-Towner nears the edge of the stage, the crowd goes insane. Girls wave frantically with tears on their cheeks, hoping to catch a band member’s eye. The boys smile big and keep dancing.

To O-Town’s credit, there is a backup band that makes the fivesome’s performance less like karaoke than Kaci’s and Svala’s. Also to their credit, the boys nail their high-energy routines in perfect synchronicity despite the 100-plus-degree heat. Recognizing their showmanship as a marked contrast from the shoe-gazing grunge masters I adored in my teenage years, I discover an appreciation for their effort. Before I can catch myself, I’m considering which member is my favorite. (Something about boy bands just makes you choose.) Jacob, I think. I dig his Jesus belt buckle.

Just then, the girl next to me grabs my arm. “This is my favorite song!” she tells me. “It’s the best one!” So far, I haven’t been able to tell the songs apart. Frankly, with all the dancing, I’d forgotten to pay attention to the music. I heed my neighbor’s endorsement and focus on the stage, ready to be impressed.

The boys are singing with their hands on their hearts. “Oh Girl. I need you in my life. I want you in my world. Oh girl, girl, girl … Girl. Oh girl. A sexy girl. A lovely girl. Girl. Girl.” Just as I begin to wonder where I’ve heard this song before, my photographer snaps his fingers and says “Fingerbang!” Of course, it’s not the actual song from South Park, but the similarity is obvious. I ask my neighbor what the song is called.

O-Town nails that choreography.

Photo by Daniel Kaake

“Girl!” she says.

No kidding.

The show continues with choreographed smoothness, punctuated by a medley of covers. Beginning with Dan’s rendition of “Superstition” and ending with Erik’s interpretation of “Purple Rain,” this is the highlight of the show and the only time in which the boys can shine as individuals. Of course, this shine relies on the crowd’s recognition of other artists’ hits, like Kaci dancing to Madonna, and it’s hard to imagine O-Town with the staying power of Prince or Stevie Wonder.

The boys rush offstage, but quickly return. With pained expressions on their faces, they sing a breakup ballad that will have America’s seventh-graders slow dancing in the gymnasium come fall.

Are we just friends? Is this how it ends?” the boys implore. The girls in the crowd hold out their hands and sing every word back to them. And then it’s over.

Jacob, Trevor, Dan, Erik and Ashley run offstage waving and blowing kisses. The girls scream like anguished harpies, throwing stuffed animals and flowers that the boys don’t stop to gather. One by one they disappear into a trailer behind a fence. Ashley stops and waves from the threshold, igniting another round of delirious wailing. Then the door closes and they are gone.

In the aftermath, teary girls with mascara raccoon eyes beg the staff to let them in the trailer or at least pass on a letter or a teddy bear. One fan holds up a bottle and screams, “I have O-Town’s water! I have O-Town’s water!” as her friends stare longingly at the plastic container. My photographer and I debate whether she will drink the water that may have touched their lips or leave it enshrined on her dresser as a reminder of her amazing day at the O-Town show. Ah, youth.