The late ’90s and early 2000s pop culture scene were full of jelly bracelets, Tamagotchis, music CDs, flip phones, and, of course, boy bands. And Pixar’s Turning Red captures the spirit of that time by weaving in nostalgia with cultural specificity and a profoundly resonating coming-of-age story.
The Nerds of Color joined their fellow journalists to attend a sneak preview of Turning Red and had a chance to speak to some of the creative figureheads behind the making of the film. Since the film is set in the early 2000s and is an exploration of the mother and daughter dynamics, Turning Red director Domee Shi needed her character Mei (Rosalie Cheng) to be obsessed with something that her mother (Sandra Oh) would disapprove of. Enter the boy band.
Every generation has their boy bands from The Beatles of the ’60s, New Kids on the Block of the ’90s, N*Sync of the early 2000s, and the BTS of today. So given the characters and setting, it only made sense that boy bands would play a role in Turning Red.
“We really wanted to find a specific backdrop to tell this coming-of-age story. So we decided to set it in Toronto, Canada, in the early 2000s,” Shi said. “Not just because it’s when I grew up as a tween, but it was also the height of tweet of teen pop mania in the late ’90s, early 2000s, you had those boy bands, pop idols. And we also just wanted to avoid social media topics and just kind of tell this story in a simpler time of flip phones, CDs, Jelly bracelets, and Tamagotchis.”
“We needed our character Mei to be obsessed with something that her mom would not approve of,” said Shi said about 4*Town. “Boy bands were the first step into the world of boys for a lot of girls that age. The guys were all super pretty, polished, soft, and loving, and they had of way of bringing girls and their besties together. Plus, I thought it’d be really cool to create an animated boy band.”
As a mother of three teenagers, producer Lindsay Collins knows what it’s like to live in a household where music is constantly played. And though Billie Ellish was a relative unknown at the time, her song, “Ocean Eyes,” repeatedly played in her house. “So when we started thinking about songwriters who could capture the early 2000s sound and bring something fresh to it, Billie’s name came up,” Collins said. “And after further research with the Disney Music team, we got a better sense of Finneas and Billy and their influences, their style, and figured, you know, why not start with our dream choice?”
Collins admitted to the request being weird and was unsure they would accept their invitation. But after sending a handmade scrapbook filled with doodles, drawings, photos, fan art, photos of Billie and Phinneas’ heads on Turning Red character’s bodies, and fake ticket stubs, the two Grammy Award-winning artists agreed to collaborate on the Pixar film.
But getting Billie and Phinneas to lend their talents to write three of the film’s songs was one thing. Now they needed to figure out what kind of songs the film needed. Luckily, Shi and Collins already had three ideas. They were looking for the confidence booster, the kind of song you would sing to your friends when they are down. The hit song that no one can get out of their head no matter how hard they try. And lastly, they wanted the love ballad that makes you feel like you’ve just had your heart broken, even if you’re 13 years old and have never been on a date.
“Okay, so boy bands have often been ridiculed by the media as most things that teen girls are obsessed with are, and we really wanted to pay tribute to this cultural phenomenon in the film and not just make fun of it. Make fun of it a little bit, but mostly honor it,” Shi said. So many girls’ and boys’ lives are shaped by their first musical obsessions. And boy bands represent for many girls, this first foray into adolescence into music, fashion pop culture. And they offer a safe, soft and nonthreatening introduction to subjects like love, relationships, and sex.
Shi recalled a time when she was 11 and horrified her parents by belting out the lyrics to the Spice Girls song “when to become one.” But, of course, she was utterly oblivious to what the lyrics meant at the time.
For Mei, 4*Town represents a new alluring world that is the total opposite of her mom and her home life. It’s a world that Shi says Mei has been pushing away until the red panda arrives and brings her passions to the surface.
Since Turning Red introduces 4*Town as Pixar’s first animated boy band, Shi and her team needed to look at the personalities that make up the traditional boy band. And while there is plenty to look back on, the director says there was no specific boy band they looked to as the model for 4*Town.
“They’re definitely a homage to all the boy bands. I love growing up in the late ’90s, early 2000s, like Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, O-Town, and 98 Degrees,” Shi said. “We really wanted them to also feel like multicultural. And like, even though they are like a homage to the boy bands of that era.”
Boy bands have been stealing hearts for many years, and many of their songs end up on our playlists, whether we like to admit it or not. While their popularity has not changed, their place within the pop culture landscape is a reflection of the world that we live in today, with audiences embracing bands like BTS. As such, Shi wanted to reflect that diversity in 4Town. “We wanted to bring a little bit of a modern touch to one of the boy band members. Tae Young is definitely a homage to the K-pop boy bands that I got into in college. I’m from the second generation of K-pop bands,” she said. “I’m from the era of like, Big Bang 2PM, and all that good stuff. And when we were designing the 4*town band members, you know, we definitely had each boy’s purpose and their personality pinpointed. You know, we have Robaire (Jordan Fisher), who’s made who’s Mei’s crush, he’s the leader of the group. He’s the main vocalist. He will probably go on to have a very successful solo career. You know, we pinpointed the cute one, Tae Young (Grayson Villanueva). The sporty one, Aaron Z (Josh Levi). Aaron T (Topher Ngo) is the goofy one. Jesse (Finneas O’Connell) is the pretty one. So they all kind of have their own personalities and their own strengths.”
“I mean, all of us, I think have such deep knowledge of boy bands from our own kind of fandom that we were able to kind of come to quick consensus about the different types of members we wanted in the band,” Collins added.
Turning Red is scheduled to launch exclusively on Disney+ on March 11, 2022.