Trevor Penick used to get ribbed by his Cal State Fullerton fraternity brothers for his admitted love of the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.
These two vocal groups are huge hits with young teens and preteens, but they are often derided by hipsters for their prefabricated nature and breezy but lightweight brand of pop music. The Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync were assembled and molded by Lou Pearlman, an Orlando-based businessman.
"I pretty much knew that you can't just throw a bunch of [attractive] guys onstage and make them successful," said Penick, coming to the defense of the mega-popular quintets. "They're performers. They sing and they dance, and those are hard things to do well."
The 20-year-old has an even greater appreciation for these so-called boy bands now that he has unexpectedly found himself in another Pearlman-crafted vocal group.
A year ago, Penick was a third-year theater student at Cal State Fullerton with designs on an acting career. Today, he's one-fifth of the teen-oriented outfit O-Town. What distinguishes this Orlando-based group from other 'N Sync/Backstreet wannabes is that it's already known to millions of Americans, even though it has yet to release an album or a single.
O-Town wasn't just established with the pop music marketplace in mind; it was created as the focal point of the ABC "reality" television series "Making the Band." The show premiered in March and is scheduled to close its first season at 9 tonight. ("Making the Band" is scheduled to return early next year as a midseason show.)
A product of ABC and MTV Productions, the same outfit responsible for MTV's similarly styled series "The Real World," "Making the Band" documents the real-life formation and development of O-Town.
Like a grand theater production, the five members of the group were selected from open casting calls in eight U.S. cities. Penick was one of 220 who showed up in Los Angeles to audition for the show and band last fall.
"One of my best friends saw something about the audition on the Internet," Penick recalled. "He said, 'Dude, Lou Pearlman is auditioning guys for a new group.' I said, 'That's so us. We should go try out.' We went to the audition just to have fun. I never thought I had a chance to make it."
An all-around entertainer, Penick possessed the dancing and singing skills for O-Town. As the son of an African American father and a white mother, he also fit into what he sensed was Pearlman and MTV Productions' vision for a multiethnic lineup.
Finally, he has an expressive personality that's perfect for "reality" television.
"Because it's television, I would say personality and being able to speak to people in front of the camera and letting your feelings out was definitely a major reason [I was chosen for the group]," he explained. "That's not hard for me at all."
Still, nothing quite prepared him for the almost total lack of privacy he and his bandmates had to endure while the show was in production. (The series finished filming March 18.) About the only time the quintet, which lived communally in Orlando, wasn't required to be available for filming was when they were tucked in bed at night.
Penick said it took about two weeks for the guys in the group to feel comfortable with the notion of cameramen trailing them wherever they went.
The next crucial test for O-Town is to prove to the public that they are more than just an excuse for a television show. Penick believes the lads are up for the challenge. The group is about to sign with a new record label headed by Clive Davis, former Arista chief. The first O-Town single and album should be out sometime this fall.
"We're excited that soon it's only going to be about the music," he said. "Right now we're getting fans because they like us on TV. Once the album comes out, people are going to like us because they're fans of the music."
The album will include one song written specifically for the band by ace songwriter Diane Warren, who has scored countless hits for artists such as Aerosmith and Toni Braxton. Penick said at least two tracks on the upcoming album will be songs written by O-Town.
Unlike most groups releasing a first album, O-Town enjoys the advantage of having an audience that already has an intimate knowledge of the group.
"A TV show is the biggest thing you could have in terms of promotion," Penick said. "We have 10 million people who watch our show every week. If even a tenth of those people go out and buy the album, it goes platinum. We're excited about that."
O-Town is also in the midst of a six-week, Saturday-only mall tour. The group will perform Sept. 16 at the Brea Mall as part of a fashion and music event, the YM Fashion and Music Explosion.
Penick derives much of his inspiration from his parents. The Rancho Cucamonga native said his father works 18-hour days. The elder Penick delivers bread to restaurants during the day and at night works for Avis rental cars.
"The toughest part [of being in O-Town] is not being able to see my family," Penick said. "I miss the little things, like going home and just having dinner with my parents. I also miss things like walking to the cafeteria [at Cal State Fullerton] to get food and sitting down and talking with my buddies."
"Making the Band" airs on ABC at 9 tonight. O-Town will perform Sept. 16 at the Brea Mall. Noon to 5 p.m. (714) 990-2732.