In the early 1990s, a new musical group broke a longstanding record for the most weeks with a Number One hit, eclipsing Elvis Presley. Two years later, they one-upped themselves with another blockbuster hit. A year after that they did it again, staying on top with their latest single for a record 16 weeks.
To date, this group ranks fourth all-time with 50 cumulative weeks spent atop the Billboard pop chart. No, it wasn’t Nirvana, or Hootie and the Blowfish.
It was Boyz II Men who “broke the code of the Hot 100 charts,” as Michael Bivins, the Boston native and founding member of New Edition, says in the opening moments of “This Is Pop.” “And no one talks about it.”
“This Is Pop” is a smart new Netflix series premiering Tuesday. It’s a deep dive into various phenomena that have helped define the popular music saturating the airwaves at any given moment. Not only that: These eight episodes help define the times themselves.
Themes include the teenage song factory of the Brill Building around 1960, the dominance of Britpop in the mid-’90s and Auto-Tune in the 2000s, how country music went mainstream, and how music festivals have become a kind of secular pilgrimage. The first episode, the one that features Boyz II Men, explains how their brand of close harmony galvanized the boy band craze of the late 1990s — and how this group of onetime Philadelphia high school classmates never got adequate credit for that.
“We treated this like journalism, not entertainment, like ‘E!’ or ‘Behind the Music,’” says series producer Amanda Burt. “How do we ask some big questions through the lens of music?”
Burt came to Banger Films, the Toronto-based production company behind “This Is Pop,” from the CBC, where she spent several years as a newsroom producer. Banger is the award-winning house that produced the documentary feature “Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage” and the Netflix series “Hip-Hop Evolution,” among other projects.
Despite their impact, surprisingly little has been written about Boyz II Men, says Burt. The boy bands episode, she says, is “one of the ones I’m proudest of in terms of the shoe leather” — the solid reporting that makes a documentary soar beyond the initial research.
“Yeah, we kicked Elvis in the butt, but it wasn’t so much about that,” says Bivins, on the phone in his car. He signed the group to his management company, Biv Entertainment, after they sang a New Edition song for him.
“People used to be on top one, two, three weeks,” says Bivins, who is now the CEO of Roxbury-based apparel company SportyRich. Defending the No. 1 spot for months at a time was an incredible accomplishment, he says.
“That’s the monumental part.”
With multiple directors working on the series, each episode has a distinctive feel. It’s not boilerplate. The Brill Building installment, for instance, tells the story of the songwriters’ clubhouse that produced Carole King, Burt Bacharach, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller, and many others in four songs — a “portmanteau vibe,” says the series producer, in the manner of “32 Short Films about Glenn Gould.”
One of the segments, on the Shangri-Las’ rebel classic “Leader of the Pack,” features an elaborate video for the song that looks like it could have been shot in 1964, when the tune topped the charts.
The Britpop episode features collage-style interludes that pay homage to the cutout animation of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam. An episode on protest music finds fresh ways to present familiar news footage from various social movements, from the Vietnam era to Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March.
With so much ground to cover, there were plenty of hard choices to make, Burt says. They made one decision early on, she says: to ignore the urge to tell a neat, chronological story.
That’s partly a product of the way we listen to music now, she suggests.
“People are not necessarily listening in chronological order, and maybe not to full albums anymore,” she says. Algorithms will match your mood at the moment; playlists describe the mood you were in at the time you compiled them.
“We didn’t want to be tethered to time and place,” Burt continues. “That’s not how people experience music anymore. Music has been flattened, for better or worse, into a wide, expansive playlist.”
Historically, artists like Boyz II Men — or Neil Sedaka, for that matter — have gotten short shrift in the official canon of pop music. The term “pop” itself is often deployed as shorthand for “frivolous.”
But the music that tops the charts gets there, of course, because it’s what millions of people want to hear at that moment.
“If you’re a core Black group one day, and then you become ‘pop,’ you feel like some credibility has been taken away,” says Bivins, whose group Bell Biv DeVoe plays Fenway Park on Aug. 6, supporting New Kids on the Block.
But with his own groups as well as the ones whose careers he’s overseen, including Boyz II Men, he learned to change his perspective.
“Instead of claiming the fluff side,” he says, “we claimed the popular side.”
THIS IS POP
On Netflix. Streams June 22.
E-mail James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.