[7 December 2008]
It started out as a social experiment when I, a jaded metal head, volunteered to see the newly reunited New Kids on the Block with my friends. At 29—the eldest of the four 20-something girls who made a pilgrimage to see the boy band pioneers get it “2gether” again—I grew up when the New Kids were the hottest things to hit pre-teen girls since neon slouch socks.
Truth be told, I never really liked NKOTB when they were popular. I was one of those kids who made fun of the girls who sported the sweatshirts and gigantic buttons that featured the likenesses of Danny, Donnie, Joe, Jon, and Jordan. (Which suited me just fine, since they made fun of me for liking Motley Crue and Guns N’ Roses first!)
It wasn’t until I hit my post-college years and the New Kids’ music had faded from the public ear that I began to soften towards the five boys from Boston. By that time, Donnie Wahlberg had a few movies under his belt; Jordan Knight had moved on to producing (coupled with a stint on the now-defunct celebrity train-wreck, The Surreal Life); and Joey McIntyre had appeared on Broadway as well as the somewhat classier career-resuscitator, Dancing With the Stars.
My conversion started innocently enough when “Cover Girl” came blaring through the radio speakers on an ‘80s power hour a few years ago. For reasons unknown even to myself, I began rocking out to it. When I came home, I downloaded the song and stored it as one of numerous guilty pleasures hidden on my iPod. I wondered about this sudden turn in taste. Perhaps, next to some of the disposable drek on current Top 40 Radio, ‘80s boy band tunes sounded pretty damn good. Next to 98 Degrees, NKOTB positively dripped with Motown influence and therefore, significantly more musical credibility. Maybe I was just getting soft in my old age. I chalked it up to the wave of nostalgia that my generation had latched onto for all the things that we grew up with. As much as I like to consider myself an objective sideline observer, I was no different. For the generation that coined the phrases “Quarter-Life Crisis” and “30 is the new 18”, there’s a sense of safety in familiarity—a reminder of a time of sweet simplicity without bills or adult responsibility.
Fast forward to 2008 when my friends asked if I wanted to come with them to see New Kids on the Block, I figured what the hell. The last two live shows that I had seen were Marilyn Manson and Motley Crue. Having been a lifelong metal head, I was curious to see how fans at the other end of the musical spectrum behaved at live shows. I was familiar with the New Kids’ catalog and had a copy of their latest disc, The Block, so I wouldn’t be in for much of a surprise musically. In terms of stage show and crowd ambience, though, I had no idea what to expect.
The evening of the show, Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center was packed with women—so many women in fact that the men’s restrooms had been opened up to the roughly 10,000 females in attendance. There were maybe 20 guys in the venue, very few of whom weren’t accompanying a wife or a girlfriend. This was a hen party of epic proportions. Most of the women at the show were between their early 20s and late 30s. Some were clearly fan-girls from way back in the day, earnestly excited to see the band they grew up listening to. Others, dressed in ironic ‘80s attire, and sporting crimped hair with tongue planted duly in cheek, were there to soak in the nostalgia factor and have a fun night out with the girls. And still, others, giving their potential “competition” the ol’ up-and-down, were there to attempt to bag and boff a Boston boy from the Block.
Unless the New Kids converted to Mormonism, evidenced by the sea of shirts proclaiming scads of women to be one of the many “Mrs. Knights” or “Mrs. McIntyres”, pop concerts attract just as many—if not more—groupies (or groupie wannabees) as rock shows. In lieu of Ed Hardy designer diaphragms and black leather, instead, pop groupies choose colors of a more pastel palate to hoist their goods on display.
Making our way to our seats (way up in the nosebleeds), my friends and I settled in to check out the Kids’ opening acts. Lady GaGa (who appears on NKOTB’s “Big Girl Now” on The Block) kicked things off. Reminiscent of Gwen Stefani if she came out of Webster Hall instead of SoCal, the bewigged blonde had a strong stage presence. Lady GaGa put on a highly energetic and entertaining show, performing at least seven songs including her singles, “Just Dance” and “Pokerface”.
By contrast, the other opener, Natasha Beddingfield, despite having more years of performing under her belt, wasn’t anything special. While Beddingfield has a lovely voice that’s well suited to the positive, cheery songs she performed (such as her major hit, the ubiquitous “Unwritten”), there’s not much there in the way of stage presence.
While the crowd was into both opening acts, it paled in comparison to the reception that New Kids on the Block got as they rose to the stage from a platform beneath. In all the shows I’ve been to, I’ve never heard a crowd so loud in my life. The New Kids and their band were pumping some serious decibels, but it was nothing compared to the sound of 10,000 chicks reliving their fondest prepubescent wet dream and climaxing in unison. NKOTB’s fan’s sang, cheered, and screamed throughout the entire show.
The New Kids (now between the ages of 35 and 39) were back and had 10,000 eager females eating out of the palm of their hands. Older songs were given a fresh twist with the addition of a full backing band, making the NKOTB’s classics sound right at home alongside their newer material. Vocally, the Boston boys were in fine form. With the exception of pre-taped backing vocals there was very little Milli Vanilli-ing. Each of the original Fab Five maintained near-perfect pitch throughout the set, even while engaging in synchronized dance routines. The back-up dancers performed more complex maneuvers, filling out the stage and dancing with the New Kids. However, the guys held their own, particularly the über-buff Danny Wood who incorporated an impressive breakdance routine into the set.
For the most part, they did a lot of the same, simple steps that made them famous back in the ‘80s. Remember that side-to-side swiping motion with the hands in the air? They did it. Then again, that’s what the fans paid to see: a piece of their youth recaptured. Why tamper with the formula?
Although Donnie Wahlberg—the tough one—commandeered the mike, steering the Kids and the crowd through the set, Joey McIntyre and Jordan Knight’s vocals took the forefront for most of the songs, their falsettos perfect—almost castrati-like—in their preservation. Joey’s rendition of “Please Don’t Go Girl” featured him kneeling center stage with the rest of the guys dancing behind him and providing backup.
The real cream-in-the-jeans moment, however, came during Jordan Knight’s spotlight, performing the perv-tastic “Give It To You” from his 1999 solo album. As Jordan noted that “Anyone can make you sweat / But I can keep you wet,” the crowd roared their approval. This swoon-fest had visual accompaniment as Jordan’s fab abs were on full display courtesy of a white, unbuttoned shirt that danced around him thanks to the wind machine turned to full blast. Cliché? You bet! But it worked for the crowd.
The nearly two-hour set was a mix of their greatest hits from the ‘80s and early ‘90s along with a substantial serving of new material from their comeback disc, The Block. Midway through the show, the Kids took to a small revolving stage in the middle of the arena, performing their old hit “Tonight” along with two newer songs, “Dirty Dancing” and “2 in the Morning”.
Although I initially proceeded to this event with caution (I wasn’t expecting much but the promise of a fun, semi-snarky night out and the good company of good friends), dare I say it, but the New Kids on the Block put on a great show. They certainly gave their screaming fans their money’s worth with their singing, dancing, multiple costume changes, and sheer duration of the evening’s set. While my cynical nature isn’t easily quieted, I found myself transported back to 5th grade again. Only this time, I was cheering for a boy band I once loathed.
During the performance of new song, “Single”, the appeal of a reunited New Kids on the Block finally hit me. The telltale lyric of “I’ll be your boyfriend / Until the song goes off,” says it all. This was a band that these girls—now women—grew up with. In the innocent days of closed-mouth kissing, songs like “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” proffered a quintet of nice, non-threatening boys that wouldn’t dream of slipping roofies to the girls who worshipped them (even though these girls weren’t even old enough to know what a “roofie” was). It was pure fantasy.
As these girls grew older, learned about heartbreak and possibly met said roofie-dropping dudes, the music of the resuscitated NKOTB still spoke to them and their inner-romantic. The music may be a little bit more adult and slightly more sexual, but you get the feeling that while the New Kids may grind on you, they’ll at least take you out for Ben & Jerry’s afterwards or at least call once in a while to see how you’re doing.
The fantasy is still there, it just grew up a little bit.