New Kids on the Block’s Fans Are Hangin’ Tough

The 33 1/3 book on New Kids on the Block highlights the perils of aging gracefully.

I want you know that I’m listening to the Hangin’ Tough album while I write this, because it’s probably been too long since I did, as I was born in 1981 and the New Kids on the Block were my first concert. I was in third grade and my mom, bless her heart, took me to a stadium show.

It’s fair to say that the mindset of a pre-teen fan-girl is not beyond my emotional range. Hangin’ Tough was the first album I got in the exciting new format of compact disc with my very own first paycheck from a lame summer part-time job, in one of those 9 CDs for $1! mail order swindles. So when I was faced with “do you wanna go?” in reference to an New Kids on the Block reunion concert when I was in my early 30s, it was very much an existential conundrum.

Fans of New Kids on the Block, commonly referred to as Blockheads, are perhaps some of the hardiest soccer moms on this hater-filled planet. Most critics recognize the New Kids as ushering in the biggest wave of interest in boy band pop since the Beatles, yet there is near zero critical regard for their actual music. Despite their overwhelming unpopularity amongst the overly analytical, the large fan base of this band is so undeniably robust that it’s practically mystical. Rebecca Wallwork’s contribution to the excellent 33 1/3 series attempts to grapple with New Kids on the Bock as a surprisingly ongoing phenomenon by examining the album that launched them.

She’s a good choice to cover Hangin’ Tough, because she has leapt over and over again into the invitation to go to their shows as a grown woman. She’s also Australian, which gives her a safe enough distance away from more insane American breeds of celebrity worship so that she is able to display consistently strong self-awareness throughout the dissection of one of her favorite things. Yes, New Kids on the Block engages in silly promotional events, they sometimes forget lyrics on stage, and women in the middle of life do not like to wait out in the freezing cold for eight hours before a show. Wallwork loves the band, but critically.

This short book has good bones. The main content is bracketed by a consideration of what neuroscience says about fandom. Wallwork makes it personal through anecdotal reports from the New Kids’ fan scene; really readers can drop in any band name they want for those bits to better suit their personal fandom, and the information still works. Music is linked to the brain’s reward system, so whether one correctly anticipates or is pleasantly surprised by a particular tune, in floods the dopamine.

Right around age 14, when girls are at peak feats of emotional and biological acrobatics, the music they listen to embeds especially deeply in the brain’s reward system. Add a crowded concert to that equation and you have something verging on a collective religious experience, thousands of girls’ hearts syncing up with five semi-approachable boys from Boston.

Indeed, there’s a lot of fertile territory scattered throughout the chapters, but I frequently found myself wishing Wallwork had paused to dig in deeper. Over and over again, she drops in a quotation that is shockingly rich with sociopolitical implications, only to breeze right on by it to another personal reflection moment. This is a band of five boys from white, working-class families managed by a black man who delivered soul and R&B-inflected popular music to mainly pre-teen, white, suburban audiences at the end of the Reagan years. For example, take this loaded gem that Wallwork pulls from Amy Linden’s review in Spin in the summer of 1989: “‘Hangin’ Tough’ is hip-hop for people who are afraid of mass transit” (48).

Stamps of race and class are all over the baggage of New Kids on the Block fandom, but Wallwork refuses to really go there. She’s working on something lighter and more fun — and succeeds on that level — when she could have instead vaulted into the first serious, rigorous examination of what the New Kids meant to the America of that time. These were white kids harnessing strongly black influences, poor kids seeking harbor in the hearts of the middle class.

Maurice Starr is universally discussed as their svengali, a characterization of his exploitative relationship to the band that’s loaded with negative stereotyping. Still, there’s enough material here for smart readers to reflect on these matters for themselves. Wallwork would rather delve into the personalities of each of the five band members and highlight how each of them worked hard to help the band succeed.

The main argument of the book seems to be that, despite many external factors and the forces of chance, the New Kids on the Block deserve to be recognized as hard-working band whose members have earned their success. This type of validation is the kind a 14-year-old fan girl would seek for her favorite band. Wallwork has the critical distance to put meat on those bones; she just chooses not to rise to the occasion. As a result, Hangin’ Tough remains an album that has not been given its due.

The best I can do on that score is listen to it again. You know what? I still remember all the words to all the tracks; I’m just choosing not to go to the show.

RATING 3 / 10