The 1980s was an era of big pants, bigger hair, hairspray and mall tours. It was a decade defined, in part, by manufactured teen sensations such as Boston boy band New Kids on the Block, who, 22 years after playing Houston's Summit at the peak of their success, perform at Toyota Center Saturday night with '90s-era successors the Backstreet Boys in tow.
After the New Kids released their self-titled debut album in 1986, hordes of brace-faced adolescent girls grew obsessed with the group, considering themselves "in love" with at least one of the five members. The New Kids ruled the pop world in one encompassing, overnight swoop, igniting a mania not seen since the Beatles, at least in America.
In retrospect, the New Kids were destined for success. In addition to being artfully championed by savvy former New Edition promoter Maurice Starr, they were talented, dreamy and sang wildly infectious pop songs. When Hangin' Tough came out in 1988, I was only five years old, but thought Joey McIntyre was the cutest boy ever. He was young (just 15), cherub-faced and belted "Please Don't Go Girl" like a precociously seasoned hopeless romantic.
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I vividly remember jealously — and reluctantly — sitting at home with my parents as my brother, who was deemed old enough to attend a concert with chaperones, attended the group's 1989 show at the Summit. I defiantly wore my (then) oversized Joey McIntyre T-shirt all week, my only means of effectively communicating my disappointment in not attending the show.
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By the time 1990's Step by Step came out, I shifted my affection to the "Rebel" New Kid, Donnie Wahlberg. I liked the way he goofed off during interviews and maniacally jumped off drum sets during concerts; he also took off his shirt a lot. Until I was old enough to begin developing real-life crushes, there were the New Kids.
So, the New Kids were cute. They were good dancers. They had cool dolls, lunch boxes and sleeping bags with their faces on them. But why were they such a wild success? And why are self-admitted music snobs like myself openly excited — 20-plus years after their breakthrough and 15 years after their break-up — to attend their concert this weekend?
If the New Kids taught us anything, it's that the quality of a pop act's music must be as good as their gimmick. Perhaps inspired by preceding well-packaged (albeit starkly different) acts like the Beatles, the Monkees or the Jackson 5, the New Kids were indeed pioneers of their realm; they are one of the few lasting examples of "good pop."
The New Kids were my first taste of sincerely loving music. I wore a T-shirt with Joey's face on it, but I wasn't one of those screaming, frenzied girls lining up to catch a glimpse of them at the mall. I loved coming home from school, strapping on my roller skates, putting Hangin' Tough in my tape player and skating around my family's kitchen, simply loving their songs.
There have only been a few groups in life that I've considered myself dedicated to. That level of dedication naturally shifts with age, but the New Kids were one of them, and they were the first.
Today, I am an admittedly critical indie-listening hipster. I'm obsessed with music. I find pleasure in knowing bands you've never heard of, and when I'm not listening to or playing music, I'm writing about it. On paper, I'm likely not pegged as a former New Kids super-fan. Not to say I could listen to the New Kids exclusively and for the rest of my days, but not to say I don't take their tunes for a spin on my iPod every now and then; I do.
Hangin' Tough is one of the albums that I consider the soundtrack trifecta of my early childhood, besides Madonna's Like a Virgin and the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill. These albums ignited my interest in music, and first made me aware of what I like and dislike, and why.
I remember when the New Kids abbreviated their name to NKOTB in 1993. It was like Delilah cutting Samson's hair — they lost all their strength. I distinctly recall hearing their new single on the radio, and although I considered myself too "mature" for the New Kids by that time, I listened with curious interest, dissecting the reasons why the song "sucked," compared to their previous singles.
Thanks to the New Kids, I gave my first critique at age ten.
Last year, I interviewed several Justin Bieber fans who had been standing in line for hours outside Toyota Center to see the singer before doors even opened. Many arrived in limousines with their friends and mothers, and most of the girls I spoke with used the word "love" when describing their feelings for the entertainer. I remembered that blissfully naive feeling, and immediately likened it to New Kids mania.
In 1989, girls my age genuinely believed the feelings we had for the New Kids — whether they were aimed at The Romantic or The Rebel — defined love, at least as we then knew it.
Come Saturday, along with droves of fans and (I suspect) many other women my age, I will head to the Toyota Center with warm feelings of wistful nostalgia, unapologetic excitement and fond memories...not unlike that old, familiar yet fleeting feeling of seeing your first love.
I might even resurrect my Joey McIntyre T-shirt for the occasion.
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