Once upon a time, there was an empire ruled by five young, naive, attractive jesters. They traveled the world, entertaining millions of boy-crazy young girls.
These jolly youngsters were known as New Kids on the Block, and their ringleader was a Boston-based music kingpin named Maurice Starr. In the early '80s, Starr was responsible for the success of the prefabricated black boy band New Edition, whose alumni include everyone's favorite habitual meltdown, Bobby Brown. But before all that, just as New Edition started to seem as stale as last Sunday's Chronicle, Starr got to thinking. "What could be better than a prefabricated black boy band?" he wondered to himself. "A prefabricated white boy band," the answer came at once. "One with 'New' in the name. Americans love anything new." And so, after a series of cattle calls, dance auditions and photo shoots, New Kids on the Block was born in 1984.
Before you could say "hah!" Joey, Danny, Donnie, Jonathan and Jordan became household names. Only if you were both deaf and blind could you avoid their presence. No fewer than 140 different products were licensed with the New Kids trademark -- everything from videos, dolls, cards and comforters to posters, lunch pails, T-shirts and alarm clocks. New Kids on the Block were awake and in your face. You even knew their "wicked-awesome" dance moves.
Starr had tapped into an unplundered vein in the pop culture gold mine: the millions of young girls who then were making do as best they could in a boy's world of hair metal and early hip-hop. The New Kids presented a good-clean-fun sound and image, and their empire reigned supreme for years. In 1989 alone, they grossed around $850 million, thanks in part to their eight-time platinum-selling album Hanging Tough. And then a slow fizzle set in -- other, fresher boy bands arose, and by 1995 it was all over, though Knight did have one solo hit in 1999.
Now, 15 years after the headiest of the glory days, Jordan Knight is still hanging tough. He's no longer new and he's no longer a kid, and he's no longer on the block or even in the same neighborhood he once inhabited. On a stormy November Monday, he's back in Houston, only this time it's not in one of the city's mega-venues. This time he's at the Sidecar Pub, a compact midsize showcase bar in a strip mall on the city's far northwest side. The pub isn't the size of the Engine Room, or even Fat Cat's -- much less the mega-venues he once knew like the Dome or the Summit.
Just before showtime, Chad Z, Knight's road manager and warm-up DJ, stood behind the CD mixer. Before him, the area in front of the stage was swarmed with women six rows deep -- most of the 80 people who turned out for the show. "We're gonna take it back to middle school for some of you," Chad said, as he cut into a medley of old New Kids song teasers. As the hits were phased in and out of the mix, the room erupted in shrieks just as it would've 15 years ago.
And then it was star time. Knight emerged from the back of the room, walking through the audience, past the restrooms and up onto stage. The shrieks reached a fever pitch -- the women jumped up and down amid blinding flashbulbs. Promotional Jordan Knight posters bearing hand-scrawled messages like "I § Jordan" were held aloft.
And Knight opened the proceedings with "My Favorite Girl," a song that contained all the sugary goodness his band was so famous for. Honorary New Kid Chad sang backup, and the fans didn't seem to mind. They were diehards, lifelong fans who sang along, held their hands high and reached out for a chance to touch Knight as he merrily danced about the stage.
He followed with "Give It to You," a song that references making women sweat and making them wet. And it seemed to work on a literal level. I'm sure I saw a few orgasms happen before my eyes, but I lacked the wherewithal to confirm these suspicions.
Knight next broke into a remix of "Step by Step" and had the audience sing all five steps (1. We can have lots of fun 2. There's so much we can do 3. It's just you and me 4. I can give you more 5. Don't you know that the time has arrived?).
Judging by the applause -- or lack thereof -- after he sang a new solo song called "Close My Eyes," it was obvious these ladies wanted New Kids and only New Kids.
So what's a performer to do? Pay the piper, of course. He sat down on his Korg Triton keyboard and went into a slightly out-of-tune, off-key version of "Valentine Girl," the B-side to the "Step By Step" single. Still hanging tough after all these years.
Before the show, I caught up with Knight. How does it feel to be trapped in a time warp, to be forced to relive days much more glorious than today, amid surroundings much less auspicious? "I try not to let my fans or let people dictate what I sing," he says. Asked if he is embarrassed to belt out New Kids songs, he responded, "I sing them every night."
The year 2004 marks the 20th anniversary of the birth of NKOTB and the tenth anniversary of their demise. But this year has been decent to Knight, who emerged into the spotlight once again, if somewhat tentatively, both because of his role on the VH1 has-been reality TV show The Surreal Life, and for the remixed and revamped NKOTB double disc put out by Universal, called Jordan Knight Performs NKOTB.
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"That was something I did in between time, like a hobby, not really for any kind of big promotion," he says of the backward-looking album. "Universal wanted to put it out, so I was like, 'Whatever, go ahead.' "
The singer's falsetto voice, once a favorite with the girls, has deepened and matured, but that doesn't mean he couldn't do the old songs. "I was doing a lot of the songs over, just to do them over," he says.
He's more eager to talk about his upcoming solo project, the March 2005 release On the Inside, which features the single "Try," a breakup song written when, he says, "there was a little shaky ground" between him and his girlfriend of ten years, who is also the mother of his five-year-old boy. "I'm older and in control of everything I sing now," he says of his new approach and the maturation of the themes in his music. "When I was younger, all the lyrics I sang were really sugary. The content of my lyrics has changed." Sadly, Knight should "Try" again -- the tone of the cut sounds like bad R. Kelly-style R&B. But Knight blames the system for the song's failure to draw more than 80 people out to see him. "Some people at the radio stations are really closed-minded and they only think certain formulas work," he says. "They don't think out of the box."
But it's not just radio programmers who can't think outside the box. Neither can Jordan Knight's fans. And the box he is in is stamped "1989" and filled with other stuff like prom dresses, high school yearbooks and pictures of younger, trimmer versions of their owners frolicking on spring break beaches without a care in the world. That's Knight's box, "4ever and ever," as it's scrawled in the yearbook pages.