A decade and a half after they rocked stages with their high-pitched bubblegum pop, the New Kids on the Block are back. So, too, are the band’s shrieking fans, besotted as ever—but this time, with memories of their days before diapers and minivans.
My life was enveloped with everything NKOTB from 1988 to 1993, when I met my now-ex-husband (who is from Dorchester). The marriage fell apart, and by the time I came to my senses, NKOTB had broken up. I was heartbroken but moved on.
Now I am 35, a college graduate, divorced, [and] have a great job. On January 28, 2008, I got some news that I never expected. I wasn’t able to go to their reunion announcement on April 4, but I did fly to NYC and slept on the street for 17 hours to attend their FIRST concert together in 14 years. It was amazing. That day I turned 15 again.
—Robin Sackevich, Michigan
The New Kids reunion has created a groundswell of speculation about how the whole thing will inspire a new generation of boy bands. (And maybe the reassembly of some other old-timers—the Funky Bunch are making noises about elbowing in on NKOTB’s action, with or without Donnie’s brother Mark Wahlberg in the role of Marky Mark.) But that implies that NKOTB were somehow pioneers, not imitators themselves. In truth, the only thing new about the Kids, even the first time around, was their name.
The band simply followed the time-tested recipe used by the people who had put together groups like Menudo before them, and ‘N Sync and the Backstreet Boys thereafter: Mix a bad boy (in this case, Donnie) with a good boy (Jordan), a young heartthrob (Joey), and a few spares (the other two); sprinkle in some onstage gyrations; season with a little pandering (We love you, Seattle/Cleveland/Duluth!); and serve with a healthy portion of merchandise. Instant success.
NKOTB, as anyone with a lapsed Tiger Beat subscription knows, isn’t even the first successful Boston boy band. The group’s original manager, Maurice Starr, was the guy who gave us New Edition, a crew of good-looking black kids that included Bobby Brown. When Starr had a falling-out with New Edition in 1984, he took the logical next step and started a band of good-looking white kids.
NKOTB quickly became an international sensation, but nowhere was the mania greater, as Melissa Bible can attest, than right here in their home state. As soon as Bible and her friends in Leominster were old enough to drive, they piled into an old Plymouth convertible and sped off for Boston. This was around 1992, after the NKOTB craze had already peaked. The girls were on a mission to find the New Kids. Actually, to find their houses. To someone else, this quest might have seemed creepy; to Bible, it was just something fans did. And as it turned out, when she and her friends somehow found Danny’s house in Dorchester, there were already other Blockheads camped outside. Soon, Bible’s crew had directions to Donnie’s pad in Braintree and the Knights’ castle in Dorchester. They never did find Joey’s place. (Bible, now a 33-year-old social worker, says that Jonathan has always been her favorite New Kid. “Our personalities are similar,” she explains. “We’re both kind of a little more introverted in big groups. But on a one-to-one connection, we get along with people, and we’re extroverted.” She and a friend have purchased $175 floor tickets for one of next month’s shows at the Garden—well worth the price, she insists.)
The Kids were as much a part of the ’80s and early ’90s as Nintendo and parachute pants. And for a certain type of woman who’s in her late twenties to mid-thirties, well into a career that may or may not be what she’d dreamed, maybe married or maybe with a divorce or other emotional rockiness behind her, they remain synonymous with first crushes, high school dances, and limitless choices. So yes, among those fans like Bible and her friends, the NKOTB reunion has been greeted with genuine affection.
But it’s also true that reunions in general have become merely another inevitable stage in any band’s life cycle. “Grand Funk Railroad is still out there, for God’s sake,” says Don Gorder, chair of Berklee’s music business/management department. “People resonate throughout their lives with the music of their youth, and that market continues to be there.” It’s why Viagra uses Elvis Presley to peddle ED meds and Cadillac copped a Led Zeppelin song—that music was the, ahem, soundtrack of the target demo’s youth.
Picking the right time to get the group back together is an important decision. You may not remember the first one, but this is actually the New Kids’ second comeback. In 1994, two years into what would become a much longer hiatus, they launched an aptly named “Face the Music” tour. In so doing, they were forced to acknowledge that the halls they played were nearly empty, and that they were through. The trouble back then was that the New Kids weren’t marketing themselves as a nostalgia act—they were trying to continue being hip…but they no longer were, and their fans, once obsessed with such things, had moved on. Now, though, their old crowd isn’t concerned with being cool—they just want to remember when they were. Which explains how the Kids, a failure in their first comeback, will sell out the Garden this time around.
This development makes perfect sense to Bentley College marketing professor Perry Lowe, who places the latest reemergence of the New Kids, and the reembrace of their fans, on some sort of cosmic existential continuum. “Here’s what I think it really is,” Lowe says. “At the absolutely top level, we’re no longer the center of the universe. At a level below that, other cultures, other countries, have gone through this before—whether it’s the Roman Empire, or whether it’s the British Empire, there have been world powers that have peaked. That’s probably where we are in the world. The next level down, the economy is not great. We’ve got issues of whether we are or aren’t in a depression or a recession. Whether gas prices are going to place real constraints on the way we lived before. Whether, because of subprime mortgages, we’re ever going to be able to afford houses again, or afford the ones we currently have. And then, we come down one more level from that, and the issue is ‘Boy, was it better in the old days.’ That’s kind of the funnel. The context of all this is, whether it’s reruns on television of Leave It to Beaver or anything that has to do with a number of years ago—clothing, music, any lifestyle issue—this nostalgia craze is real and it’s enduring and it’s predictable.”
And here I thought it was just a craven moneymaking scheme.