Yo! Kids! What up?

Not quite. Three years later, NKOTB is back for an attempted encore. After a year in the studio, the group releases the appropriately titled “Face the Music” in January. Importantly, Maurice Starr has no part in it and is now pursuing a gospel career in Atlanta after a mutually agreed-upon split with the group. Executive-produced by Wahlberg and Jordan Knight, the fivesome spend $1.5 million obtaining the services of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, producer Narada Michael Walden, and a host of other sleek tunesmiths.

The end result is charming, if insubstantial, make-out music. Somewhere along the line, the Kids learned to sing—at least in the studio—an appealing version of harmonic blue-eyed soul. They will never be confused with the Temptations, but the best songs on “Face the Music” are superior to the majority of dreck on the pop charts today. It is appreciated redemption for some of the earlier crap the New Kids perpetrated on the youth of America.

Yet the album is dying.

American pop culture is littered with the used-up remains of teen stars. It is a familiar tale; unknown young studs somehow capture the zeitgeist of a particular acne-ridden adolescent set. Through clever manipulation of teen mags and other media outlets attractive to 12-year-old girls, the studs and their manager milk it for all it’s worth. Burned out from all the adulation, the kids take some time off. When they return, the posters are faded and their audience has moved on to real boyfriends and frat parties.

This familiar fate, not too tragic if the kids have invested wisely, seems to have befallen NKOTB. After opening on the Billboard Charts at 37, “Face the Music” just about vanished. The first single, “Dirty Dawg,” an appallingly poor choice for release, did not even make the Top 40. NKOTB has released their first respectable “grown-up” album. And nobody cares.

Well, almost nobody. Sarah Jayne Gilbert, she’ll be 17 on Tuesday, clutches “All The Words I Couldn’t Say” to her breasts.

“I want to be a writer and I wanted to give this to Donnie,” Gilbert says. “My father bound it and helped me put it together.”

She shows me some of her favorites. The titles ooze teen angst; “Vanishing Mariah Carey” and “For Brandon” are pretty cool, but “Stepdaughter” is her favorite:

Broken beer bottles on the floor
Blood stained to the eadges [sic]
She tries to cover up the cuts
and hides the bottles behind the

Gilbert, blonde and slight, has already lost an undergarment to the New Kids.

“I threw my bra on stage three years ago.”

This would have made her 14. When I ask her whether she was wearing anything else on top, Sarah shoots me a dirty glance.

“That’s none of your business.”

Not so buoyant is Kathy Belmont (not her real name). She smokes a cigarette and peers out from behind sad dark eyes. Her friend tells her story.

“Three or four years ago, she almost got raped by two guys. Her parents couldn’t afford counseling and she would get really upset. Then she listened to their music and she got all better.”

Kathy nods and whispers: “It’s true.”

Near the end of the line, a petrified tenth grader approaches the four. Bravely, she asks and receives an embrace from Jordan in clear violation of the no-hug policy. As she staggers away, she squeals, “I got a hug from Jorrrdan! I’m sooo happy!” Then, about five seconds later, a look of horror comes over her face. She begins to wail, “Oh God—I’ll never be that close to him again.” For her, life is all downhill from here.

The New Kids hope the same isn’t true of their careers. The musty back stage at the Theatre of the Living Arts in Philly is a long way from the stadium gigs of 1990. Columbia Records maintains NKOTB wants to be closer to their fans. This translates to: the band couldn’t sell out a bigger venue. The 810-capacity snake pit looks vaguely familiar. It should; the New Kids played this very same Philly spot back in 1989 when they were nobodies.

The tour gets off to an inauspicious start. Thirty minutes before showtime a blackout darkens the partially full theater. To a background of screaming 15-year-olds chanting their songs, Joey fiddles with a flashlight and ponders briefly the life of a pop star.

“Fans in Europe are more sophisticated. There, they give us space. You can go for a walk or something and not be bothered. Plus, they’re better looking. Here all our fans, no offense, are 195.”

Excuse me?

“You know, they weigh 195.”

“They” are also relentless in pursuit of the blond-hair, sleepy-eyed Joey. One particularly resourceful fan has his pager number. She makes her request clear in a message.

“Joey, if you’re in New York City next Saturday, will you meet me at the Ritz? I’ll make it worth your while.”