Yo! Kids! What up?
For the New Kids, the tour is a bit of a godsend. The girls, the cheers, and the music on a smaller level provide a transition on their slide from pop idols to common folk. This isn’t lost on Wahlberg.
“You know, this doesn’t last forever,” he reflects. “Some performers don’t appreciate it until the cheering stops. Then they’re left with nothing. I’m not going to be like that. I’m going to enjoy this one.”
It’s hard to enjoy with the lights out. A walk around the theater finds the devotees getting restless. It’s getting close to their bedtime. One of them, looking a bit like Kate Moss’s much, much younger sister, sees my all-access backstage pass and speaks to me in an alarmingly smoky British accent.
“Can you get me backstage? I’ll do anything.”
She grabs my belt.
“I mean anything.”
Thinking a morals conviction might not look good on my resume, I politely decline.
Some other girls are getting lucky. Donnie lets four fans in the back door. Not believing their luck, the chosen few skulk up toward the New Kids’ attic dressing room. As they wait for an audience, a crash is heard behind the doors, then a cry—”Let go of my titty.” The doors slip open; the boys are wrestling and playing grab-
The girls are crestfallen.
“Gawd, this is boring,” scowls one. “I thought it would be better than this. They’re so, so immature. Let’s go, this is really disappointing.”
The Philadelphia show doesn’t disappoint. It features some nifty dancing, hummable tunes and, to the delight of the fans, an onstage costume change.
Donnie growls, “Hey, Philly!” The crowd goes mad. Joey introduces a song by talking about how he almost took the matrimonial plunge. As the girls beg, “No, no,” Joey eases their fears.
“Don’t worry. There’s no ring on this finger.”
A gasp of relief goes up from the crowd. The same gasp will go up in every city along the Eastern Seaboard where Joey repeats this schtick.
Despite the cheese factor, the show is entertaining. Before, during, and after performing, the Kids repeat their new mantra: “It’s gonna be funky.” With a crack all-black five-piece band and three dancers, NKOTB almost succeeds. Justly or not, the Kids’ music and style are considered ‘black,’ but no amount of talking about growing up listening to rap can disguise the fact that these are slightly coordinated white guys from Dorchester and Jamaica Plain. The same Wonder Bread quality that made their sanitized brand of funk and soul appealing to suburban America prevents these guys from ever being invited to appear on Soul Train.
This assessment annoys NKOTB.
“I wish people would stop counting how many black people are in the band,” says Jordan Knight. “I don’t know what it is all about. This is what we listen to; this is the musical connection we have. Why do we have to always answer to somebody else’s image of what we should sound like?”
In a word, image is what NKOTB is fighting in their seemingly doomed quest for respectability. The image that they were no-talent mass-marketed puppets of Starr. The image that they are assholes who let success go to their head. The image that they had more than their 15 minutes of fame and should go away. Now. Furthermore, this image allowed them to become teenage multimillionaires. How can they whine?
Remarkably, in a business where bitching and moaning has become high art, they don’t.
“Our image is our image,” Wahlberg concedes. “New Kids’ slippers on sale at Kmart isn’t what we were about. That’s just a corporate view of who we are. I mean, sure I regret some of that stuff but things were moving so fast. That’s the way business is. Look, I produced two albums for my brother [Marky Mark]. One sold two million copies. The other flopped. I know the one that flopped was better, but what can you do? I can only be content that I’ve done my best work. I’m not going to complain.”