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Kevork Djansezian  /  Getty Images file
Singers (from left) Brian Littrell and A.J. McLean of Backstreet Boys, Joey McIntyre and Jonathan Knight of New Kids on the Block, Nick Carter of Backstreet Boys, Donnie Wahlberg of New Kids on the Block, Howie Dorough of Backstreet Boys, and Danny Wood and Jordan Knight of New Kids on the Block arrive at the 2010 American Music Awards on Nov. 21, 2010, in Los Angeles.
TODAY contributor
updated 6/1/2011 8:59:42 PM ET 2011-06-02T00:59:42

As the father of three daughters raised in the heyday of the New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys, Gordon Thompson knows a bit more about the magnetic appeal of boy bands than the average academic.

His girls dragged him to concerts — and he loved it.

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“As a parent, it was kind of fun,” said Thompson, a music professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and author of “Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out.”

“It was a scream fest. As anybody with teenage daughters knows, they can be absolutely addicted to things. But I have to admit, (the groups) put on a pretty good show.”

Gerrick Kennedy seconds that emotion. He is a music critic for the Los Angeles Times. He attended the American Music Awards in November and suddenly discovered that his legs were moving when New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys took the stage.

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“I’m 23 and I’m in the aisle dancing,” he recalled.

New Kids on the Block (NKOTB) and Backstreet Boys (BSB) embark on a North American tour together that will include an appearance on TODAY’s Summer Concert Series on Friday. Whatever that thing is that keeps bands relevant and piping hot, they both appear to be brimming with it, as evidenced by how quickly tickets for their shows have been gobbled up.

Demand for ducats crashed the bands’ websites. Tickets in Chicago, for instance, sold out in 15 minutes, requiring the addition of a second show there.

NKOTB — consisting of Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood, Joey McIntyre, Jordan Knight and Jonathan Knight — were assembled in 1984 and last released an album in ’94. BSB — Brian Littrell, Nick Carter, A.J. McLean and Howie Dorough (Kevin Richardson left the group in 2006) — came together later, in 1993, and despite some activity lulls, never stopped.

Video: NKOTB, Backstreet on touring together (on this page)

Given the vagaries of the music business in the past quarter century or so, and the flood of new acts arriving almost daily, how can two groups whose core fans were young impressionable females but are now savvy adults not only maintain their followings, but enlarge them?

“Teen singers have been around for many decades — Fabian, Ricky Nelson, David Cassidy, etc. So there is always need for a fresh new face or a group thereof,” explained Mathieu Deflem, professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina and an expert in pop culture. “What is remarkable, though, is that some of these singers (and) bands grow up, and their fans right along with them, and they stay popular to some extent, (like) NKOTB.”

Deflem cautions, though, that not every group has the staying power of NKOTB and BSB. “The more likely path is that fans grow up, and hence grow out of their idols,” he said.

“It doesn’t surprise me that these bands still have strong fan followings,” noted David Marchese of Spin Magazine. “The music of people’s youth stays with them. There were millions and millions of people who loved these bands when they first came out.

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“It’s not weird that a large number of those original fans still love them. In fact, it’d be weirder if they didn’t.”

It used to be that a band’s worth was measured in the sales of discs, whether they were made of vinyl or some metal alloy. NKOTB have sold more than 80 million records worldwide. And BSB have the distinction of being the best-selling boy band of all time, having moved more than 130 million records.

(Of course, it depends on your definition of “boy band.” The Beatles have sold more than 300 million records. They were boys. And they were a band. But most consider a boy band to have a dance component, and often an act with some pyrotechnics or elaborate staging. The Beatles were a traditional standup rock 'n' roll band.)

In today’s market, however, in which records have given way to downloads, the power of bands is in touring. And there might be no better example than the one that NKOTB and BSB are embarking on now.

Video: NKTOB star talks ‘Unfinished’ business (on this page)

“The touring aspect is what makes them so marketable,” Kennedy said. “The fan base they started with has grown up, but many of them have kids now, and they all appreciate a sense of nostalgia.”

And of course, there’s the music. “A lot of people see boy bands as being all the same,” Kennedy observed. “But they’re so distinct. The Backstreet Boys are known for their syrupy pop hooks that translate into big records that can’t be ignored on the radio. The New Kids are more about an R&B edge.”

Thompson said even though the music and the generations are vastly different, the attraction to boy bands like NKOTB and BSB is similar to the one that made The Beatles such a sensation.

“There was a conscious imitation of the model when these bands were put together,” he said. “The Beatles had four identifiable characters. John was the intellectual. Paul was the cute one. George was the quiet one. Ringo was the funny one.

“So when boy bands are marketed, they’re not done so as all the same, but rather a distinct set of personalities. When teenage girls latch onto these bands, they’re not competing for the same boy. They could divvy them up while still retaining some semblance of unity and brand.”

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And that, of course, leads to some friendly friction among fans. Kennedy said he was just a youngster when the New Kids on the Block and the Backstreet Boys were at or near their peaks.

“I loved the songs, and we all wanted to perfect the dances,” he said. “I remember that you couldn’t be a fan of both. I remember walking down the hall and being asked, like kids today are asked about ‘Twilight’ — ‘What team are you on?’ That’s where it started, that whole team stuff.”

Naturally, though, when the teams team up — as they have now — it’s perfectly acceptable to root for both.

Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to TODAY.com.

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Video: NKTOB star talks ‘Unfinished’ business

  1. Closed captioning of: NKTOB star talks ‘Unfinished’ business

    oh baby you're always on my mind

    >> we are back with more of "today" on this booze day tuesday. let's look at the reunion of new kids on the block . that was a few years ago.

    >> they are getting ready for another summer concert tour . they will make our plaza their stop this friday. jordan knight released his first solo cd in five years. it's called "unfinished." welcome to the party.

    >> great to see you. is it a strange time to have a new solo album to come out when you're about to launch this new tour with not only your own band?

    >> it's strange and hectic, but a great time because there is so much exposure and i'm riding the wave of the whole tour and everything else. we have a day off today.

    >> so you're with us.

    >> today i came here to put out a cd and joe flew back to l.a. to put out a new baby. he's having a baby girl today.

    >> congratulations. you have two children, right?

    >> i have two, 4 and 11.

    >> when you guys go on tour, do the kids come along for the ride?

    >> they do come. joe 's son, going back to joe , my kids do come and love it. joe 's son, he's like 4 years old, almost 4 years old. i'm his favorite now because i'm mr. step by step . that's his favorite song. he had his son come on stage and i was showing him, on that line you point out to the crowd. when you go when i get to you girl wave your hand across. he's got it.

    >> it's in the dna. tell us about your cd "unfinished."

    >> did you write a lot of the songs?

    >> i started it as an experiment. i figured out my three songs and put it out on twitter. a lot of fans were like, we want new songs. it grew to six songs then eight songs. i got a distribution deal. now it's now in best buy .

    >> good for you.

    >> amazon is picking it up.

    >> why did you title it "unfinished?"

    >> it means as long as you stay positive , stay patient and stay open, your life will always be unfinished.

    >> i like that song. what is this one?

    >> a work in progress , huh?

    >> a work in progress . thank you.

    >> whose idea was it for you guys and the backstreet boys to get together and have these concerts?

    >> it kind of happened. they came to one of our shows at radio city . we invited them to sing a song on stage. we didn't tell the crowd they were going to be there. we are singing the song "i want it that way." it gets to a lull in the song. then the curtain comes up and boom, they show up. back street boys.

    >> they went crazy.

    >> they went crazy. it took people a minute to get used to it. one minute, exactly. people thought we might be rivals or something like that, but to see us on stage singing a song , they went crazy.

    >> we had fans outside in line early already. our security guys said here, we'll give you a wrist band and come back later.

    >> the idea they are waiting in advance?

    >> it's a beautiful thing. when we came out, we touched a lot of people at a tender age. they just don't forget it. we touched them, they touched us, vice versa .

    >> we are excited for you this friday. joey's got a new baby girl . i'm sure he'll be here for friday.

    >> friday.

    >> good luck. all the best.

Discuss: Which team were you on?

Were you devoted to the Boys or the New Kids?

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