The crowd noise at the New Kids on the Block show at Madison Square Garden on Monday Oct. 27 almost defies description. Imagine a wave composed of root-beer lip balm, Barbie hair and sparkly hugs breaking through you, and that might begin to explain the sensory experience.
NKOTB (they can’t rightly call themselves “Kids” anymore) launched their tour this September behind new album “The Block” with all five original members — Donnie Wahlberg, now primarily a film actor; current solo artist Jordan Knight; Jordan’s older brother Jonathan Knight, who left the industry for a career in real estate; Danny Wood, who’s done some recording and launched a record label; and “Little” Joey McIntyre, star of stage and TV — and it’s not news that the group used to inspire that level of devotion.
I worked in a novelties store in a New Jersey mall at the height of NKOTB’s popularity. The shop’s purchasing manager, no fool, made sure we stocked an extensive selection of Kids merchandise: T-shirts, pencil tops, action figures, you name it. On more than one occasion, I had to mediate a dispute over the last pillowcase with McIntyre’s face on it before the tearful scuffle degenerated into hair-pulling.
I didn’t really get it. …OK, I got it, in the sense that I went to girls’ school for 12 years, and I understand very well that teenage girls sometimes form intense attachments to famous boys such as the New Kids. A boy band is ideal for sharing amongst friends; each girl “gets to like” a different boy. More to the point, liking is as far as it goes. NKOTB came up from the South Boston streets (or sold themselves that way), so they had a hint of an edge, but a safe child-scissors edge that tweens and teens could invest in emotionally (read: not sexually).
The New Kids video catalog promotes that harmless, hormone-free image with lots of shots of the group dancing, singing, clowning around together, and exchanging longing looks — and little more — with bunches of girls on the Ferris wheel. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, sex could kill, Vanilla Ice ruled the charts, and the New Kids’ brand of sugary hand-holding and “raps” about positivity is a perfect snapshot of that time. The group epitomized what many girls in that demographic want from a dream boy: devotion, dance moves and kisses with no tongue.
Around the block again
But I’d outgrown that particular vision of love the first time around, and times have changed; the demo has kids of their own now. When I bought my ticket, I wondered — could a New Kids concert work as anything other than nostalgia-driven merchandising? Or is it a good show in its own right?
Speaking objectively, I can tell you that it’s both. True, the concert itself is almost beside the point. It’s a time machine for the fans, a trip back to a point in their lives when love seemed pure and unmessy, but it’s a good evening’s entertainment for the less fevered as well.
The Kids themselves have held up well physically, and nobody’s slow on the steps or noticeably paunchy; Wood, generally considered “the ugly one” back in the day, has benefited the most from the evolution in men’s hairstyles, and even busts out some impressive break-dancing at one point. You have to respect the hand-spin any time it appears, but especially from an almost-40-year-old.
One odd footnote: “the shy one”/“thinking girl’s Kid,” Jonathan Knight, is seldom shown on the Jumbotron — only enough times for the audience to verify that it’s actually him. Knight is on the record as having suffered from stage fright and anxiety attacks in the past, which may explain his relegation to the background, but at least one conspiracy theorist in the crowd felt strongly that he got disappeared because of rumors that he’s allegedly gay.
Their voices have stayed limber, too. McIntyre’s falsetto isn’t what it once was, because he’s no longer 14, so they keyed “Please Don’t Go Girl” down for him, but Jordan Knight can still sustain those tough high-tenor/falsetto runs on “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).”
Banking on nostalgia
The set list sticks largely to the old numbers, saving the big hits like “Step By Step” for the end and mixing in an occasional newer tune, as well as spots allowing Wahlberg, Knight and McIntyre to promote their solo material. (Knight elected to do this with his shirt open.)
There’s no shortage of filler to accommodate the frequent costume changes, but much of that, like the song selection, is aimed straight at the old-school fans: Wahlberg changing out his sparkly Boston Red Sox hat for an even sparklier Yankees lid; McIntyre doing a few bars of “New York, New York”; the home-video presentation after “Valentine Girl” that brought the crowd back to the myriad fashion mistakes of decades past.
And the older songs sound better the second time around, in butched-up arrangements that strip out the dated layers of synthesizer, fake hand-claps, and whistle tweets on “Hangin’ Tough” and other songs.
It’s good value, because the Kids can still sing and dance, and they still understand how to play to the fans without seeming cynical. That said, the concert as an adult enterprise — a performance by grown men, for grown women — has perplexing moments, because what once appealed to the demo as good clean fun is now served with a double shot of overt sexuality.
Knight's shirtless song is called “Give It To You”; two songs later, Wahlberg dropped his pants for a Jumbotron close-up of his (boxer-shorted, but still) tush. Five seats away from me, a very pregnant woman nearly sobbed with happiness, while her 6-year-old daughter looked on, bewildered.
The group has a new song, “Grown Man,” that underlines the “this is not your mother’s NKOTB” point; featuring the Pussycat Dolls, the song talks about clubbing, mercenary party girls and other PG-13-and-up concerns.
None of the New Kids is under 35, so this isn’t inappropriate, but to hear the same songs that prompted the chaste hugging and kissing of a McIntyre pillowcase back in the day, now rendered in a hotter, stickier way… it’s disconcerting, if you’ll pardon the pun. But the alternative, an overly faithful and sanitized performance, would feel downright creepy. Twenty years have gone by; we’re all grown.
Surprisingly, the New Kids’ 21st-century iteration works: the NKOTB show hits the right nostalgic notes, but updates itself credibly, too.