How NKOTB Re-Wrote History: A Fan's Redemption

It was 1989, and everything was big. It was the era of sky-high hair, enormous earrings, and oversized shirts. As a 12-year-old girl, I had no idea that I was on the brink of witnessing a very, very big phenomenon. It started innocently enough. The catchy chorus of a bubblegum song on the radio called “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” grabbed my attention. I remember buying the cassette single and admiring the faces of the cute boys on the box cover – five young men from Boston – the New Kids on the Block. Shortly thereafter, “Hangin’ Tough Live” aired on the Disney channel, and from that fateful moment, I was hooked. I really believed that I was in love, as much as a pre-teen could possibly be. The time had come to tear down the She-Ra Princess of Power posters of childhood and move on to what I perceived to be more grown-up interests – namely, these five famous, dreamy teenage boys. Up went every teeny bopper magazine pin-up of NKOTB that I could find, and I leaned heavily toward the Joey McIntyre ones.

Then the phone conversations began. Endless talks with my girlfriends long into the night…”Did you see what Jordan said on that TV special?” “Oh my gosh, Donnie pierced his nose!” “I wonder what kind of girls they like…” My parents’ money was spent freely on loads of NKOTB merchandising – button pins, T-shirts, CD’s, videos, puzzles, trading cards, hats, and of course, the all-important concert tickets.

Seeing those boys perform at Georgia Tech stadium on August 8, 1990 was one of the highlights of my entire young life up to that point. A whole football field away from them, way up in the nosebleed section, I couldn’t believe I was actually seeing them in the flesh. I was breathing the same air. I was so excited that I accidentally hit my dad in the face with the binoculars.

After that, I daydreamed about them during English class, scrapbooked their pictures as soon as I got home from school, and literally pined away for them. The crush I had was so intense that it hurt. It was hard enough being an adolescent and trying to make sense of relationships with boys in my own social circles. The New Kids were somehow a safe crush…so perfect, and so unattainable…it was easier to fixate on them than to have to worry about “real” boys. And undoubtedly, that was the reason that the “real” boys hated the New Kids. It was jealousy in its most obvious form. Though they would vehemently deny it if confronted, the New Kids were a very real threat to any hopes they had of winning over our affections. After all, how could the average, pimply-faced teenage boy compete with the perfectly styled big hair, fabulous wardrobes, and ├╝ber cool synchronized dance moves of the New Kids on the Block? No wonder that my husband now admits that back in those days, he wished he could punch Jordan Knight in the face.

But eventually, my love affair with the New Kids began to fade, as is typical for teenage crushes on celebrities. By the time the group officially dissolved, most of the fans had already moved on. My NKOTB posters came down and were replaced by the guys from Beverly Hills 90210, although my admiration for them never even came close to matching the epic proportions of my obsession with their predecessors. I knew I would always look back on my NKOTB craze with fondness, but I really believed it was over for good.

And then I spent the next seventeen years growing up. College, marriage, relocation, and children happened. Every now and then I would come across a former NKOTB fan, and we would reminisce about those days and laugh about having a “favorite.” It was all just a warm, fuzzy memory.

Until April of 2008. I was chatting with my sister-in-law who breezily asked, “Oh, did you hear the New Kids on the Block are coming back?” My heart skipped a beat. I felt butterflies in my stomach. “What?” I laughed, playing it off. “Are you kidding me?” She wasn’t. Coming back, I thought. What did that mean? Some kind of goofy appearance on a late-night talk show just for kicks? And what did they even look like now? At the time, I didn’t know. All I knew was that the 13-year-old fan in me, who had apparently never really grown up, needed information, and fast. Never had I been more thankful for the internet, as I rushed home to my computer and quickly discovered that there was to be a reunion performance in May on the Today show.

There was a group photo released, and a new song, and I was positively giddy. I was not the only one. Fans came out in droves to see the New Kids perform on stage together for the first time in fifteen years on the Today Show, one of the largest gatherings ever at Rockefeller Plaza. Once again, the New Kids had seized on perfect timing, in the same way that they had years ago. They had been away long enough for their original fans to miss carefree days gone by, but not long enough to be forgotten. It wasn’t just that we enjoyed seeing them again on TV. NKOTB was a symbol – a representation of an entire era in our lives, an era that took place before we became worried about recessions, wars, and mortgages. All of a sudden, we got the fever again. We wanted more New Kids. We wanted concerts, new music, and press coverage. Demand for the group was reborn.

I was ecstatic to get a brand new NKOTB CD in my hands, ‘’The Block,” which proved that the boys were all grown up musically and in every other way, as well. It really didn’t matter that prejudiced radio stations wouldn’t play the new songs. Apparently, they were run by the same jealous adolescents who had grown up and still wanted to punch Jordan in the face. Shunning demand for the group seemed to be an indirect way for them to exact their revenge. But the fans made the magic happen themselves.

In September of 2008, the reunion tour kicked off, selling out venues in many places in a matter of minutes, much to everyone’s surprise. My entire summer was spent networking with other fans, teaching New Kids songs to my children, and literally counting the days until the concert in Atlanta. By sheer act of will, I did not allow myself to read a single concert review, watch youtube videos of the show, or even look at other fans’ pictures. I wanted the moment that they hit the stage to surprise me with the same delight that I had experienced in 1990. My husband, ever the New Kids critic, picked on them (and me) for months, but it was all in fun, and I had a sneaking suspicion that he might even be won over eventually. Being the good sport that he is, he went with me to the show and even waved his hand in the air to “Hangin’ Tough,” while all the girls around us patted him on the back in encouragement and appreciation.

The show itself was all I had hoped for. And as the tour ended, I assumed that we would hear about some official closure from the guys, and it would all be over at that point.

But I was wrong. Little did anyone suspect that 2009 was to be a grand extension of what had already begun. We learned that fans would be treated not only to a spring tour, but a cruise with the group. I wondered where the guys found the superhuman stamina to keep up such a tremendous pace. And then the frenzy began again in earnest. Dates for a brand new “Full Service” summer tour began to leak out. “Blockheads” were relentless in scooping up tickets to second, third, fourth, and even fifth concerts in the course of a year.

And in the midst of it all, there were the guys – twittering away to the fans, keeping us occupied with minute details of their lives, and stretching us to do things we never thought we would do for the chance of winning contests to meet them. I felt like a little teenage girl the night that Jordan posted a vlog including instructions and details on how to win a trip to one of their Today Show performances. I lay awake all night, scheming and plotting how I might win, and planning my very own trip to New York City for an up-close-and-personal meeting with the dreams I had as a teenager. I had already decided how I would choose the friend who would accompany me when I was forced back into reality upon realizing that I had lost. I was reminded that years ago I had entered a Teen Beat magazine contest to win Joey McIntyre’s famous black hat, and, so certain of my victory, it had also come to naught.

It gave me pause. How had I, once again, become putty in their hands, exactly as I had been years before? You're an adult, I told myself. So how could I have possibly regressed into a "fangirl" once again? The marketing team for NKOTB, whoever they were, had me exactly where they wanted me – pining away again, hanging on the New Kids’ every word, but still having the time of my life in the process. So instead of being resentful toward those admittedly saavy marketers, I simply acknowledged that I did, in fact, fall squarely into the target demographic just as I had almost 20 years before, and then gleefully salivated for even more NKOTB, as any good blockhead would.

Seeing the group on the summer tour was an unforgettable milestone for me. I was with a fellow fan this time who grasped the gravity of the experience. But what really gripped me was the opening line of the entire concert as the video montage began, “I know it’s hard – to see me go – to see me standing – so close to the door.” I told myself that it was just a song about a lover going away, a very general love song, and that I was reading too much into the words. But I was distressed by a feeling in the pit of my stomach. Oh, no. I thought. What if it's a message to the fans…that it wouldn’t be too long before they would be the ones going? What if this concert was a chance to see them “standing close to the door” before they walked out of it for the last time? I was surprised and a little embarrassed to notice tears pricking at my eyes and a big old lump in my throat. When I got home and pondered the possibility some more, I was even more bewildered by my emotions.

During the first wave of New Kids success, most of us were fickle teenagers who quickly and easily moved on to the next thing. Fickle as we were, the relationship that we had with this group in the late 80’s/early 90’s had marked us in ways that we could not fully understand until our 30’s. They were our first loves, the objects of our dreams, and the privilege of enjoying them years later was something I had never fathomed. So to think of them leaving again would mean closing a chapter for good. It was never really a new chapter. It was the exact same one that was begun in the past. Whenever they do leave, I thought, I will have to close this beautiful, tender childhood book that has just been opened once again, and I will somehow feel even older. For this reason, the fanbase, as a whole, has worried and fretted and wrung its hands.

But for the second time in the course of a year, I was once again proved wrong in predicting the end. Donnie Wahlberg's reassuring tweets have convinced me that my fears have been irrational. Even upon the conclusion of the summer tour, rumblings and rumors about another new album and future tours are prevalent, much to my delight. As long as the demand is there, and the guys are willing, I remain in steadfast support.

But I cannot bear the thought of a slow and painful fading away into obscurity. They deserve better than that. We all do. Instead, whenever the group determines that the ride is over, even if it’s years away, I will long for a figurative tip of the trademark black hat, a formal acknowledgment of the impact of both the past and the present, and a blown kiss goodbye as they ride into the sunset. Though that moment will be painfully bittersweet, it is my hope, as a fan, for a re-write to the old ending. A redemption, as Donnie Wahlberg once aptly described the reunion. A definitive moment in time when they choose to show us their cards and lay down their last hand, exiting with grace, just as it should be. As it always should have been. But the chance to pen the final chapter the first time around in the way that they intended had somehow been elusive.

Make no mistake – I never want this ride to end. But I will never begrudge them their choice to take a bow when that time comes, although it will undoubtedly evoke strong emotions in me. After all, they are ever the masters of perfect timing. Just as they stormed back on the scene at the most opportune time, in the most perfect way, I believe that one day, they will perceptively sense the appropriateness of real closure. The closure we never really had before. The chance for them, for us – for the “five brothers and a million sisters” – to say goodbye to one another. Until then, NKOTB, you have marked my life in immeasurable ways. You really did have the last word in the end. I thank you…I salute you…and I will never forget you.

My friend and I at the June 4, 2009 concert in Atlanta in our vintage T-shirts. Thanks to my mom for saving them all of these years.

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