TO CELEBRATE THE RECENT RELEASE OF OUR 33 1/3 ON HANGIN’ TOUGH, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK WEEK BY AUTHOR REBECCA WALLWORK!
Before New Kids, my friends and I had crushes on boys in higher grades, guys who never gave us the time of day. These five guys from Boston didn’t know who we were either—we lived halfway around the world in Australia—but they appeared on our TV screens professing their love for their fans. They were young enough to still be in school, and if only we lived in America, maybe we’d have a chance with them. The New Kids never gave us the feeling that it was impossible.
They protected me from heartbreak, my infatuation ruling out any entanglements with flesh and blood teenaged boys pulsing with life and scary hormones. But, like many love affairs, my obsession with the New Kids had a crescendo—laying eyes on them in concert for the first time in 1992—and a collapse. By 1994, they had changed. They seemed angry, sullen. They grew facial hair and wore flannel shirts. They released a song calling a woman a “Dirty Dawg.” Grunge and gangster rap were in and they struggled to remain relevant. A few months after adopting their new image they called it quits.
I was in college by then, and was no longer avoiding real, messy relationships. My past with the New Kids became a dusty secret shoved in the back of the closet. Occasionally I’d still break out an old photo and lose myself in the memories, or one of their songs would blindside me in the supermarket, stirring a bittersweet feeling of an easier, more innocent time. But even though I’d grown out of the most intense phase of my crush, I believed that if I were to meet Joe, my favorite New Kid, he would recognize me. He would feel my appreciation and love and would realize that I was special. He would know me. And then it happened.
Joe was going to be at a screening of an indie movie in TriBeCa. I was now 21 years old and working at a cool New York magazine. And I was about to meet Joe in a situation that didn’t require screaming at him from behind a wall of security guards. This was my chance! When he showed up outside the cinema, my heart was pounding. He was as familiar to me as a T-shirt you’ve worn into the softest comfort. Finally it was my turn to shake his hand. “Joe, I’m from Australia,” I blurted, desperately wanting to set myself apart from the other girls there. “Oh yeah?” he said, not looking up from the CD he was signing. When he did make eye contact, it was brief, flashing me his toothy smile before he moved onto the next girl.
The disappointment cut deep. That was it? My big moment was entirely unremarkable for Joe. He was charming and polite, but he hadn’t recognized me. Even worse was the realization: Of course he didn’t. How could he? Why would he?
A decade later, in 2008, the New Kids on the Block reunited. Most of the guys have kids now. Joe’s married. I’m married. Today the relationship feels like a familiar friendship, not unlike the way you feel when you reconnect with old classmates via Facebook. We have history, but I can laugh at our past and the way I used to act. I can experience this reunion with a wink and a wry smile.
Soon after that cruise with Joe and the guys, my husband asked me if my renewed New Kids activity would wind down? No, I had to tell him. They were on tour all summer. And God knows what else in the fall. I had to see them while I could, while they were still in the spotlight and I had the chance.
That was seven years ago. The New Kids have done an annual cruise with their fans ever since (I am yet to make a repeat sailing). They have put out two albums, done solo albums and starred in TV shows, opened gyms and burger joints. They have toured almost every year and I’ve been there in the crowd, screaming along to every word of every song. Now, there is something else to add to that list: my book on Hangin’ Tough—an exploration of what made the album so massively successful and what the hell this fandom is about. And there is always whatever it is the New Kids will do next.
So, no. We’re not done yet. Not even close.