TO CELEBRATE THE RECENT RELEASE OF OUR 33 1/3 ON HANGIN’ TOUGH, WE’RE PLEASED TO BRING YOU THE SECOND INSTALLMENT OF NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK WEEK BY AUTHOR REBECCA WALLWORK!
“New Kids on the Block sucked a lot of dick / Boy-girl groups make me sick.”
— Eminem, “Marshall Mathers”
The year was 1989 and the U.S. military were trying to force drug lord Manuel Noriega, holed up in the Vatican Embassy in Panama, to surrender. The winning tactic? The psy-ops wonks cranked some obnoxious heavy metal—along with Van Halen and my favorite album, Hangin’ Tough—outside the doors. Apparently, it worked; Noriega surrendered.
As a teenager, I was well aware that New Kids had haters. That was crystal clear in my co-ed high school. Guys into AC/DC and other Aussie pub rock and metal bands like The Angels and Rose Tattoo would sing “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” and chase it with a snicker or derogatory slur as my friends and I passed by them on the quad. But we had safety in numbers and, hell, we weren’t interested in those dirty, pimply, 14-year-old boys. Why on earth would we want a piece of that when we had Donnie, Danny, Jordan, Jon and Joe to daydream about?
We shrugged off the haters; tuned it all out—which we learned to do from New Kids themselves, Jedi masters of tolerating boos and jeers. But as I examine the music of Hangin’ Tough today, it would be remiss of me to not consider the album’s and the group’s detractors.
First, it’s worth understanding what kind of musical environment New Kids were plunked into when their first single from Hangin’ Tough, “Please Don’t Go Girl” was released in 1988. It was the age of Top 40 radio hits; of the pop divas, soft rock bands and (for me), the beginnings of nineties R&B in the form of New Jack Swing. Obviously, there were plenty of other musical scenes going on—new wave, thrash metal, early American alt-rock, noise rock and industrial, to name just a few. But New Kids were aimed squarely at the charts.
Scan the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Singles chart of 1988 and a few things stand out. There was almost no rap or electronic dance music on the list and the top of the charts especially were dominated by solo singers—George Michael, Whitney Houston, Belinda Carlisle, Michael Jackson, Taylor Dane, Richard Marx and Billy Ocean—or by commercial rock bands—Guns N’ Roses, Cheap Trick, Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Aerosmith, INXS and Bon Jovi.
Absolutely no funk to be found. The list is also lacking in youthful energy; the stars of ’88 were either well and truly adults or, as in the case of Whitney Houston, in their early twenties but packaged and made up to appear older.
What I’m getting at—something I would not have realized in 1988 itself, when I would have been belting out “Heaven is a Place on Earth” while shaving my legs for the first time—is that the pop world was ripe for something new. Something young, funky and fresh—not another hair band and for god’s sake nothing in the mold of Phil Collins or Eric Carmen. What the world needed, producer Maurice Starr decided, was funk in the form of a teen vocal group modeled after New Edition—only this time they’d be white.
Flak for Sounding Black
No one was going to mistake Donnie, Danny, Jordan, Jon and Joe for being black kids, but the influence of soul and R&B—even of rap and the beginnings of hip-hop—is inescapable once you peel back the layers of how this album and group itself came into being.
But the Motown mold Starr used for New Kids was the basis of much of their criticism from the press early on. Writing in The New York Times, Peter Watrous, called “Please Don’t Go Girl” “generic black pop.” He described their live performance as “laden with black entertainment routines, from the Michael Jackson-esque dancing… to hip thrusts … to the dance steps currently popular with rap stars.” A letter to the editor responding to his article complained that “the Kids are building barriers… It seems obvious to me that the Kids support the observation that black music has to be translated for white people before white people will buy it.”
Spin writer Tony Fletcher described the New Kids’ music as “an inoffensive brand of homogenous rap and funk” and claimed that the “only racial barrier broken by the success of New Kids’ watered-down version of generic black dance is that they are the first white teen sensation sold to a white audience by black businessmen.”
Even kinder critics couldn’t ignore the black influence. David Wild, who gave the group what he calls “a fair shake” in a 1989 Rolling Stone feature, called Hangin’ Tough “an infectious derivative collection of street-smart dance pop and soulful crooning.”
But the man behind the music—a black man; one with his own history as a funk musician and soul artist—never seemed concerned about this particular line of criticism. If anything, Starr advocated taking the association even further, telling the Los Angeles Times, “These are white kids who are black. They have white skins, but they are black. They have soul.”
What got the group more derision was their bubblegum sound. Jon Pareles, reviewing a New Kids concert in The New York Times in 1990, described the group’s “determined inoffensiveness” as “sunny and not too sugary.”
As David Smay and Kim Cooper wrote in their book Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth: The Dark History of Prepubescent Pop, from the Banana Splits to Britney Spears (2001): “Bubblegum was commercially designed, ‘plastic,’ singles-oriented, producer-driven studio music with simple lyrics and accessible pop sounds.”
But, they point out, whole genres—Motown, stax, reggae, disco and country music—fell into the producer-driven category. And, they argued, “a great pop single could be just as valid and often had more impact than entire albums.” Lester Bangs was the first critic to stand up for bubblegum, “arguing that early rock ‘n’ roll was no less vital because it was lyrically unsophisticated.”
In Spin’s review of Hangin’ Tough, Amy Linden wrote that “the sound is predictable, slick and lacking in personality. Then again, a 10-year-old girl I know thinks these guys are the greatest.”
“People say, ‘Oh, your music is for young people.’ What if it is? So what?” a 20-year-old Donnie Wahlberg said in the same magazine that year.
Wahlberg has a point. How is an automatic assumption that young fans equals pop pap fair?
If New Kids had been launched into the pop incubator of the late nineties/early aughts, they might have actually been deemed important enough for serious media coverage. The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync—groups who wouldn’t have existed if it weren’t for the New Kids—came at a time when there was a critical mass of teen pop. They, along with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and a slew of other young pop stars, all garnered very real media attention with Rolling Stone covers and appearances on MTV and major news programs. As the only group of their kind at the time, New Kids never had that luxury.
Despite Hangin’ Tough outperforming the latest releases from Guns N’ Roses, R.E.M. and Bon Jovi, New Kids were largely shunned by the music press—so they did their interviews with Tiger Beat, Teen Beat, 16, BOP and The Big Bopper and tolerated questions about their astrological signs, how they’d describe their ideal date and what they looked for in a girl. Inevitably, their words were memorized and then tossed aside for these magazines’ real purpose—wallpaper for the teenage bedroom. “If it wasn’t for the teen magazines, I don’t think we’d have the success we’ve had,” wrote Jordan Knight in the New Kids’ 1990 autobiography Our Story. As a fan, it’s hard to imagine their history without the magazines.
New Kids were also quickly dismissed by anyone who identified as a “real” music fan since they didn’t write their own music or play instruments. But if this is cause to throw someone off the pop charts, how many more names would we see vanish from the pages of Billboard—whether in the eighties and nineties or today?
OK, so New Kids are not a band in the traditional sense. But I hardly think that if haters saw Donnie seated at a drum kit or Jordan play the keys (as they would if they’d only gone to a New Kids concert back in the day or even more recently) that they would suddenly grant them the credibility handling an instrument deserves.
Naturally, with my New Kids beer goggles, I find it hard to understand how anyone can can resist the infectious delight of “You’ve Got It (The Right Stuff).” Some of those things that haters hate on are things that a) made the New Kids so successful and b) things I love about them.
“You’re supposed to listen to music and feel good,” Jordan told me during a 1998 interview. “Why is being happy not being real?
Even close to the hate, back in 1990, Donnie had the perfect response to the collective flak:
“Who gives a damn about what critics say?” he rapped on the remix of “Games.”
“Said we wouldn’t last / Said our time will pass / In just a flash”
[Say it with me, Blockheads!]
“But we’re still kicking ass!”