Totally 80s: The New Kids on the Block

Welcome the next installment of my year-long look back at the decade that was ruled by big hair and bigger egos. Every other week I’ll be covering pop culture tidbits from the 1980s, sharing memories, choking on the ridiculousness, and maybe offering an insight or two into what made the 1980s so great/bad/silly. Serving as my inspiration are two lists from Buzzfeed, and I’ll include links to the original list items in each post. So throw on your neon windbreaker, lace up your hi-tops, and adjust your Wayfarers, because this DeLorean is taking off! (Ugh. Did I really just type that? Gag me with spoon, seriously.)

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List item #51 from 53 Things Only 80s Girls Can Understand

You loved NKOTB and had memorabilia mostly of your favorite one in the group.

(Aside: It’s easy enough to argue that the NKOTB probably reached the heights of their popularity in the 1990s, but their rise to super stardom began in the 1980s.)

The New Kids on the Block
Um…sure. Whatever.

This list item is one that did not pertain to my life literally, but rather it foreshadowed one niche that of my personality that now defines me – that of the distant, general fan.  This is a really convoluted way of saying that oh yes, I tried with all my awkward teenage heart to fawn over the New Kids on the Block like practically all my female classmates, but…I just couldn’t.

At the risk of becoming even more wordy and circuitous in trying to explain that, let’s travel back to the late 1980s. I’m a horribly discomfited middle-schooler (getting ready to transition into high school) with few real life friends. That’s not to say that I didn’t try to make friends. In fact, I tried all sorts of dumb ways to get to know my classmates better, none of which ever proved fruitful. Though my attempts at being personable never won many people over, I was often able to reach a common ground with others through music. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I was a HUGE fan of Top 40 radio at this time, and the knowledge that I gained by regularly listening to the latest and greatest the pop world had to offer helped me avoid full-on outcast status. Though I didn’t like everything I heard, I could at least hold my own in “Madonna vs. Cyndi Lauper” arguments, discussions on Bruce Springsteen’s patriotism, and debates on George Michael’s turn from bubblegum prince to sex machine. Problem was, though I was devoted to music in general, I wasn’t particularly attached to one pop star or act over any others. Sure, I liked some songs more than others, but I didn’t sport band shirts or plaster my walls with band posters. If someone had then made a slightly cheeky shirt that simply said “MUSIC,” I would have worn that sucker out.

The advent of the New Kids on the Block in Top 40 radio, and especially the release of their second album Hangin’ Tough, brought about an immense wave of fandom that seemed to consume my school. Almost overnight girls in my classes went from talking about boys to talking about THE Boys.

New Kids on the Block - Hangin' Tough (1988)
New Kids on the Block – Hangin’ Tough (1988)

Who’s you’re favorite, Jordan or Joey? Joey’s super cute but Jordan is dreamy!

Have you seen their new video? The one about the Right Stuff? I could just die!

Have you heard they’re coming to [inset local concert venue]?? I’m totally going to ask my Mom to get us tickets!

And on and on and on. Every week, someone was showing off her new NKOTB shirt, hat, or sunglasses. The local clothing store set aside a whole section devoted to NKOTB apparel. Girls brought in their NKOTB cassettes to play and trade. And my circle of acquaintances became just as infected. And since I hadn’t yet found my spine and didn’t want to be out in the cold, I opted to play along. As such, I started playing very close attention to the New Kids on the Block.

Just because I didn’t have any of their records or apparel, it didn’t mean I couldn’t try to be a fan. My Top 40 radio station played them all the time and ran just about any interview given by the famous Donnie, Jordan, Joey, Jonathan, and Danny. So I learned to like them. I learned to bop along to “You Got It” (The Right Stuff).”

I learned to swoon to the sounds of “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever).”

And I learned to get all teary-eyed to “This One’s for the Children.”

Soon enough, I was gabbing with my classmates about Jordan’s hair and Joey’s voice, and it felt…okay.

But it also felt terribly fake, because none of that meaningless chatter brought me any closer to those “friends.” Yeah, it felt good to be able to converse with girls my own age about silly stuff (cause that’s what girls do, right?), but it only felt good in that moment. Afterwards, I still walked home alone.

A turning point occurred for me and the NKOTB (and pop music generally) when I was a sophomore (or maybe a late freshman? Can’t quite remember…) One of my classmates whom I considered an pretty good friend told me about a NKOTB concert that was going to be broadcast over the radio. She had become a pretty strong NKOTB supporter and had been to see them in concert (coming back with claims of “Best. Night. Ever!”). She told me the station and asked if I was going to listen. Sure, of course, yay! was something that I probably replied. We agreed to listen “together” in our separate houses and she said she’d call me afterwards to gossip about all the awesomeness.

On the supposed correct day and the supposed correct time, I tuned my radio to the supposed correct radio station. Sure enough, an announcer came on talking about the New Kids concert, so I waited. And waited. And waited. And then, finally(!), I was treated(?) to a very static-y and distant rendition of “Hangin’ Tough.” I had no idea if the problem was my radio or the broadcast itself (my friend never mentioned where they were performing), but  what came over the airwaves was hardly music. After my limit of listening to white noise peppered with occasional voices and notes had been reached, I turned the radio off. Though it was late (for a school night), I waited up for a bit for my friend to call, but the phone never range. And I really didn’t care. I saw my friend the next day at school and found out that all she got was static too — and she didn’t seem too broken up about it either. After that conversation ended, my “adoration” of the NKOTB pretty much ended.

Besides, I had found something better in Mötley Crüe, Metallica, and Faith No More. And what a well those bands opened.

My NKOTB ordeal became more than just a flash in the pan. “Liking” them made me consider: do I want to be the sheep or the shepard? I knew that I had to find my own voice if I was to become something more than my daily guise of “indeterminate girl.” It took me awhile to break the need to follow the flavor of the week, but I eventually severed myself from the world of pop. I still listened, but I refused to get caught up in hype and circumstance. My tastes evolved, sure, but that’s because of what I allowed and wanted. And I didn’t devote any brain cells to thinking about what others thought, because I was a fan. Of music.

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