Let me tell y’all: In 1988, it was hard out there for a black boy who liked New Kids on the Block.
It may have been pure bubble gum, but the music the New Kids put out was a lot of fun and had its fair share of soul to it. Early cuts like their cover of The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” and “Please Don’t Go Girl” were enjoyable soul-shaded teen pop that reminded me of the kind of music that always filled our household, which is why I enjoyed them. At the end of the day, however, these were five white boys who had their faces plastered on everything from tote bags to Saturday morning television – and to be black, male and a fan was an open invitation to a verbal beat down from your peers. The criticism was harsh and often hurtful, as I remember an especially severe tongue lashing from one of my older sister’s ignorant-ass classmates. It didn’t matter to me though – I was a scrawny bookworm with no athletic ability, so I was used to it. I played my tapes and sported my buttons (which I still have, by the way) proudly and let the haters keep right on hating. “Just another day at the races,“ I thought.
Fast-forward 20 years to D.C.’s Verizon Center on October 2. There I was, amidst a sea of people in their late twenties and early thirties, about to live a childhood dream of mine. Like a lot of the folks there I was too young to go see them live at their peak and found the news of their reunion tour to be a thrilling prospect – but initially I wasn’t quite sure if I would be in attendance. I’d be lying if I said part of my reluctance didn’t have to do with those old memories and the idea of folks snickering at me for wanting to go. After the prodding of several friends of mine (“Boy you used to love them – you better go!” was the common refrain) I realized how silly I was being, grabbed a ticket and happily carried my ass to the show. With my shiny new tour book in hand, I took my seat and waited for the spectacle to begin. As I looked around, what amazed me most was the diversity of the crowd. Pretty much every group you could think of was represented: Whites, blacks, girls, gays and married couples with children all came out to hang tough for a night, and it gave the venue a care-free, electric energy. I was all ready to go.
Once the New Kids took to the stage, the place fell into frenzy. Donnie, Jordan, Jon, Joey (Is it Joe now that he’s grown?) and Danny powered through all of the ditties they are known for. Favorites like “(You Got It) The Right Stuff,” “Please Don’t Go Girl,” “Tonight,” “Cover Girl,” “I’ll Be Loving Your (Forever)” and “Valentine Girl” were all there, and the group had the vocal support of thousands to help them through them. I was particularly thrilled to hear the “Step By Step” b-side “Valentine Girl” because that remains my favorite New Kids song. On it and several other selections, Jordan proved his falsetto is as sharp now as it was two decades ago – I think Stylistic Russell Thompkins Jr. and Delfonic William Hart would be proud. In fact, the group’s vocals were strong all the way around, as were the fancy footwork and flashy set and costume changes. Danny got his break dance on like he was straight out of “Beat Street,” and Joey and Jordan even offered up “Stay the Same” and “Give it to You,” their respective solo hits. By the time they closed with “Step By Step” and “Hangin’ Tough,” the crowd was hoarse, worn out, and downright ecstatic.
Though the show was heavy on nostalgia, the group managed to work several songs from their latest effort “The Block” into the set. I have to admit I was surprised by how strong the record is, as these reunion albums that have been popping up in recent years have been beyond shaky. While it’s not “Innervisions” or “Dark Side of the Moon,” it’s a solid, well-crafted pop album that can appeal to both old fans and new ones. Many of the album’s strongest tracks were included in the show: “Single,” “Summertime,” and “Grown Man” (which featured an appearance by Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger via video screen) all translated well on stage and didn’t clash with the old stuff. The group’s live take on “Click Click Click” (my personal favorite from the album) sealed the deal, proving that these Kids-turned-men have a lot of music left in them to make.
It’s been damn near a week since I saw the show, and I still can’t stop talking about it. I had a blast, and it was worth every penny. Regardless of what the haters say, I’ll always love those New Kids. Their music is part of the soundtrack to a happy, simple time in my life, and I’ll never forget that. More importantly, liking their music taught me to like what I like and be unapologetic about it. Good music is good music, good times are good times, and all that really matters is what it all means to you. Nobody should ever rob you of that.
So you’re damn straight – if they come to my town when I am 39 in 10 years, I’m still gonna party with them on the block.