Why did everyone think my going to see New Kids on the Block was a joke? I never was a fan (beyond buying some packs of NKOTB trading cards because they were unbeatable at .25 cents each and I was a sucker for some cards) but with a friend working for them I couldn't resist the opportunity to see what they had to offer live.
First off, if before the show I was pressed to come up with four New Kids' songs that I was familiar enough with to sing along to, I would have quickly failed. So to sit through roughly twenty songs and clearly recognize half of them was a welcome reintroduction to the mass of shit buried in my unconscious. As I said, I was never a fan, but my sister played those damn cassettes religiously, slept on the bed sheets and even went to their concert at the ripe old age of seven (with my DAD, ever the trooper) thus always making me jealous that her first live concert experience was a good six years before mine.
As I look up a list of NKOTB jams, I'm realizing there's a handful more that I could've kept rhythm to that they didn't even play…"Funky, Funky Christmas", "Dirty Dawg" and "This One's For the Children"…and realize how utterly inescapable this group was in my formative years. These guys completely OWNED it during the first Bush administration and apparently I was paying attention enough to never forget. Wikipedia claims they've sold over 80 million records worldwide. That is a shit-ton if there ever was.
The guys put on a genuinely enjoyable show and I don't mean that in an arch-ironic hipster sort of way (but will say I feel vaguely inspired by Carl Wilson/Celine Dion). They are able to maintain your attention for a solid two hours and the thousands of screaming, fake tanned, late Gen-X/early Gen-Y, peroxided women losing their shit in the room not only ups the db's a bit…it adds an unexpected, good-natured humor to it all. The kind of thing where you just sit there and randomly laugh at the absurdity of it all at random points in the concert. I was told there's just something about New Kids that just instantly brings those women to back to the shrieking pre-teens they were some years ago. And while it helped to be told that…it wasn't like it wasn't completely evident while sitting in the crowd. I wondered how the volume compared to that of the Beatles in their heyday or what performer unequivocally has the loudest audience besides that of theater-goers for Barbershop 2? Heyoo!
I like the vague references to more critically acclaimed pop culture throughout the show. Donnie Wahlberg at one point was wearing a Misfits "Crimson Ghost" t-shirt. In a video segment with the instrumental outro of "If You Go Away Girl" they flashed images of "Those We Have Lost" that included Kurt Cobain (decent applause) and Notorious B.I.G./Tupac Shakur together (fucking MONSTROUS crowd reaction).
I also noticed the bass line for "Games" was almost a direct lift from Liquid Liquid's "Cavern"…and sure that bass was popularized by Melle Mel's "White Lines"…but the fact that something as obscure as Liquid Liquid can be made palatable to a generic, Middle American crowd goes to show that cream truly does rise, for better or for worse. Liquid Liquid never got paid for the lift and the legal battles essentially ended the group but now you can hear said approximation live at a Nashville hockey arena. Good times.
I was also wildly surprised to find out that NKOTB's original guru, Maurice Starr, a large, seemingly lovable black man (or at least depicted as so in their Saturday morning cartoon series) was an integral member of the Jonzun Crew…a seminal electrofunk band whose records are a definite must-hear.
Or that "Didn't I (Blow Your Mind This Time)" is an unparalleled Philly-soul track from 1970 that was less of a hit for the Delfonics than it was for New Kids. Not only that…it's a classy tune.
Why does it feel like I'm trying to find reasons to justify being at a New Kid's show?
Conversely, the songs' lyrics are particularly more dreadful with about two decades behind them. The puerile, juvenile, sappy, pappy dreck that severely overuses the word "girl" ultimately comes off as an 8th rate Michael Jackson imitation. The soporific instrumentation (those faked keyboard string sections!) is equally as retching and I dare you to find a fan of triggered drums.
It's hard facing the fact that this is how most Americans (hell, most people everywhere) experience live music. In big, oversized barns with no regard for acoustic quality. Once, maybe twice a year. At inflated ticket prices. Miles away from the artist. I get the feeling these people, on the whole, do not know what they are missing.
They are not exposed to smaller-level artists (with traditional radio and television outlets all exposing FEWER artists than ever) and are thus that much less likely to experience more intimate performances. To put on an impressive show in an arena you really do have to up the production value…video screen, pyrotechnics, back-up dancers…and with the added production you add to your costs, thus ballooning the ticket prices.
I'm not saying the world would be a better place if more people went to small clubs to check out music. I just think that a majority of people would sincerely enjoy it. It seems a large percentage of the population genuinely enjoy music and in turn derive pleasure for seeing it live. Yet it's something that most people take part in so infrequently that it's almost heartbreaking.
I suspected the key of some songs was changed to accommodate the fact that voices have changed in the past twenty years and wonder if anyone else noticed. The omnipresent, monosyllabic chanting vocals (see "Hangin Tough", "The Right Stuff" and "Games") seemed like it was an attempt at New Kid's "hook" or "thing" as much so as a fresh rap from Donnie Wahlberg or wicked falsetto from Joey McIntyre. Certainly there's enough of a cultish edge to their fans that getting them to just grunt along is hardly a challenge.
It was awkward that Wahlberg non-consecutively kissed (on the lips) no less than four women from the crowd. It was badass they let Jordan and McIntyre perform the hits from their solo careers and I particularly enjoyed "Give it To You" with its syncopated start/stops. It was no surprise I spotted no more than twenty men in the audience. It was 17 years since their last performance in Nashville.
It seemed that their dance routines had not changed in that time. They were still doing the "both hands on belt-buckle and shake legs like an Elvis clock" thing for "The Right Stuff" and a few other moves that seemed sneakingly familiar. It brings up a bevy of questions…first, if these are the same routines, how much did they remember after 17 years? If nothing at all, do they employ the same choreographers? If not, do they refer to videos of old performances and take notes? Who in the New Kids' camp is the keeper of old performance vids? What are their band meetings like? How do they split their $18 million gross from the first leg of the tour? How come this is so incoherent? What am I trying to prove here? Does any of this make any sense? Are you with me?
I guess, in short, being in a different town made me want to try different things.
(Does anyone else remember Hard Copy story from the era where a runaway/kidnapped girl was supposedly spotted in the crowd of the "Hangin' Tough" video? How did that story end up?)