The Tween-Girl Dreams of New Kids on the Block

The Tween-Girl Dreams of New Kids on the Block
1989: The members of New Kids on the Block (L-R) Donnie Wahlberg, Jordan Knight, Joey McIntyre, Jonathan Knight, and Danny Wood Image:Getty

In 1989, New Kids on the Block burst from stardust into the pop music lexicon. Groomed by music-industry impresario Maurice Starr as a white counterpart to the R&B group New Edition, NKOTB were icons to girls worldwide. Though their roots are traced to the hardscrabble Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, ultimately this group of boys—ages 17 to 21 at the time—performed digestible pop music, carving a rare safe space for girls in an era of chauvinist hair metal and increasing hyper-sexualized imagery.

The New Kids’ young voices were pumped through endless radio airplay and music video rotation. Their boyish good looks adorned legions of swag: from posters and t-shirts to dolls, lunch boxes, trading cards, and complete bedding sets. They even had their own Saturday morning cartoon. The original lineup included founding member Donnie Wahlberg’s younger brother Mark, who departed NKOTB for a questionable solo career before breaking out as an actor.

The iconic five-member lineup of Wahlberg, his high school friend Danny Wood, brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight, and young Joey McIntyre released a self-titled debut in 1986 to little fanfare. Hesitant to call it quits after just one record, Starr allowed the boys more input on their look and sound for their next album. And it made all the difference. Hangin’ Tough was released in September 1988, but it didn’t crack open until ’89, a storm that culminated in the title track peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“Hangin’ Tough” became as ubiquitous as Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” leading up to the 2016 election, and was a similar rallying cry to stand tall and believe in yourself. It had a hook for nearly every type of kid. The ones who felt shy or outcast or bullied at school. The ones who were hyper-competitive. The ones who were into the new Nike “Just Do It” slogan and sports. Its simplistic chorus—a full body chant that set free happy brain chemicals—was easy to remember, and impossible to forget: “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh/Hangin’ tough,” full stadiums sang, swaying arms like windshield wipers.

They were a fruitful model of male friendship. But more importantly, they provided a safe framework for earliest explorations of female sexuality.

Adorned in ripped jeans, black leather jackets, and endless, innocent flirtation, NKOTB became a stylish, posi posse worth celebrating. They were a fruitful model of male friendship. But more importantly, they provided a safe framework for early explorations of female sexuality. They were a haven from popular hair metal bands of the era, scary for girls in these earliest stages of puberty and sexual thought. In their music videos, Warrant and Mötley Crüe sang in coded language, flanked by provocatively dressed women planted solely for male gaze. Songs like “Cherry Pie” and “Girls, Girls, Girls” framed women and their body parts as inanimate accessories of male fantasy. Watching these videos was tantamount to being hunted, the rockers stalking, the women prey, as if any moment one lion in eyeliner might reach through the screen. NKOTB’s pecks on the cheek and serenading were a fool’s errand in this world.

The New Kids, by contrast, depicted women and girls as self-governing entities meant to be celebrated. In their videos, Jordan, Joey, Jon, Donnie, and Danny rode a ferris wheel with fully dressed, age-appropriate young women, or waved to groups of girlfriends from the back of a convertible. They offered flowers in acts of romance. They hugged girls in a chummy embrace—like that of a camp counselor—and joyfully, thankfully signed autographs.

Hangin’ Tough produced five Top 10 hits. Ballads “Please Don’t Go Girl” and “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)” showcased sensitivity, while danceable “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” promoted self-love and sheer fun. In the video for “Cover Girl,” the fifth single from Hangin’ Tough, Donnie pulls a young girl from the crowd onto the stage, to dance with him as he serenades her with the second verse. She couldn’t have been older than 8, but in that moment she embodied every woman and girl, and the sheer delight they summoned from this singularly charming, nonthreatening music. That beautiful girl in navy shorts, and the cornball singing to her, signaled to girls that they were deserving of such public admiration and respect from an all-male band.

The female subjects of NKOTB songs seemed in a holistically better position than the women of hair metal. But this also set NKOTB up for ridicule, as if their refusal to submit to such masculinity tropes made them undeserving of success. “New Kids on the Block suck a lot of dick/Boy and girl groups make me sick,” rapper Eminem declared on his song “Marshall Mathers.” Female sexuality in these earliest stages is so foreign that a reflexive cycle of insult-dismiss becomes the only coping mechanism for anything that harbors or celebrates it. Combine this fear-based othering with music, and there comes an all-out assault.

“To abandon control—to scream, faint, dash about in mobs—was, in form if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture,” the critic Barbara Ehrenreich wrote of Beatlemania in her book Re-Making Love. “It was the first and most dramatic uprising of women’s sexual revolution.” Since the ascent of The Beatles, critics have evoked imagery and language associated with debunked notions of female hysteria, to dismiss female fandom as something less serious than that of rock-focused male critics and fans. “At five million and counting, this isn’t the rank offense its demographic tilt would lead you to expect,” Robert Christgau wrote in The Village Voice, disparaging every girl fan before awarding Hangin’ Tough a C+. There’s an assumption that women and girls are naive, easy targets for the next marketing ploy hatched by the major-label industrial complex—that they’re too emotional to decide what’s good. Bedlam, hysteria, madness. These are the words attached to female fandom.

This ignores deep-rooted double standards for fans. It’s acceptable for men to scream at referees and for points scored during games, and at their musical heroes, but women cheering for their pop idols are mad. Such communal howling, such primal urges, have been co-opted by men for centuries. In this sense, NKOTB not only provided a structure for expressions of early female sexuality and revolution in the ’80s—they also leveled the playing field for expressions of fandom writ large. No longer were women and girls quiet as droves of men hollered at televisions in glass houses.

What this long-standing practice also ignores is that without these major arteries of female fans, the ascendance of The Beatles, and boy bands, and much of pop music excellence and success, would have never happened. Through shrewd listening, emotional intelligence, and unmatched dedication, women and girls ultimately curate what transcends popular music culture, and what doesn’t, from New Kids on the Block to One Direction.

Legions of aspirational groups have sought the female pop fan, and the accomplishment of NKOTB, and failed, because so much rings false to young women—emotionally, sexually and musically. Only acolytes the Backstreet Boys have eclipsed NKOTB’s album sales. In the new millennium, One Direction carries the torch as a rare exemplar of the harmony between a chosen boy band and its fans, where young women are empowered under a shared affection and regarded with a respect deserving of such loyalty.

In an era of aggressive commodification of the female body, New Kids on the Block offered the rare combination of contagious songs, compelling performances, and a safe space for the women and girls who commanded their success. With their early sexual awakening, unmatched devotion, and a sharp ear for musicality—and dancing—the fans who propelled the New Kids were anything but hysterical.

Erin Osmon is a music journalist based in Los Angeles. Her book Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost was released in paperback in December 2018.

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