Now that my brother has ‘outed’ me, I have no choice but to embrace and then explain my identity. Yes, it is true, I was (although, unlike my sister, do not remain) a New Kids on the Block fan. The Younger J, out of kindness or because of the failure of youth’s memory, does not paint the picture in its true horror. I was not just a fan, I was a fanatic.
I had NKOTB posters on my wall. I had a fine collection of NKOTB pins, collectible cards, and every album (up to Step by Step and including the Christmas album). I watched their specials on TV; I envied my friends who had the concert tapes. I missed out on their concerts, but they would certainly have been revelatory experiences.
As you can probably imagine, I took some abuse for this love. When I wore my pins to school, I heard sneers and catcalls. (I may have been pushed into a snow-bank, or two.) But, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter, because I had Donny, Danny, Joey, Jon and Jordan (well, not really Danny, who liked him anyway?)
How did this happen? How did I fall in love with one of the most annoying, overproduced, pop-crapular ‘bands’ ever? How did I, who came to exhibit such fine and discriminating taste (please understand the sarcasm), start here? Three answers: crazy parents, isolation, and girls.
First: the Parents J, well, mostly the mother, were a little extreme in the 80’s. They went from free-loving, getting stoned in small airplanes, driving across the country in snow storms with an infant, to attending church regularly, forbidding television, and exiling violent toys in a few years. As a young kid, I could not watch MTV (I saw “Thriller” at a babysitter’s house and FREAKED out), could not own G.I Joes (until I prevailed upon them in my first ever rhetorical triumph); even Nickelodeon was considered too vulgar (there was something about “You Can’t Do that on Television” that made my mother crazy).
The Younger J probably can’t remember this period—when our father tried to be a clone from Wall Street and our mother had aspirations outlined in Good Housekeeping. His world was different—he reaped the benefits of the wars his siblings fought. By the time he was old enough to care about music, we were in the economic doldrums of the ‘90’s: our father’s Michael Douglas dreams had been cast aside; our world was more relaxed (and, not coincidentally, more interesting).
Second: Isolation. We lived in the middle of nowhere—we actually had no neighbors. So, there were not children of any age around to tell me about the Bangles, Bon Jovi, or any of that good stuff. The little musical education I had came on the school bus where certain drivers would allow us, if we were good, to listen to the radio. I still remember being vaguely confused as everyone sang along to “Livin’ on a Prayer”.
The Younger J had the misfortune/good fortune of older siblings who were always bringing people to our sylvan abode. Mysterious tall teenagers would show up with Primus albums; miscreant sons of preachers would appear with guitars and drum kits; before he was in middle school, he had seen my terrible band play countless times.
But, since my parents listened only to oldies in my day and I was blocked off from other avenues, I was ignorant about music of any other kind. In elementary school, I remember having to conduct interviews with classmates. When I was asked what my favorite band was, I answered “The Monkees” (we were allowed to watch re-runs of that show.)
Third: The ladies. I started really to care what girls thought sometime before NKOTB got big. I wasn’t a loser, or exactly a loner, but I was essentially clueless about social norms. It is not that I didn’t have many friends (I probably didn’t), but that I didn’t realize that having friends was important. Shit, I lived on a dirt road. For fun, I climbed trees and read books. I thought that’s what life was all about.
Then, I started to notice the ladies. I was a little young when my obsessions began, but I clearly remember pouring over grade school class pictures and admiring the cute girls in my class. When, all of a sudden, many of them were sporting NKOTB gear, I was intrigued. I watched them on TV; I prevailed upon my parents to buy their albums (on tape, of course).
Now, to say something about their music: it was completely non-threatening. My parents knew I was bound to grow up at some point and to them, NKOTB were a bunch of nice boys who sang sweet songs in a completely desexualized way. This was important. (I still remember the grimace on my mother’s face when she accidentally saw a Madonna video on TV. In fact, it is your fault, Madonna, that I had to watch MTV surreptitiously until I was well into high school!)
The music is simple, saccharine, bubble-gum pop with roots in some of the most superficial music of the 50’s through 70’s. My parents could abide listening to it because it presented no aesthetic or cultural challenges. (And, the boys were from Boston! My parents were nothing if not provincial in the regionally superior way New Englanders have perfected.) They accepted my obsession. And I was wise enough not to let them know what got me started.
The thing is, to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, when you pretend to be something, you end up being it. So, I was, in the end, a NKTOB fan. When the fad faded after Step by Step and as music got darker, both the band and their fans grew older. The girls stopped wearing their pins; so I did too.
At the same time, I also started to notice dirty looks from boys my age. I started to get mocked for my love. So, I stopped even more. I started to memorize the songs the guys were listening to. (I still know most of “Ice Ice Baby” and “You Can’t Touch This.”) In fact, I am sure that my musical tastes for at least the next five years were entirely governed by what I thought people might or might not think about me.
So there it is. I am not embarrassed. I simply am. At least I fly to Boston to see NKOTB live like our sister does. Or, maybe, she’s the one who’s honest and I am still worried about what you’ll think of me.
(I did try to listen to them again to figure it out. The instrumental music is tinny and superficial; the lyrics are juvenile; and the harmonies are simply too uninspired to justify so many singers. Give me Boys II Men any day of the week.)