The New Kids on the Block

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The New Kids on the Block

At the peak of their success, the New Kids on the Block became the most celebrated teenage pop musical act since Menudo and The Jackson Five. Modeled after these precursors, New Kids on the Block consisted of five young men from Boston who sported a squeaky clean image, and whose eclectic musical styles and slick dance routines borrowed heavily from black performance traditions. By 1989, the group was the most successful act of its kind in the United States, but their popularity seriously waned only two years later and the members disbanded in 1995 to pursue solo careers. New Kids on the Block still maintain a sizable fan base, and their long-lasting effect on popular music became evident in 1997 and 1998 when copycat groups like Hanson, The Backstreet Boys, N'Sync and 981/4 Degrees ruled the pop charts.

The five young men who composed the group were all raised in Boston. Four of the five members, Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Knight, and brothers Jonathan and Jordan Knight, grew up in the same neighborhood and attended elementary school together. The four friends became aware of each other's performing talents from talent shows and school chorus. By high school, Danny and Donny had even formed their own rap group, performing at local parties and events.

By 1985, the four young men had met producer Maurice Starr. A slightly off-the-wall but extremely gifted song composer, Starr, an African American, had already achieved success in the early 1980s by creating and producing the enormously popular black teen act, New Edition. New Edition had hit the charts with bubblegum pop tunes like "Candy Girl" and "Mr. Telephone Man." After this group's popularity waned by the mid-1980s, Starr walked away from his creation. The members of New Edition each went on to successful solo careers and the group eventually performed a reunion tour in 1995.

Vying for an even wider racial audience than the one he had generated for New Edition, Starr planned to promote New Kids on the Block as an all-white teen group modeled after earlier acts like The Osmonds. He signed the four friends from Boston and, for added effect, brought on board twelve-year old Joey McIntyre for his youthful tenor sound. The boys dressed in regular, non-descript styles, including tattered, ripped jeans, teased hairdos, and stylish hats. Sensing the potential to capitalize on an untapped adolescent and pre-adolescent female fan base, Columbia Records signed the group in January of 1986.

The group's first album, titled New Kids on the Block, spun off three singles that failed to ignite the charts. Apparently, the record company had promoted the group exclusively to black audiences. For its second album, Columbia focused on Maurice Starr's plan to promote the group to a larger, "Top 40" audience, more inclusive of whites. Even before the second album was released, the group tried to generate a supportive fan base by touring shopping malls and performing at local concert venues and telethons. In 1988, the group toured the country as the opening act for teenage star Tiffany, and in 1989 the group's second album, Hangin' Tough, was released. It went on to become a multi-platinum best-seller.

By 1990, the group was on a grueling touring schedule, traveling to seventy cities in five months. Songs like "The Right Stuff," "Please Don't Go Girl," and "I'll Be Loving You Forever" were firmly planted at the top of the charts. The group's success even spun off a cartoon series on ABC television. Although New Kids on the Block had secured a decidedly loyal teenybopper audience, the group was derided by many critics, especially because of its practice of lipsynching in live performance, and because of its attempts to promote itself as "street" in the style of black urban musical acts. Although its Christmas album Merry Merry Christmas helped sustain their already luminous success in 1990, its third release, Step by Step (1990), failed to generate the record sales of previous albums. A 1991 remix album, No More Games, similarly failed to gain radio airplay. Apparently, the female teen audience for New Kids on the Block had begun to mature, and other harder forms of music like gangsta rap were taking center stage, supplanting the formulaic quality of groups like The New Kids and Vanilla Ice.

In 1994, in order to bolster its waning street credibility, the quintet changed its name to the acronym NKOTB. After releasing a final album, Face the Music, to poor reviews, the group finally split up. Although its long-term impact on the popular music scene is not generally considered to have been significant, the blueprint of the group's success has become familiar: an entrepreneurial producer forms and manages a group of young white teenagers performing black musical and dance styles. This formula became a surefire routine by the late 1990s, with hugely popular groups like The Backstreet Boys and N'Sync.

—Jason King

Further Reading:

Greenberg, Keith Elliot. New Kids on the Block. Minneapolis, Lerner Publications, 1991.