Equal parts beefcake and cupcake, New Kids on the Block were the dish that ’80s girls had been hungering for. Five boyish ingenus, they rose from a sea of balding rock relics, un-bathed heavy-metal men and macho rappers, crooning, “I’m gonna love you, girl, to the end of time.” Generic junk to the jaded, but to a generation of girls grappling with first crushes, it was sheer poetry. Reason enough for the most widespread and passionate pubescent longing since the ’70s adoration of the brothers David and Shaun Cassidy.
Critics blasted New Kids, and MTV shunned them until self-described Blockheads demanded—and got—airtime for their idols. Pop-pundit scorn served only to raise the kidiac clamor.
The idols joined their fans in a conspiracy of kiddiness, giggling at the off-key notes they struck at concerts. No wonder; the New Kids were just kids themselves. In 1989, when they were selling half a million albums a week, performing sold-out concerts worldwide and easily millionaires, Donnie Wahlberg, Danny Wood and Jonathan Knight were all 19; Jon’s brother Jordan was 18, and Joe Mclntyre a mere 16.
All over America, piggy banks were pulverized to buy the latest Kidgear. (Their merchandising efforts left previous teen idols in the dust: Eighty percent of the almost $1 billion that the New Kids hauled in in 1990 came from objets de Kids.) Surprisingly, parents didn’t mind the cash flow; the Kids were, after all, clean, though all hail from tough Boston neighborhoods, where they were discovered and brought together in 1984 by pop impresario Maurice Starr. “We’re not like the Osmonds,” said Wahlberg. “We grew up around drugs and violence. We had to make a decision not to go in that direction.”
Would-be rap-and-role models, New Kids exhorted fans to say no to drugs, yes to milk. But the message was often obscured by the hazards of fame. Temperamental Donnie had to do public-service announcements after facing arson charges in a 1991 Kentucky hotel incident. Then last January their former record producer Greg McPherson sued Starr, claiming that the Kids were mere lip-synchers, additional flavors of Milli Vanilli. To put the lie to that charge, the New Kids performed live on The Arsenio Hall Show, then filed a countersuit.
But New Kids must inevitably turn into Old Kids. In 1991 they released a single under the acronym NKOTB, an attempt to sing about life beyond juvenalia, but it was met with a lukewarm reaction. All the boys took on solo projects, and Donnie proved most successful, crafting the hip-hop career of his drawer-dropping kid brother, Marky Mark (see foldout). As for the New Kids themselves, they may be victims of pop evanescence. Have the girls had their fill? Bring on the next dish.