Judging from what I remember from drunkenly Tweeting on New Year’s Eve (and into New Year’s morning), one of the main topics of discussion was the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys performance on Dick Clark/Ryan Seacrest’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve”. It’s pretty safe to say that’s a ticket I’ll stay away from. I have no real inclination towards the Backstreet Boys’ music-it’s well-crafted but mostly forgettable, anonymous pop. When it comes to NKOTB, however, I love them despite my better judgment. It’s that thing about music bringing back childhood memories, and every time I hear “Please Don’t Go Girl” or “(You Got It) The Right Stuff”, I’m immediately taken back to memories of hearing the former song on the radio ad nauseum as we drove to Florida for our summer vacation in 1988. I’m also drawn to memories of my first high school girlfriend, who was a massive NKOTB fan, as was just about any girl between the ages of 12-16 back in 1989.
The other thing that contributes to my love of NKOTB-they actually made an excellent album, and of course, it was the one that sold the least.
At the beginning of 1994, the type of saccharine pop music that the New Kids had become famous for had become persona non grata in the U.S. In the time since the group’s last Top 10 hit (“Tonight” in fall 1990), the grunge revolution had come into full flower, and Top 40 radio was stuck between “alternative” rock (The Spin Doctors, The Gin Blossoms and a sea of other one or two-album wonders) and R&B as personified by Janet Jackson, Toni Braxton and SWV. Whenever cheesy pop came into play, it was by virtue of a big balladeer like Celine Dion, Mariah Carey or Michael Bolton. Teen pop was all but dead, and the New Kids seemed pretty damn happy to see it die, ’cause Face the Music is definitely not a teen-pop album.
Actually, had Face the Music been recorded by any band other than the New Kids, it’s very likely that it would have gotten better critical notice and it might have sold better too. The name “New Kids on the Block” carried a stigma that made it very difficult to objectively listen to them (a situation they tried to remedy by shortening their name to “NKOTB”. However, those that bothered to listen objectively were rewarded with fairly top-notch contemporary R&B. Coming at the tail end of the new jack swing era, the New Kids had assistance from supa-producer Teddy Riley on a couple of tracks (most notably the smooth beat ballad “Never Let You Go”), and (if you believe Joe Mac’s portion of the liner notes) got a helping hand from Raphael Saadiq (although the track was either scrapped or Ray decided not to add his name to the credits). Perhaps most impressively, much of the album was helmed by NKOTB’s Donnie Wahlberg, Jordan Knight and Danny Wood. It would stand to reason that the men had a chip on their shoulder after years of being tagged as puppets of Maurice Starr, and Face the Music proved that the Kids were strong enough to stand on their own too, musically speaking. From the effervescent “Keep on Smilin'” (the song that comes closest to the original New Kids sound) to the chilled-out New Jack tracks “Mrs. Right” and “I’ll Be Waitin'” to the hard-edged series of socially-aware vignettes “Keepin’ My Fingers Crossed”, this album has very few tracks that could be considered less than entertaining. I was working in a record store when this album came out, and I remember that when I would play it over the PA, people would jam to it…until they found out who it was. So much for listening without prejudice, I guess.
Unfortunately, the fact that Face the Music stiffed (debuting at #36 on the Billboard 200) as well as the fact that Jonathan Knight wanted out spelled the end of the road for the New Kids…at least for a decade and a half. I had high hopes for the Kids’ 2008 reunion, The Block, but unfortunately the album was over-infected with the Auto-Tune bug. Furthermore, the group seemed to be stuck in arrested adolescence, apparently not realizing that there are not many things creepier than men in their late thirties and early forties hanging out in a club trying to kick it to young girls. Strangely, despite the fact that there’s a 14-year gap between Face the Music and The Block, the older album is unquestionably the more mature one, thematically, lyrically, and vocally.
It also probably wasn’t the best idea to make a song and video that probably pissed off a good chunk of your female fan base. For what it’s worth, though, “Dirty Dawg” probably also ruined the careers of rappers Nice & Smooth.
Left to their own devices (or paired with sympathetic producers), the New Kids could probably still make a very good album (Jordan Knight’s 1999 solo debut, on which he collaborated with Jam & Lewis and a then-unknown Robin Thicke, is a masterpiece). Do I think it’ll happen? Probably not, since they’re stuck on this nostalgia trip. However, Face the Music proves that the group certainly is (or at least was) capable.
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