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Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | August 2019 | 15 minutes (4,077 words)
“You are not wearing that shirt right now.”
Even in this establishment’s near-black 4 p.m. lighting, the bartender, a guy about my age dressed in the Portland Gen-Xer uniform (“Henry Rollins, but a dad”), has made out the faded names and visages adorning my bosom: Donnie. Danny. Joe. Jordan. Jon.
“Oh,” I tell him. “Not only am I wearing this shirt, but I’m about to go see these very motherfuckers. With Gretchen, my best friend from middle school. Who I haven’t seen in years. She was on my gymnastics team, and she flew in from Wyoming. Just to do this.”
When I’m excited I tend to overshare, but I do not admit that the pint of Kölsch I’m ordering is for Gretchen and me to split. I am 42 years old, and if I drink more than half a beer I will sleep through the “rock concert,” as we used to call them, which I have paid $162 to attend.
I can attempt to explain, using human language, the extent to which Gretchen and I were fans of New Kids on the Block. I can explain that my room was a four-walled decoupage of Tiger Beat pin-ups. I can explain how I had the bed sheets and comforter. The trading cards. The marbles (why?). The comic books. The bubblegum (a bit too on the nose). How I had, God help me, the dolls, which my little brother took great pleasure in arranging in flagrante and placing on my bed. I can explain all of this in words, but it’s the kind of thing best expressed in scream — specifically, the scream of a 13-year-old’s terrifying nascent sexuality, sublimated in real time into something safe in its simultaneous unattainability and ubiquity.
“Do you think $60 is going to be enough?” asks Gretchen, who has left her wallet at her dad’s condo in the Pearl District. (This would later lead to her getting carded for beer and being denied purchase by a woman young enough to be our daughter.) Gretchen still uses cash. She lives in a town of 1,900 people. She is a photographer, but also a frontierswoman from 1850 — she hunts her own elk and fishes her own trout, knits her own outerwear, and just built her own house. She’s always been like this.
My Favorite Girl
NKOTB’s first legitimate hit was “Please Don’t Go Girl,” and it began creeping onto the radio in early 1988. I barely noticed it against the nightmarish backdrop of my seventh-grade year.
My former best friend had just ditched me for a cooler crowd at school, and at gymnastics a homeschooler clique was bullying me into finding Jesus. (I’m still not sure how He would have felt about an 11-year-old removing used underwear from my gym bag, and then displaying it, inside-out, on a hanger in the locker room.) No boy had ever so much as glanced in my general direction. The only people who even loved me a little were my parents, and they kept threatening to take me to a shrink.
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But then, in the summer before eighth grade, two events occurred in quick succession. (Well, six, if you count each New Kid as his own event.)
First, the mean home-schoolers quit gymnastics — presumably to devote their lives to torture ministry — and in their place came a new group of nicer girls who went to regular school and would never think of stealing used underwear. One of them was a rangy strawberry blonde named Gretchen.
“Wow,” I said to her one day as we waited to vault. “You have really long toes.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “And they pop when I walk.”
The other girls were fun, but Gretchen was magnetic. She was not yet 14 but she knew — with withering authority — how to sew her own clothes and cook for herself. Gretchen knew how to suck out mosquito and bee venom with a syringe. Gretchen knew how to escape from a mugger, if the situation ever arose. And for some reason, despite the fact that I was weird and definitely talked too much, Gretchen wanted to be my friend.
And then: during a sleepover late into 1989, a video came on MTV that I’d never seen before. It was the same group that had done “Please Don’t Go Girl,” and a few other songs I’d thought were OK. But this time, something happened. An unusual cocktail of drum beats, guitars, synthesizer, and whistle sounds caused all of the air to leave my body at once, replaced, it seemed, by a jolt of electricity.
The song was called “Hangin’ Tough,” and within 14 seconds of the video ending, I needed to know everything about the New Kids on the Block. Who was the one in the leather jacket and overly ripped jeans, and why did his weirdly confident stage presence compel me to do everything he said? Did the soulful brown-haired one have pointy teeth, and did I want them… close to my face? Even the kid who for some reason was wearing a topless hat made me wonder if he had a girlfriend — and, if not, would he be interested in dating an extremely virginal 12-year-old from Eugene, Oregon?
“Oh, them?” said Gretchen. “I’ve liked them since ‘Please Don’t Go Girl’.” Like I said: Gretchen knew everything.
At the Sam Goody in the mall, I bought the Hangin’ Tough cassette and a matching t-shirt. Then, as the weeks progressed, Gretchen and I each depleted most of our respective allowance in exchange for the accompanying, and expensive, VHS tapes. On every trip our moms took to the store, we’d finagle an issue of Teen Magazine, and then another, and then another. We memorized all of the Kids’ names, birthdates, hobbies, zodiac signs, and descriptions of their perfect date.
The one with the ripped jeans and the disquieting presence was Donnie Wahlberg, and by the time I started eighth grade in September of 1989, he was a fully out-of-bounds 19 years old. The shy one was Jonathan Knight, and at 20 he was essentially my dad; same for Danny Wood. However. The guy who was always wearing a Batman shirt, with the falsetto and the teeth — that was Jon’s younger brother Jordan Knight, and okay, fine, he was also 19. Yes, obviously, the optics of dating a rising eighth-grader were poor. But Jordan had to be my favorite. Otherwise there would be nobody left, since Joe McIntyre, the blue-eyed crooner who was a fully-accessible 16 to her 13, unequivocally belonged to Gretchen.
We matter-of-factly informed our parents we’d be attending college in Boston, where we would run into Jordan and Joe on the street every day. We made plans for how we would meet them, and precisely what we would say that would distinguish us from garden-variety “fans.”
We never got the chance, though we did come close a few times. On Sept. 6, 1990, after eight months of lightheaded anticipation and focused ticket-clutching, my beleaguered dad drove Gretchen and me 250 miles north to Seattle (Gretchen screamed at the sight of the Kingdome from I-5) so that we could shriek our way through an evening in the stadium’s third balcony, alternating turns with the binoculars. It was the unequivocal high point of our lives. But it was unequivocally eclipsed five months later (Valentine’s Day, 1991), when the Kids’ tour returned, this time to Portland, and we somehow located their buses. Along with 20 or so other hyperventilating teens in mall bangs, we beheld the visage and self of one actual, in-the-flesh, Jordan Knight, who looked exhaustedly at us out the windshield, implored us to chill the fuck out, and then darted into the venue without stopping.
The half-beer at the Portland gastropub has indeed made me drunk, and Gretchen and I are talking about our children as we walk toward the Broadway Bridge. My 4-year-old daughter is currently going through a phase where she refuses to go to the bathroom when she needs to, and this is now a subject matter I feel fully comfortable discussing in public. We pop into a Rite Aid, where I purchase an iced tea (the 42-year-old mom’s bump of coke), as well as the most important supply of the evening: ear plugs. As we enter, we brush by a group of women our age and their own teen daughters, all wearing NKOTB shirts. “Hey!” I say, three beats too late.
The Rite Aid cashier is about 20, and as we ring up, he notes: “There are, like, a lot of ladies your age walking around in those shirts tonight.” He has no idea what it’s about. I imagine he assumes it’s something to do with essential oils. We explain that NKOTB are playing the Moda, with Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, and Naughty By Nature, as part of something called the Mixtape Tour. “I don’t know what any of those words mean,” the guy says.
He’s too young to understand why he should be mocking us.
Baby, I Believe in You
By the summer of 1990, the New Kids were the biggest act in the world — and had fully lost control of their image, now subsumed by a global merchandising blitzkrieg worth about $400 million. They were so meta-famous they had a Saturday morning cartoon voiced by terrible impersonators. The music, needless to say, was an afterthought at this juncture. The follow-up to Hangin’ Tough had been a Christmas album (my Jewish dad was horrified when I insisted on playing the tape in the car), and then came Step By Step, which was recorded in a series of miserable hotel-room sessions and mixed as cheesily as possible by the Kids’ then-producer and impresario, Maurice Starr.
But none of that mattered. Despite the middling reviews and the guys’ growing ennui, every single thing the New Kids organization produced in 1990 turned into giant piles of money, thanks to the fanatical devotion of girls like me. (Should you wish to, you may corroborate this sequence of events in this extremely detailed 2012 authorized biography.) NKOTB, abjectly miserable, were everywhere — except, of course, on the radio or regular MTV rotation. Because just as they had started to hate themselves, the “cool” populace of the world began to return the favor as they tuned in to much different (some might say “better”) work by Nirvana and Guns ‘n Roses. By my freshman year of high school, most of my friends had turned with the tide of public sentiment.
“Dude,” said my keyboarding classmate Gabe one day in early 1991, as he sidled into his seat. “Guess what I heard? From my cousin? Who’s, like, an ER orderly?”
“What?” I said.
“He said that Donnie from the New Kids had to come in and get his stomach pumped.”
“And do you know what they found in there?”
Gabe looked gravely into my eyes, the first time a live human boy ever had. “Cum.”
This was a rumor I’d heard before: about Jordan, about Danny — about some dude in some other band I’d never heard of, named Freddie Mercury. Given the non-extent of my sexual experience, I was not 100 percent sure how the presence of ejaculate in the digestive system could cause such distress as to require medical intervention, but Google didn’t exist yet, and this wasn’t the sort of thing you could ask your parents. In order to defend the Kids’ honor, I would have had to emulate the virulent bigotry of most of my peers, and out of love for my gay uncle, I would not. The only possible response to the omnipresent NKOTB backlash was total silence. As is so often the case, the primary outlet for my burgeoning sexuality was also my greatest source of shame.
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There was only person in my life who knew who I really was, and that was my best friend Gretchen.
Let’s Try It Again
It is October 2018, 4:45 in the morning. Another odious winter waits offstage in St. Louis, a city where I have lived for 10 years but where I have no friends. My daughter is wide awake on one of her “walkabouts,” where she inexplicably wants to hang out for three hours in the middle of the night. I scroll despondently through my Instagram feed, which — in an attempt to be less despondent — I have scrubbed of all influencers, most celebrities, and any friends who seem a little too #blessed. What remains is what my feed would have looked like in 1989: Disneyland, elite gymnasts and, on a whim, all five New Kids on the Block.
Whereas 28 years ago I spent ungodly amounts of time poring through unsourced Big Bopper features, now I am privy to each Kid’s every meal, golf game, and idle thought. My favorite grown-up New Kid is by far Jon, who has a pet chicken named Stella and is madly in love with Harley Rodriguez (he came out in 2011). Danny, now a board-certified zaddy, is a man of few Instagram words. Most of them are about lifting weights.
The verified personal accounts of Donnie, Jordan, and Joe (who now, as an adult, goes by Joey) are what middle-young people call thirst traps. Donnie spends every second of his spare time doing sit-ups, or at least that is what I assume, given the approximate 95-pack he hauls around. (He also stars on the CBS cop drama Blue Bloods with Tom Selleck, thereby crossing NKOTB over into the coveted 59-80 demographic.) Joey, ice-blue eyes surrounded by the arresting features of a grown-ass man, is a Broadway star, avid meditator and cyclist, perennial checker of his hair and sayer of fuck, and devoted dad of three. As for my former future husband, Jordan Nathaniel Marcel Knight (Taurus) — who turned the Batman shirt into a fetish object, whose falsetto launched a puberty, and who is still, at 49, gasp-inducingly fine — I regret to announce that we have broken up because of his unfortunate opinions about the 45th President of the United States.
Peeking inside the NKOTB social-media multiverse is how I come to know about the Mixtape Tour. And, in these hopeless wee hours, I DM my old friend, Gretchen. We keep in touch online, but I’ve only seen her about four times since 1996. She is currently recovering from major back surgery, still purging the demons of gymnastics from her body.
Gretch! I say. How is your back? Are you all hopped up on pain pills? If so, I continue:
this would be the perfect time to suggest that we meet up in Portland on June 2 and see the NKOTB show [heart emoji]. Tickets go on sale tomorrow and I am not kidding. If you are planning an Oregon trip this summer, why not???
At 5:15, my daughter finally starts to tire and I pass out in a cloud of relief. When the child wakes me up again three hours later, I see Gretchen’s response:
Hell YES! Count me in. I’ll bring binoculars!
I haven’t heard so much as three notes of “Hangin’ Tough” in decades, but in that second, I realize how much I miss Gretchen and the innocent euphoria of our fandom, and I begin to cry.
Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)
“Maybe they’ll do ‘Popsicle’,” I say, in an attempt to cheer Gretchen up after security at the Moda has confiscated her camera because it looks too professional. She attempts to detail its plebeian capabilities in the way only a professional would talk, and they smile and give us a claim tag. “Popsicle” is a pretty obscure track from their sleepy 1986 first album, but I hold out hope.
The lights finally go down, and we stuff in our earplugs just as the packed Moda erupts. I’m too mature to scream now, so what I do is turn to Gretchen and bubble over with laughter. But the first number is (what the what?) a recent one, and I don’t know it. Gretchen and I exchange shrugs. I take this opportunity to observe the 12,500 fellow perimenopausal Caucasians in my midst. Most are singing along word for word.
I will be the first to admit it: The guys look good. They’ve traded in the frenetic, oversized early ‘90s layers for meticulously tailored crisp white suits that hug all of their egregiously worked-out body parts. They move in a formation so close they sometimes seem like five interconnected parts of the same being, a synchronicity borne of more years in their lives spent together than apart.
But I can’t escape the palimpsestic effect of the whole night — the distinct feeling that I’m talking to the ghost of my shrieking teenybopper past on a tin-can phone. Oh holy shit, I tell her, it’s “My Favorite Girl!” You used to be all like AAAAAAAAUGH! They’re standing right there! You’d be really freaking out right now!
The New Kids might be neither New nor Kids, but as they throw out one final round of the Right Stuff dance (you know the one), I catch Jordan’s grown-up face on the JumboTron, and it hits me. Their original run of popularity began in 1989 and barely made it to ‘92. NKOTB, the OG version, lasted two and a half years. And yet they’ve been reunited — with new albums, and new songs that 12,500 other people in Portland seem to know, and arena tours that sell 600,000 tickets, and an annual cruise — since 2009. The opener on some of their reunion tour dates was an unknown singer-songwriter named Lady Gaga.
There is a drug infinitely more potent (and more lucrative) than teenage desire: Nostalgia.
What’cha Gonna Do (about It)
The noxious combination of mainstream backlash, an aging fanbase in search of a new transitional object, and a rapidly changing musical landscape — my 1993 anthem with Gretchen was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — finally caught up with NKOTB in 1994. Their “badass” new look backfired (please do not watch the video for “Dirty Dawg”) and its accompanying album, Face the Music, required them to do just that — and disband. The previous years’ merchandising oversaturation, created to feed an ever-gaping teen maw that would have swallowed anything (trust me), ensured the Kids would become victims of their own fame.
Lost amidst this downfall was what is probably their best song, “If You Go Away.” In hindsight it was all the more potent in its prophecy — for as Gretchen and I learned to drive, got actual boyfriends, became socially acceptable mid-’90s haters of everything popular, and got ready for college and moved away (not, it turns out, to Boston), we did. Go away, that is. The posters and the pin-ups and the buttons and the trading cards and the comics (and, yes, the dolls) were stuffed into the back of closets, to be forgotten or given away by our parents. Wait, a high-school classmate would say now and then, Didn’t you used to be a New Kids On the Block Girl?
Ha, I’d answer, I guess I was. That was a long time ago.
Time Is on Our Side
The one and only minute I dare to remove my earplugs at the Moda comes during “Tonight,” as all five Kids descend from the stage and walk out into the audience, where they hug fans and take dozens of selfies. The din is threatening to make my head bleed, but I motion for Gretchen to remove her own protection and I scream: “CAN YOU EVEN IMAGINE IF THEY’D DONE THIS IN 1990?”
She looks at me matter-of-factly and shouts: “OH, THEY WOULD ABSOLUTELY BE DEAD.”
“DEAD!” I agree. “DEAD.”
The stage of the 1990 Magic Summer tour — the Kingdome show — had been separated from the front row by a 10-foot moat, an actual cage, and a line of massive security dudes. The front row of the Mixtape Tour is a literal bar, complete with stools and a phalanx of contest winners (and presumable havers of $2,500), whose drinks and persons are draped across the guys’ feet for most of the show.
As the night wears on I make peace with the meta-euphoria. True to its name, the Mixtape tour alternates sets between artists, and everyone takes the stage multiple times. Tiffany! Tiffany has legit pipes. Salt ‘n Pepa are there! Great! Debbie Gibson, I think, she’s so cute still. And as it wears on even longer, I realize that I am exhausted and I want to go home. I bet my kid is flipping out and my feet hurt and my head kind of hurts and I’m sort of hungry, I think. I look over at Gretchen, and she looks tired, too.
But then: Something happens.
The stage quiets, and NKOTB re-emerge in sleek black suits accented with just the tiniest amount of sparkle. I hear the first strains of “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind),” the slightly-retitled Delfonics cover from the first album that also served as the B-side for “Hangin’ Tough” which is also NKOTB’s second-best song. Huh. Then it’s “If You Go Away,” and suddenly I hear myself going HEEHEE.
By the time the Kids modulate mid-verse, and Joey steps upstage and sings the first two lines of “Please Don’t Go Girl” a cappella, I feel a distinct shrinkage in the ironic distance between myself and the stage, myself and my past self, this night and one 29 years ago. Joey’s voice sounds good, his timing is expert, he is in complete control of the stage; as he reaches one hand out to the crowd, I feel the tug. The air leaves my body. A jolt of electricity replaces it. And I’m extremely very far from alone. Gretchen turns to me, eyebrows raised, and scream-whispers: “HOLY SHIT. HE’S REALLY GOOD!”
Just as I fear the entire Moda will re-pubertize, Joey drops to his knees and yells: “I’ve been singing this song for 30 years!” We all laugh: we really are so old, and yet here we still are. But for a second there, it’s 1990, and I legitimately believe he has been singing only to me.
Where Do I Go from Here
It’s nearing 11:00 by the time Gretchen and I sneak onto the MAX along with approximately 400 other ladies of a certain age wearing similar garb. The four or five hipsters who are heading home from their side hustles (it’s a Sunday) are duly perplexed. Two drunk ladies compliment my vintage shirt.
“You all look like my older sister’s room!” says one of the hipsters, who, it transpires, was seven in 1989.
Gretchen and I both agree that “Please Don’t Go Girl” was the highlight of the evening, and she points out that she regularly hears better music from random honkey-tonk outfits in Wyoming. (I stopped listening to live music around 2004, when it became markedly more painful to stand in one place for that long.)
“But it wasn’t about the music,” I say. We study the Portland transit map, hoping that this line might take us where we need to go. “I’m happy we did it.”
“Oh, definitely,” she says.
As the train drops off more passengers and approaches Gretchen’s stop, I’m no longer thinking about Joey McIntyre’s stage presence or Jordan Knight’s unfortunate politics. My phone only has 3 percent battery and I have to navigate myself to my hotel and deal with my kid and her dad, who’ve been left to their own devices all night and are probably both pissed at me. I’ve been looking forward to this night for eight months, and now here it is, over, the screams of the arena fading into memory just like they did in that same arena almost 30 years ago.
The next morning, Gretchen swings by on her way back out of town — I don’t know when I’ll get to see her again; maybe a year from now, definitely not sooner — to snap some photos of my family. My daughter shrieks as she chases pigeons and shows off her new “turn jump” moves. She asks Gretchen ten million questions and demands we all finish her sentences for her. Most of the snaps Gretchen takes are kid-only, but I’m in a few of them, still wearing my NKOTB shirt. It’s faded, misshapen, and falling off my body in tatters. It was, somehow, the only shirt I’d brought.
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Rebecca Schuman is a writer and translator based in Eugene, Oregon, and the author, most recently, of Schadenfreude, A Love Story.
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Editor: Ben Huberman
Fact-checker: Matt Giles