Reunions involve tough choices. KISS's 1997 reunion involved the choice to not perform "Lick It Up." Last year's Van Halen reunion involved the choice to not invite Gary Cherone. New Kids on the Block, newly unified under their original banner, have yet to make the choice of their adult careers: Shall they be old New Kids or new New Kids? Old New Kids would adhere to the spirit of 1989, re-creating that innocent time before grunge and gangsta rap evicted them from the garden of bubblegum. A true reunion—New Kids Classic—would see the original fad five cheerfully don their ripped stonewashed denim and red leather V-necks and black leather porkpies, willingly re-gel and re-shellac their boy-hive hairdos, gladly wax their chest hair and dab on the latex acne. No one seems to miss the scowling adults of the rebranded New Kids. Supply and demand favors the New Kids when they were still as sparkling whistle-clean as a freshly scrubbed toilet bowl. America craves nostalgia.
In the current economic climate, it would be irresponsible to discuss New Kids on the Block without mentioning Lou Pearlman. Pearlman was a mere shifty Florida businessman until a chance encounter with "Hangin' Tough"–era New Kids sparked his imagination. Within five years, he'd established himself as the Fagin of the early-'90s boy-band craze, transforming Orlando into the mini-Motown of Tidy-Bowl boy pop. It was his Trans Continental Management that gave the world *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Aaron Carter, indirectly establishing New Kids as vanguards of a much larger trend. Unfortunately, such organizations require vast sums of cash to fuel their legions of choreographers, producers, stylists, photographers, and talent scouts—and Pearlman funded his particular organization through a massive stock swindle. Last year, he was convicted, sentenced to a quarter century in the clink, and fined $200 million. Seen in the light of the subprime meltdown, it is easy to view Pearlman's bands, and perhaps all of boy-bandom, as yet another pernicious form of subprime consumer fraud.
New Kids predate this mess, making them the stable Goldman Sachs to Backstreet's Freddie Mac and *NSYNC's Fannie Mae. And yet it was from New Kids that Pearlman allegedly derived his magic formula for Y-chromosome pop megastardom. Gauged by units moved, it is a durable recipe: Take a Wild Guy, a Shy Guy, a Sweet Guy, a Heartthrob, an "Ethnic"; add a generous fatty zone of management and trainers; cross your fingers; and presto! You've sold 70 million albums!
But where do the New Kids fit into the formula? Donnie Wahlberg was the wild one, the counterpart to Backstreet's A. J. McLean. He could pop off at any moment; that much is clear. Vulnerable, tender little Joey was once the band's sweetheart, the same rank as *NSYNC's Lance Bass. But was Danny Wood, with his simian charisma, supposed to be the ethnic or the backup heartthrob? Who was the Joey Fatone? And what of the shy one? Can a band that gyrates and flapper-dances in front of 20,000 screaming girls have a shy member? (Jonathan Knight, who did suffer from crippling anxiety and panic attacks, doesn't count, on account of this information was cynically concealed from America during the band's prime). Maybe the formula is more fluid than previously assumed.
More to the point, what is the current formula for the Middle-Aged Man Band? Who's the Remorseful Guy? Which one is the Gum Disease Guy? Guy Struggling With an Addiction to Online Pornography? Guy Who Lost Money in a Bad Restaurant Investment?
Their new album, The Block, only complicates matters. Like 1994's Face the Music, no smiles greet the buyer. On this most recent cover, the band have replaced frowns with furrowed brows and stern gazes. Danny and Joey seem particularly concerned, flanking the scene and peering outward as if surveying some immense catastrophe. It is sobering, mature packaging. And yet the lyrics play out like a child's take on acting grown-up. The word "sexy" appears eight times, but there's not a single cuss. Every song (13 total, 17 on the deluxe edition) documents a stage of getting or shunning a bit of tail. It's boring and a little weird.
New Kids live may be a different story. Arenas seem to transform the new songs—widely panned as remote, technological, and a wee bit Timberlakey—into occasion for joyous cavorting. Jordan can apparently still hit his falsettos. Those of you who were too proud to pay your respects in 1990 can now indulge your sweet tooth under the cover of adult nostalgia. Cupid still roams the cheap seats. Every word of the band's name is a lie—but it's a harmless, reassuring lie. Barring a time machine, or some Menudo-style boy- replacement program, this is the closest you will get to the new old New Kids.