Do the old New Kids still have ‘the right stuff’ in ’99?

Do the old New Kids still have ‘the right stuff’ in ’99?
   “She said you’re a New Kid on the Block,
   young girls scream and old boys mock.”
   — Barenaked Ladies, 1992
   I was one of those old boys mocking the New Kids back in the day: 1988-90.
   While I was getting into Bob Marley, Otis Redding, Al Green and the Spinners, the New Kids were producing a sugary concoction that pre-pubescent and teen-age girls called music. That sugary concoction gave me a more painful toothache than eating a box of strawberry-flavored Charleston Chews.
   Fast forward 10 years to 1998-99. Thanks to the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync and 98 Degrees, boy groups are back in vogue. And guess what? I like them. Not enough to go buy their bio books, calendars and lunch boxes, but I like them. I admit it. After a decade of brooding alternative music, some fun and harmless toe-tappers really fit in during the “Don’t worry (about the immorality of Bill Clinton)/be happy” late 1990s.
   With my giddiness over teen pop refusing to subside, it’s the perfect time to reassess the New Kids on the Block. A greatest hits CD was finally released last month, and two former members — Jordan Knight and Joey McIntyre — recently unveiled their debut solo singles.
   I can forgive Jordan, Joey, Donnie, Danny and Jonathan for diverting the girls’ attention away from teen-age boys who couldn’t sing, dance or wear cool clothes (initials: EC). But can I forgive the uncles of boypower for their bubblegum output? Upon further review, they get a marginal thumbs-up.
   The New Kids’ catalog can be divided into two categories: surprisingly soulful and egregiously ear-straining. On the downside, songs such as “Cover Girl,” “Hangin’ Tough” and “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” are so shallow that they’re an insult to the average 11-year-old. And I’d rather watch Number Five over and over again in “Short Circuit 2” than listen just once to the trite “This One’s for the Children.”
   Unlike most of today’s boy groups, four of the five Kids were awful singers. McIntyre has a cute, Jackson Five-ish lead on the group’s first hit, “Please Don’t Go Girl.” But then his voice changed for the worse. Donnie Wahlberg would be the sorriest singer ever to have a No. 1 record if it wasn’t for Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” That’s saying something, since I’m loathe to criticize my hair follicle-impaired brethren. My apologies, Freds.
   The New Kids’ saving grace was Jordan Knight, perhaps the finest falsetto since Russell Thompkins Jr. of the Stylistics. Not surprisingly, the New Kids’ best work featured Knight on material that sounded like the soulful Stylistics and the Delfonics. The Kids had a Top 10 record with a remake of the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind)” and songs such as “If You Go Away” and “Let’s Try It Again” are similar to the call-and-response vocals of the Stylistics. Knight is even smooth on non-falsetto stuff such as “Baby I Believe in You.” Much of the credit should go to New Kids’ songwriter/Svengali Maurice Starr, but in hindsight, Knight never got his due. He’s a great vocalist.
   Unfortunately, those great vocals are nowhere to found on his first solo record, “Give It to You.” Featuring an outdated, stop-and-start rhythm track by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Knight’s nearly-whispered vocals sing lyrics so risque they’d make Barry White blush. “Give It to You” sounds like ’80s dance/pop hack Dino recording with ’90s R&B hack Ginuwine, hardly a ringing endorsement.
   If Knight wants to establish a new identity, he has to choose something a little more audience-friendly, especially if the 28-year-old really plans to tour with ‘N Sync this summer. Maybe the second single will do the trick.
   McIntyre doesn’t have to rely on a second single, because his first, “Stay the Same,” is a hit. It’s in the Top 20 with little radio airplay. It’s also a bit more standard than “Give It to You.” A big, big ballad, “Stay the Same” strives to be “The Greatest Love of All” of 1999. (Lyrics include: “Don’t you ever wish you were someone else/You were meant to be the way you are exactly.”)
   “Stay the Same” will be loved by anyone who isn’t the social darling of middle/high school. But it’s so cliched, right down to the “believe in yourself” bridge and (surprise, surprise) the gospel chorus for the big finish. The song may have worked with a charismatic vocalist such as Backstreet’s Brian Littrell or Boyzone’s Ronan Keating. McIntyre has neither the voice nor the charisma to pull it off.
   Knight and McIntyre’s re-emergence on the teen pop scene is what I like to call “Cousin Oliver syndrome.” Named after the bespectacled, mischievous tyke who popped up on the final episodes of “The Brady Bunch,” COS is the desperate sign that something has run its course. It cannot feel right. Usually, it’s a baby or kid on a TV show. Or Jenny Piccolo on the last, dreadful years of “Happy Days.” Or Rod Stewart recording “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” in the twilight of disco. Or the girl replacing Ralph Macchio in “The Next Karate Kid.” Teen pop’s shelf life could expire by year’s end. Maybe the old New Kids need the genre to die so they can create music without it being linked to the latest fashion.
   Step by step, Knight and McIntyre could carve out credible solo careers. But it appears that the first step is backwards.
Eric Coker is night/entertainment editor at The Daily Star.
This column was published March 20, 1999


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