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Prediction: Salt-N-Pepa will upstage NKOTB's ‘Magic Mike’ shtick tonight at Xcel

New Kids on the Block

New Kids on the Block Photo courtesy of the artist

Yes, everyone knows Jordan is the best singer.

Yes, Danny is unattractive as a man, but as a 50-year-old breakdancer, he’s impressive. Yes, little Joey’s voice has changed drastically, and no, that doesn’t make him any less hot; quite the opposite. No, nobody’s really sure what Jon does, or why he sometimes vanishes from the stage for minutes at a time. He’s the Shy One. And yes, we are so totally going to watch the HGTV show where he renovates farmhouses, advertised twice before the arena lights dimmed.

Thus did my wife, Lea, patiently school me when we attended the May 4 New Kids on the Block concert in Cleveland. The five unrepentant Bostonians tour every couple years, regardless of whether they’ve recorded new material. They often bring along other turn-of-the-’90s hitmakers, but this year’s Mixtape Tour is different: It’s a revue that intersperses long NKOTB sets with mini-sets by Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Salt-N-Pepa, and Naughty By Nature, plus a bit where their DJ just gives up and plays snippets of a bunch of ‘80s songs. These two-plus hours of Adorno nightmare fuel will hit the Xcel Center tonight. You already know whether this all sounds great, or whether it makes you want to move to the woods and write a manifesto.

I had a pretty good time. A New Kids hater and borderline rockist (read: Nelson fan) in middle school, I’ve since mellowed, and I’ve always loved “Cover Girl.” Yes, Donnie always trots a little girl out on stage when he sings “Cover Girl.” No, she doesn’t usually scowl like she’d rather be anywhere else, Lea doesn’t know what that was about. After the girl disappeared, we got to the part of the show where Donnie says “fuck” a lot, and I began to catch on. “He’s such a Bad Boy,” I shouted over the din. Lea nodded her approval.

In a “Kitchen Fresh Chicken”-style effort to rebrand, Donnie’s tank top read “Naughty Kids on the Block.” And those italics are true: Today’s NKOTB are more naughty than naughty. The ideal boyfriends of 1989 have turned into rueful family men with gym memberships. When Salt-N-Pepa did “Whatta Man” later in the evening, the video screen lit up with a backstage view of four middle-aged New Kids, shirtless and preening in their green room. Jon, noted Lea, was conspicuously absent. Since being the first to leave the group in 1994, the Shy One has also lived openly as the Gay One, and his refusal to participate in some of the aggressive, winking heteronormy bits read as quiet dignity.

I wouldn’t call it a rebuke, though—after all, Jon still knows all his old moves. The Kids’ synchronized floor-humping, crotch-thrusting, unnecessarily well-toned hotness is compulsively ogleable, but there’s a second pleasure running alongside all that ogling: the glory of the ogle itself. It’s a very Magic Mike vibe. A thirst parade is a thirst parade, but part of the thrill is watching your fellow fans watching the studs, and then watching yourself watching your fellow fans watching the studs, who are watching the room, mindful of every fan’s pleasure—a horny, giddy infinity loop.

Plus, you know, they sing songs. Even haters know the songs. Sometimes we sing along with the songs: the “oh! oh!”’s popping like corn through “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” and “Cover Girl,” the vocal-range-flummoxing steps of “Step By Step,” the marching-through-Oz “oh weeee oh” of “Games,” which I somehow know intimately even though it never cracked the Top 40. Jordan still nails the half of the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” he deigns to sing. All grown up, voice an octave lower, Joe sounds better than ever on “Please Don’t Go Girl.” And “Tonight” still contains their best line, “We met a lot of people… and girrrrrrrls,” which is either objectifying or flattering, and hilarious either way.

The sound was a mixed bag. Backed by, I assume, pre-recorded tracks (no band was visible) the beats slammed harder than Maurice Starr’s original, often rinky-dink productions. In Cleveland’s unfortunately named and echo-laden Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, those beats also tended to swallow up verses, reducing the faster songs to a boomy blur punctuated by sturdy hooks. Of course, nobody could hear the Kids sing in 1989, either, over all the screaming. Not hearing the New Kids is central to the authentic New Kids concert-going experience.

But then, fandom has ways of ignoring petty concerns over things like terrible sound or embarrassing lyrics. This truth transcends NKOTB. Because the show was in Cleveland, Lea also got us tickets to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. For the road trip I brought along a bunch of CDs by Rock Hall inductees, including Van Halen, because I am an utter cornball and a Van Hagar fan. (But I repeat myself.) Sammy Hagar’s lyrics are aggressively dumber than anything the New Kids ever sang, but I’ll never stop listening to them, because I first heard them in middle school and they are therefore perfect.

In her 33⅓ book on NKOTB’s breakthrough album Hangin’ Tough, Rebecca Wallwork attributes this phenomenon to a potent cocktail of nostalgia and dopamine, the brain chemical that rewards people with pleasure for gene-pool-extending activities like having sex and eating almonds. For some reason, listening to beloved music also does the trick. Since teenagers’ hormonal systems are basically Mount Vesuvius mid-eruption (I paraphrase), the music we love as teens fuses with our memories of the time, overstating those memories’ “reward value” and ensuring “the music and the memories are imprinted in the brain.” Which partly explains why Lea called seeing the New Kids “a dream come true.”

It also explains why, whenever I hear the Van Halen song “Feels So Good,” I see the friends who were with me when I first heard it, the message-in-a-bottle cover art I painstakingly drew for the discarded OU812 cassette I found in the schoolyard, and the piano where I learned to bang out the song’s synth riff. As the Red Rocker prophesied, songs and memories combine to make us Feel So Good. Thanks to my stupid teenage brain, Sammy really did have the tools to satisfy.

So did every artist on the New Kids’ stage. The Mixtape Tour is no more or less a nostalgic dopamine hit than the Rock Hall. The difference is audience: Whose dopamine is getting juiced, and how invested are they in the enshrined mythos of “the power of rock and roll”? If you’re thinking, “What about aesthetic quality,” well... not necessarily. True, NKOTB are no Sly and the Family Stone; but then, the Moody Blues never made an album as good as Tiffany. Tiff was in great voice, by the way—she’s wisely sacrificed her trademark rasp for Healthy Singing Habits, but still tackled all her hits except the Beatles cover with arena-sized authority. If you haven’t heard the power ballad “All This Time” in a while, go stream it; the Tim James-Steve McClintock composition is a perfect piece of craft, requiring no more than Tiffany’s voice and an acoustic guitar, one of two instruments seen on stage all evening.

As always, mallrat Tiffany had the edge over Broadway belle Debbie Gibson, who emerged from beneath the floor playing the evening’s other instrument, a grand piano she would eventually mount. A+ entrances aside, her upper range has grown unpleasantly strident, and she derailed “Only In My Dreams” with a weird rap. Confined to their three hits, Naughty By Nature didn’t get much chance to rap weirdly, unless you consider “weird” a top 10 single that celebrates both rampant infidelity and penis rhymes. (You probably should.) Unfortunately, the thundering sound system made mush of Treach’s lightning-fast syllables. Fortunately, the other rappers on the bill had plenty of help getting their points across.

Salt-N-Pepa is the only one of these five acts I can imagine entering the Rock Hall someday, thanks to a potent cocktail of aesthetic quality, groundbreaking firstness, and hits. Pepa’s jacket from the “Push It” video is already there, behind glass. And here’s something you might or might not have guessed about the overwhelmingly white New Kids audience: They love “Push It.” Like, “know all the words and recite them at top volume” love. Same with “Whatta Man,” “Let’s Talk About Sex,” and “Shoop,” and they were also pretty excited to hear “My Mic Sounds Nice” and “Expression.” Even ceding their more strenuous dance moves to some young studs, Cheryl James and Sandra Denton (without the recently fired Deidra “DJ Spinderella” Roper) led their rap-alongs in voices as familiar as best friends or sisters. Those voices remain affable, sexy, funny, spiky, and blessedly undiminished. They put the “dope” back in dopamine.

New Kids on the Block
With: Salt-N-Pepa, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Naughty By Nature
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: 7:30 p.m. June 11
Tickets: $26.95 and up; more info here