Nostalgia is a powerful force – for good and for ill. It can direct our actions, influence our memories, impair our judgment, or simply allow us to have a good time reminiscing with your friends and family. But is it real? Is it worthwhile? Is it something we should give credence to, or should we flee from it whenever it raises its ugly head? And most importantly – why are we nostalgic for certain parts of our past and not others?
Rebecca Wallwork answered these questions with grace, dignity, and a whole lot of personality in the 113th installment of the 33 1/3 Books series. She analyzed 1988’s Hangin’ Tough by New Kids on the Block using her experiences as a teenaged fan of the record balanced against her experiences as a writer in her adult life. She sought to understand exactly why she loved the music then, and why it’s remained such an important part of her life now. And she conducts her quest while remaining unapologetic in her fandom, never seeking to explain it away as some sort of “guilty pleasure.”
That’s how she hooked me. She didn’t make excuses. She approached the creation of this book with the love of a fan and a generally inquisitive mind about the concepts of fandom and nostalgia.
She wanted to know why nostalgia could hold such a grip on people’s likes and dislikes, but she never wanted to explain away her love for New Kids on the Block. That was never in question, and I applauded her for it.
The book aimed to answer three primary questions:
1) What is fandom (and what’s the basis of its grip on our psyche)?
2) Who is Maurice Starr and how did he impact the development of New Kids on the Block?
3) Why exactly was Hangin’ Tough such a huge success?
I quite enjoyed Wallwork’s research into the psychology and neurology of fandom. She read books like This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel Levitin and conducted interviews with neurologists and musicologists. In general, she sought scientific backing for the answer we all assume to be common sense – we always like the music we fell in love with as teenagers because of the memories involved.
But that answer proved only partly true – and it went beyond the fact our physiology craves anything that sends dopamine coursing through our system. Simply put, the age of fourteen is a pretty critical one when it comes to fandom, and the anticipation that comes from getting psyched up to experience anything we love is the big dopamine trigger. Hence, when we crank up that stereo, attend that concert, or simply discuss the record with friends, the bigger the nostalgic connection, the bigger the dopamine rush. And our bodies LOVE the stuff.
But why New Kids on the Block? What made this band of five teenaged boys (four of whom were friends from an underprivileged area of Boston, MA) and their breakout record so important to so many young women at the end of the ‘80s? Wallwork believes this to be a two-part answer, and she eventually comes out in favor of the band rising above the influence (and machinations) of its creator.
Most young artists have been controlled, shaped, molded, and marketed by a svengali-type character. The Jackson 5 had their dad. The Backstreet Boys and NSYNC had Lou Pearlman. Hell, some creepy music critics even describe the husbands of famous female artists as svengalis: think Rene Angelil and Celine Dion or Mariah Carey and Tommy Mottola. For New Kids on the Block, this person was Maurice Star – aka The General.
Wallwork gets into Starr’s background and gives the man plenty of credit for finding Jordan, Jonathan, Joey, Donny, and Danny. He wrote the band’s songs, introduced them to the right people, and set them on the right path. He taught them how to hustle, the ins and outs of music production, and the importance of working hard in order to make anything happen.
In the end, Wallwork gives more of the credit for the group’s long-term success to the members, their talents, and their work ethic. After all, if Starr was truly the kingmaker he’s purported himself to be after the guys bought their rights and back catalog from him, his followup acts would have experienced some modicum of artistic achievement. But they haven’t.
Ultimately, the book’s true purpose is to understand exactly why Hangin’ Tough became such a huge cultural touchstone in 1988-90 and why so many people remain fond of it. And here is when Wallwork sheds her investigative journalist persona and dons her fan attire. She feels that she and her fellow “Blockheads” were at the right place and the right time in terms of their musical development to fall in love with New Kids on the Block.
Sure, it helped that the guys were cute and they knew how to dance, but it was more that they felt a personal connection to them. Many of her friends who are fans spoke of feeling like the guys were singing just to them personally, which they empirically understand now to be a terribly cliched thing to say. But it’s still the truth.
Think of it this way: This sensation is duplicated and replicated across the musical spectrum with teenagers of all generations (and the grownups with mortgages they become). It’s true whether you love metal, punk, opera, hip-hop, or something in between. Just because Wallwork and her compatriots fell in love with a pop group doesn’t make your affection for the band your fourteen-year-old self loves any cooler.
I went into this review thinking I would cheekily wear my “poptimist” hat, but I’d still let my inner 5th grader out to make fun of the music. You see – New Kids on the Block was all my female classmates could talk about in 1989. They wore big oversized buttons. They had the t-shirts, the lunch boxes, the live VHS tape, and all sorts of memorabilia. And I thought it was ridiculous.
What makes Wallwork’s book so great is that you can use it to understand how YOU fell in love with “that band” from your teenaged years, and why you can’t let them go, no matter how you think your tastes have changed. Wallwork refused to apologize for her fandom, and instead invited you along to understand why you feel the way you do about your version of New Kids on the Block.
And if you’re really lucky, you might come away with a begrudging respect for the group, especially the years of hard work and perseverance that went into following their dreams with all their hearts, while still recognizing that it’s their fans that made them so successful.