Sunday, June 30, 2013

What Happens to Boy Bands When They Grow up? A Night with Boyz II Men, 98° and NKOTB


What happens to a boy band when they grow old? Do they age out of matching outfits and group choreography, or are they doomed to repeat the ancient moves until their AARP days? This summer gives us the perfect opportunity to find out, as ’90s stalwarts Boyz II Men98 Degreesand New Kids on the Block have teamed up for the arena-spanning Package Tour (yes, that’s right). We were lucky enough to get floor seats when the Package Tour rolled into Brooklyn, and we were able to see how the three boy bands deal with a changing world in three very different ways.


Boyz II Men open the night, with a shortened set that plays all the hits and left no fat. In their heyday, no one would have called Boyz II Men a boy band—too mature, too technically impressive—but nostalgia has a way of erasing all those old distinctions. They’re still a “classy” group, though, which in this context means they keeps their clothes on; the voices are the show. (Almost every song on their set has an extended coda for Shawn Stockman and the brothers Morris Nathan and Wanja Morris* to show off their vocal gymnastics.) On the Package Tour they play the role of the Sensitive Bachelors, stocking the stage with huge bundles of roses that they throw out to lucky ladies in the audience. When the trio goes a capella, the whole arena gets silent. When they invite the crowd to sing along, Barlcays erupts in a distinctly feminine trill.


Unlike Boyz II Men (who never split up) or NKOTB (who reunited years ago), 98 Degrees is using the Package Tour to come back from a long hiatus. You can kind of tell. Their choreography is a bit sloppier, and there’s a sense of glee on the faces of the group’s non-Nick-Lachey members; they’re excited to be back in the spotlight, and they haven’t quite gotten used to it yet.
Of these three, my favorite is Justin Jeffre. Every reunited boy band has one guy who fell prey to the normal aging process, and Jeffre is 98 Degrees’ version. He looks like he should teaching math somewhere, or running your IT department, but instead he’s selling out arenas and doing sexy dance moves alongside three guys who look like Ken dolls. (As we learned when we interviewed the band, he also owns a free newspaper that benefits the homeless and was closely involved in Occupy Cincinnati.) Jeffre is also the only single guy in 98 Degrees, and if you follow his movements throughout the show you’ll realize he spends the most time doing all the crucial connecting-with-the-audience things like making eye contact, pointing and high-fiving. He gives 110% on every pelvic thrust. In other words, he’s awesome.
There’s a reason for all these pelvic thrusts. In their younger days, 98 Degrees was a ballad group, but ballads have all but disappeared from the pop music landscape. (“One Night (Una Noche)” was their sole uptempo hit; when the band play it at Barclays it holds up surprisingly well, its shameless trend-jumping only a memory.) How to hold the audience’s attention? The answer is as old as culture itself: Just show some skin. There’s a decided Magic Mike air to 98 Degrees’ set: loosened ties, suspenders hanging around the waist—these clothes, they’re telling us, are not staying on. Halfway through, the moment comes. The boys strip down to their undershirts and run into the audience, looking for women to serenade. The audience, having expected this, goes wild. (Yes, even for Justin.) What’s greater is that the boys perform in the undershirts for the rest of the set—one of the top acts of the ’90s looking like a bunch of well-muscled Sunday-morning dads.
Elsewhere, there are brief acknowledgements of the time that’s passed since the TRL days; “I Do (Cherish You)” goes out to “all the sexy married ladies out there,” while another song is dedicated to all the dads in the audience. (It was Fathers’ Day.) “It’s a hard job—or so I’ve heard,” quips Justin. For their part, the guys are unfazed by the shoutouts. While some of the husbands and boyfriends didn’t mind sl0w-dancing to Boyz II Men, the most 98 Degrees gets out of them is half-hearted swaying.


If you don’t follow the Package Tour, you might think that Boyz II Men, 98 Degrees and New Kids on the Block were roughly equal on the boy-band hierarchy. Not so. The other two groups had their fair share of fans, but nothing compared to the way the women of Barclays—young and old—went crazy for NKOTB. From minute one it was clear they were the top dogs on this tour. They had the most fans, the most costume changes, the most songs. They had a robotic voice telling fans that they didn’t need to feel guilty for what would ensue: “I deserve this night.” They had a rotating platform that send them singing into the sky together, and they had five smaller versions of the same so each member could be raised up individually. They had new songs, and not only that, they had new songs that the crowd actually sang along to.
How did NKOTB come to rule the man-band roost? One answer, I think, is the songs. Boyz II Men and 98 Degrees wanted to seduce you with their loving ballads, but the New Kids only wanted to play fun, good-time dance music, exactly the type of music that’s back on the radio today. NKOTB’s hits may have been written when George H.W. Bush was president, but add a 4/4 beat to them and they wouldn’t sound out of place on a Justin Bieber setlist. (Their current single, “Remix (I Like The)” is arguably better than half of what’s played on the radio right now.)
It also helps that the New Kids have been at this since 2008. (Like Britney Spears, they’ve been on the comeback trail longer than they were famous in the first place.) Their showmanship is tight, and everybody knows their roles. Jonathan Knight, always the shy one, is happy staying on the sidelines. Danny Wood is too, as long as he gets a moment in the spotlight to show off his dancing. Joey McIntyre makes the most of his role as the 1A guy, knocking his solo on “Beautiful Girls” out of the park. Jordan Knight has the quiet swagger of a man who’s glad the world agrees he should be famous again.
And Donnie Wahlberg… well, if you only know Donnie Wahlberg as the weird guy from The Sixth Sense, it may be disconcerting to see to go to an NKOTB show and see how the crowd reacts to Donnie Wahlberg. Gone is the gruff character actor—in his place is an odd combination of rapper, master of ceremonies, hype man and sex object. When he wasn’t dropping a “Hello, Broooooooklyn!” in between every song, he was grabbing a camera and taping the show from the stage; when he wasn’t doing that, he was grabbing random women from the audience and making out with them for what seemed like a solid minute. His finest moment may have been “Cover Girl,” a solo performance that he kicked off by doffing his shirt and ended by bending over and slapping his own ass, to roaring cheers.
After 25 years, the New Kids have also turned into top-notch panderers. They know when to do the male stripper thing, flashing their abs and shaking their hips, and they know when to play the bat mitzvah DJs, spicing up their set with brief covers of today’s hits. Sometimes they’ll even do both at once, like when Jordan Knight raised his shirt Situation-style as the band sang LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” To close out the show, they put on Nets jerseys and had Donnie declare an end to the ancient feud between Boston and Brooklyn that he may have just invented. Then they played a mash-up of “Shipping Up to Boston” and “Empire State of Mind.” Shameless, yes, but you have to remember these guys went 15 years without hearing any cheers. Who can blame them for the milking us of all they could get?