When I was in 12th grade I had a friend named Emma who loved New Kids on the Block. That’s right, we weren’t 13, or 8. We were in the twelfth grade. Not only that, NKOTB (oh yes, I am abbreviating it, yo) was on the wane, so cool points were in the negative numbers. And let me rephrase my first statement. I was in 12th grade. Emma was a year older than me. Technically an adult. She also happened to be the smartest person (in the conventional sense anyway) that I knew at the time. In a world where not many people left my town, and hardly anyone I knew left the state, she graduated from our less-than-awesome public high school in our less-than-middle-class town and went to the Ivy League. I remember that I used to tease her relentlessly about her NKOTB fixation, and the summer before she left for college, I bought her a cheap-o NKOTB keychain as a joke and she took that shit to college and put her dorm room key on it and was like Hi, college smarty bluebloods, I am from FLINT and I have an unabashed love for Tigerbeat boys and also IN YOUR FACE.
You kind of have to love a girl like that.
Emma took the teasing in stride and not only that, she bought me a matching keychain which I used for a few months in a startling premonition of pre-hipsterism. I didn’t like NKOTB, but I was a teen and I was being funny and shut up all you ironic mustache dudes of the 21st century, I got your uncool-coolness before you were out of Huggies. I look back on that and try not to roll my eyes at myself, but it’s hard. Anyway, Emma educated me about the basics of NKOTB. Because of her, I know the songs, I know their names, I know that she had Jon picked out for herself (the Shy One) while she couldn’t decide whether Donnie (the Bad Boy) or Jordan (the Hot One) was her choice for me, should I be in need of her arranging my marriage. She did not let my gagging noises hinder her pure, true love in the slightest. She was impervious to teen cynical rays, which wow. That’s kind of a superpower.
During the spring of my senior year, Mike was one of my closest friends. Mike was not my first gay male friend (it may sound stereotypical but I grew up in theater and dance so I think I knew more gay men than straight ones when I was little, no lie) but he probably was my first gay boyfriend. By that I don’t mean that we were dating, but rather that we did a lot of stuff together, just the pair of us. My first actual gay boyfriend was Aaron, a super hot theater boy who I dated in 11th grade theater camp who wouldn’t make out with me and I couldn’t figure out why until the he came out after high school and all our awkward dates became crystal clear. But I digress. Mike won two tickets to see NKOTB in concert from some sort of contest. I don’t know that Mike was a particular fan either, but come on, it was a free show. Also, it is probable that he could not deny the NKOTB teen-gay-cuteness. Mike shopped around for someone to go to this concert with, especially me. To which I said, um, no. Sitting in Emma’s room listening to Hanging Tough while I yelled in pain was one thing. Going to a concert? In public? Where people wouldn’t KNOW that I was being ironic? I couldn’t get with that.
I remember the NKOTB date search becoming a thing. If only Emma wasn’t off playing polo in college or whatever they do in the Ivy League, she would have been all over it. I called her and told her about Mike’s tickets and she almost cried. For real. She almost cried. I could tell that she thought this was a travesty that we, a couple of ingrates, had tickets, but she begged me to go.
You see where this is going, don’t you? I went.
Mike drove me to the stadium, and I remember that we talked about whether or not I was going to prom (Mike wanted me to but I had a strict No Prom Policy), and the juicy details of my romance with a band boy in his early 20s, and who of our friends were going to hook up during the last show we were in of the year. We also got into a big talk about my upcoming graduation (Mike was a year younger than me), and how I was going to leave for college and how we were going to still be friends forevah, promise. There was tension because Mike wasn’t really out (in that way where everyone knew he was gay but he hadn’t actually said it himself yet) and in the car he was trying to tell me, and I was trying to encourage him, but he just couldn’t do it. It turned into a kind of melancholy talk, and Mike and I were seldom melancholy with each other.
We arrived at the venue and suddenly we were awash in a sea of screaming 12-year-old girls and their moms who drove them there. Yep. Tween girls and middle-aged ladies. And us. Me in my Cure t-shirt and Mike in his non-girlness. We looked at each other, wondered what we were doing there, shrugged, and went to our seats. Our really good contest-winning seats.
By the time we got to our seats, my melancholy had started to get to me. It was a few weeks before my high school graduation, and the NKOTB concert day was the first day that I started to get really strong nostalgia-in-advance about leaving. I didn’t want to leave Mike, I was in a semi-adult relationship, I was growing up. Looking around at all the 12-year-olds, I felt ancient, as only a 17-year-old can. Kid stuff was fading too fast, and being there just made it more dramatic. Not that my high school self needed fuel to increase drama levels.
Then the concert started, and you know how it started? Indoor freaking fireworks.
I had never really been to a concert like that before. Keep in mind that the first concert I ever went to was Dizzy Gillespie. The second was Neil Young. Neither known for fireworks. The biggest concert I had gone to up until then was a Madonna concert in the 9th grade, and that had lots of costume changes, but that was more theatrical than spectacle. NKOTB? I have to admit it. At least to my 12th grade eye, it was amazeballs.
Fireworks, huge dance numbers (come on, you know me, I love a dance number), a big harness thing that carried the singers high above the crowd, and you guys, there were explosions. It blew my hair back.
Being all ironical went out. the. window. Eye rolling ceased. It was like a tidal wave of cheese washed over us all, and we were helpless to resist it. Mike and I got up out of our seats, and we danced, and whooped, and jumped, and sang (thank you Emma, for learning me those lyrics), and hugged, and acted like the kids we were, and just fucking embraced it. I think about that night as I write this and it’s so full of how much Mike and I loved each other and how much fun we had and how young we were and how beautiful a night it was.
You heard me. NKOTB was a beautiful thing.
After the show was over, we didn’t really talk about the experience. It was as if we had seen each other naked and we just silently agreed that it had been fun, but we were never going to speak of it again.
After the concert, I had gone back to my regularly scheduled NKOTB surliness and never came back out of it. Years later I would tell people at parties about the time I had gone to the concert, like a badge of horrible honor. “That’s the worst concert you’ve ever been to?” I would say, “well, get this- I saw New Kids on the Block!” and my friends would nod at me with a “wow, you win” look in their eye. I treat this concert like an episode of The Office: funny because it’s embarrassing.
Last week, I turned my tv on, and you know who was on? New Kids on the Block. Not only that, but apparently they are now teamed up with the Backstreet Boys into a Giant Supergroup Boyband Blob of Doom. I thought “oh jeeeeez” and started to watch them, and I was surprised to find that I found the whole thing super endearing. They are all probably in their 40s now, and you know what? They don’t care that they are middle-aged dudes. They still have their motherfucking explosions, and their gelled hair, and their dance numbers, and their tidal wave of cheese. They don’t give a good goddamn if they are getting creaky in the knees. Screw it.
I always wonder about the older ladies that still turn into mush when they see Donny Osmond, or David Cassidy, or whatever. The feminist in me thinks STOP GOING GOOGOO OVER SOME RANDOM DUDE AND MAKING AN ASS OF YOURSELF. But when I watched NKOTB the other night, I could relate to those ladies. Not because of the dudes, but it made me remember that concert, and not like I had been telling it at parties. It made me really remember it. Me and my pal Mike, being kids. Throwing our hands in the air, waving them like we just don’t care. I didn’t care about being cerebral, I didn’t care about what it looked like, I wasn’t doing anything but acting a fool with my best friend. I guess I’m one of those googoo older ladies now, in a way.
Emma, you were sort of right. Well, you were still wrong, but sort of right. Ok, yes, you were right. Goddamn it.
Next time you feel embarrassed about secretly enjoying something cheesy, just let go. Seriously, let go. Be silly, and love it, and just stop being critical for five minutes. Like these guys.