Debut author Wallwork puts the 1980s and ’90s boy band’s smash album into critical perspective for this latest installment of the 33 1/3 book series.
It’s not often in publishing that a blockbuster pop album recorded by a boy band gets a somewhat serious reevaluation. The New Kids on the Block and their second album, 1988’s Hangin’ Tough, which yielded five Top 10 hits, including “You Got It (The Right Stuff)” and “I’ll Be Loving You (Forever),” polarized serious rock fans and critics but not the group’s teeny-bopper audience. Making the case for the slick-sounding album’s place in music history seems a considerable undertaking. Yet author Wallwork presents more than enough plausible evidence about the band’s place in pop culture through research and interviews with those who worked with the boys during its heyday. She aims to explain why this album still resonates with her and the band’s mostly female audience (now in their 40s), and she tackles her subject on multiple fronts: the science, particularly the psychology, of why music from people’s teen years sticks with them well into adulthood; the genius of the band’s creator, Maurice Starr, who was also responsible for its music; and the personalities, talents, and musical influences of the five band members. Wallwork doesn’t attempt here to disguise her admiration for the New Kids; she grew up a fan in Australia and has personally interviewed most of them over the years. Her perspective will make readers appreciate the rags-to-riches story of five white kids from Boston, who were plucked from obscurity by Starr, an ambitious, musically talented African-American songwriter and producer who molded them into a formidable, highly successful act—even though their record company didn’t know what to do with them at first. Starr certainly deserves the credit for making it all possible, but Wallwork posits that the boys were talented in their own right, which may explain why they still endure while Starr’s subsequent acts, such as NK5, haven’t reached such success. She also notes that the members’ down-to-earth personas help account for their appeal. In some ways, this book is not so much a band biography or album history as it is a story about fandom. Even elitist rock fans who don’t remember the New Kids fondly will find that Wallwork’s work may crack their hard, cynical shells.
A surprising, somewhat convincing argument for a group’s and record’s artistic merits.