The Block Party

Revisiting a cringe fandom from my youth.

When I was in third grade, one of my classmates- a fun and mischievous boy named Gennaro- invited me to his birthday party. I forget if he was turning seven or eight, but we were both around that age. Along with the cake and candies and decorations, Gennaro’s parents arranged for each kid attending to be given a collectible sticker book, featuring a band, all the rage at the time: the New Kids on the Block. 

It was the first time I became aware of the concept of “new music.” That is, music that my parents had not heard of, that was written and performed for the youth. I became a super fan, seeking out their music and learning about the members of the band. This was pre-internet, at least for me, so this research involved an awful lot of MTV, radio, and teen magazines. I learned their songs and practiced singing along; I wanted to be in that group! 

The following summer, my family visited my Grandpa Dan, and he gave me my very first walkman. He also gave me two cassettes, one that he knew I would like, and one that he wanted me to learn to like. That is how it came to pass that my first two albums of music were Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Step By Step by the New Kids on the Block. 

It took several years and an untold amount of teasing and bullying before I realized that their music was targeted at girls, not boys. It took one or two additional years before I realized their music was also objectively terrible. 

As with so many of the cringe parts of childhood, I experienced great shame at having ever been a fan of such a terrible boy band, and did my best to forget the whole thing ever happened. 

Fortunately, I have siblings, and if I was bound to forget all about the New Kids, they were always there to remind me. And that is how it came to pass that my sister invited me to D.C. last month for a “Block Party,” a musical revue featuring Salt-N-Pepa, En Vogue, Rick Astley, and the New Kids on the Block. 

The show was at the Capital One Arena, a hockey and basketball venue. Kelsey was persuaded to join me and Elizabeth for this event. That would be impressive enough, as Kelsey did not grow up with NKOTB, but this particular show was on the night before Kelsey’s birthday, so their willingness to go was more than a kindness, it was an outright act of love. 

Like some modern arenas, Capital One’s has restrooms that can be gender-adjusted based on the anticipated crowd. For hockey, there could be twice as many men’s rooms as women’s rooms, for instance. I do not know the ratio they employed for this concert, but I had to walk for ten minutes, past several twin sets of ladies’ rooms, to find one for men. Once we found our seats, the reason became apparent: men constituted but a small minority of the attendance. I counted four men in our section, among approximately a hundred and fifty women. 

The beginning of the show featured a video presentation, which was somewhat unsatisfactory as our view of the big screen was mostly blocked by a speaker. In the intro, they showed pictures of the artists in their prime, and then pictures of them now, in heavy makeup. I joked that they were presenting it as “here is what they looked like, and here’s the best we could make them look today!” 

All of the artists had aged, no doubt. These former boy-band idols were now well into their fifties, and their ability to move around the stage had certainly taken a hit. However, they could still sing, and they sang quite well. Of course, the songs were still just as bad as they had ever been, but these guys weren’t selling music, they were selling nostalgia, and this crowd was buying. 

I saw a cadre of very young women in our section, perhaps late teens/early twenties, dancing and singing along to every word of these thirty-year-old songs, and experienced the confusing emotions of recognizing one’s youth in today’s retro culture.

Salt-n-Pepa were in black leather, holding whips; it gave a BDSM vibe that was definitely working, especially as they were accompanied at all times by young, muscly men who did their bidding.  

The production was heavy-handed, with lights, smoke, special effects, and liberal use of the AV screen. My sister and I sang along to the few songs we remembered well, and puzzled over those that were entirely unfamiliar. Kelsey was a trooper, and seemed to at least enjoy laughing at me for my former fandom. 

We left well before the end- the concert wasn’t long, but we had a full day of museums and walking around before the show, and we were tired. As we left, Joey McIntire started singing “Please Don’t Go, Girl,” which seemed like a great song to end the night.

The mishmash of nostalgia was actually fairly enjoyable, and for me, it wasn’t being supplied as much by the bands as by our fellow attendees. People my age and older were rocking late-80s/early 90s styles, singing at the top of their lungs, and engaging in the self-deprecation of reliving a silly part of our shared youth. The music was bad, but it was OUR bad music, and we reveled in it. 

The Block Party was a singular experience, and a fun one. I learned that it can be fun to embrace one’s cringiness, especially after so many years. 


Published in: on August 7, 2022 at 3:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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