Megan McBrearty is married with kids, in her late 30s, works as a mortgage broker, lives in Bartlett. And when she was 14 or so, in the late 1980s, she loved the New Kids on the Block soooooooooooooooooooooooooooo much. SO. MUCH. Her bedroom was overstuffed with New Kids tchotchkes, wallpapered with the nonthreatening magnetism of Joey and Jordan and Donnie and Jonathan. And even Danny. This was way back when, before the Backstreet Boys and the Bieber -- before Blockheads began calling the NKOTB the NKOTB.
Megan loved them so much she made them pancakes.
"I made a pancake for each New Kid," she explained bashfully. "Then I put their initials on the pancakes, personalizing each pancake. Then I put the pancakes on my mother's good china and boxed it up with her silverware and some syrup and mailed it to the New Kids on the Block Fan Club. And she was not happy."
We stood in a hallway at Allstate Arena, where in a few hours NKOTB, who were synonymous with teen pop in the late '80s, would open their summer tour with the Backstreet Boys, who were impossible to avoid from roughly 1997 to 2000. This was late May; NKOTBSB, as the combined supergroup calls itself, returns to Chicago on June 17 and 18 for two sold-out shows at the United Center. McBrearty's husband, Ernie, in his 40s, listened to her story and shook his head. He'd heard it before, but it never gets old. In fact, he had just told the story to New Kid Donnie Wahlberg. The McBreartys paid $500 each for VIP packages and went backstage, and Wahlberg, 41, listened to Ernie explain about the pancakes then slapped him on the back.
"She's a keeper," Wahlberg said.
After all, fandom makes people do crazy things. Like attend a NKOTBSB concert in 2011. Or pay for backstage access, years after these groups burned red-hot. That's not surprising, though. Neither is the inevitable nostalgia for NKOTB and BSB. Or that BSB can still pull off white satin suits. Or that the group still keeps straight faces while dancing with canes. Or that the members have taken a break from minor stage careers, real estate dealings and underwhelming solo albums to reassemble. It's not even surprising there's still an audience hanging tough with NKOTB and BSB -- combined, they've sold more than 300 million albums.
What's surprising is the lasting intensity of that bond between fan and boy band, once the very definition of pop ephemera. "People laugh at me," said Keisha Middleton, 28, backstage at the Allstate show. "My family laughs at me. Some people are supportive, but most go, 'Really? Still?' So I'm like, 'Still.' I don't care."
As Ed Hirt, a professor in the psychological and brain sciences department at Indiana University who studies fan behavior, puts it: "There's a period of time when you have hallmark moments in life. These become like first loves. So of course you want to go back and relive that time, when things were simpler. For many, these moments happen when they're teenagers and get driver's licenses and experience a little freedom. For others, these moments are earlier, though the need to rejoin them later is no less powerful."
As Kate Bradley, of the Washington, D.C.-based marketing firm Outlandos Media, which specializes in the connection between fans and nostalgia, says: "I get it. I'm not a fan of New Kids or Backstreet Boys, but I am a big fan of the fountain of youth. I am a woman, and I buy cream, and music makes me feel f---ing young."
And as Samantha Thegze, 27, a BSB fan from St. John, Ind., says: "New Kids fans are still nuts. It surprises me. Donnie'll rip off his shirt, and, like, women -- 30-something moms -- still get in fistfights over it!"
A FEW YEARS AGO, NKOTB and BSB reunited separately. The NKOTBSB tour is their attempt at collectivism. Same goes for their respective fan bases, which are roughly a decade apart, demographically speaking. They do have stuff in common: Both are concerned with relevancy. As NKOTB fan Kristy Williamson, 34, of Chicago, said, "My dad is a huge Kiss fan. I was worried they'd come back looking like that." Both boast die-hard constituencies who follow their guys city to city, like Deadhead disciples, seeing a dozen or more shows a year. And when the lights went down and the music started on opening night, the combined howl was an oppressive, frighteningly feverish Hurricane NKOTBSB (Category WOOOOO!) -- and you couldn't tell a Blockhead from a BSB connoisseur.
Indeed, at 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, flocks of women huddled behind barricades surrounding the Allstate. It reminded me of "The Birds": Each time I looked back at them, more would be clustered, waiting. Inside, NKOTB and BSB were holding meet-and-greets with select fans. My first meet-and-greet was with Nick and Brian and A.J. and Howie, the Backstreet Boys. I was seated beside a long ramp leading from the stage with about 35 women in their mid-20s, many of them contest winners. Jesi Ramirez, 27, sat in front of me, looking nervous. I asked how big a BSB fan she was. She said, solemnly, "I don't think I can measure it." I asked how many shows she'd seen. "I'm not answering that," she said.
The BSB fans wore T-shirts and black jeans and shouldered a 20-something uncertainty. One told me there's no tension with NKOTB fans (after all, there's overlap in tastes); another said there's a cattiness and passive aggression between the camps (after all, BSB do rule). Maureen Geihm, 28, of Aurora, said later that her friends timed their bathroom breaks to the New Kids songs. Selena Padilla, 33, founder of the Chicago NKOTB-centric charity Rock the Block, said later: "Backstreet fans behave much younger. They're cute."
After an anxious wait, BSB strolled out and sat in stools.
Nick: "Who are New Kids fans too?"
A light wooo.
Someone requested a song. Brian yelled to the stage and asked for accompaniment. A technician yelled back that the computer wasn't working. Brian shrugged and apologized. Then they sung unaccompanied. They were generous with their time, even relatable. A woman asked A.J. if he would sing at her wedding, and after he realized she wasn't actually engaged or even dating anyone, he tentatively agreed: "I'll keep my schedule open."
Backstage with NKOTB was different: The heels were higher and the dresses were more expensive and the women older and more settled. But the love also felt deeper. "Growing up, the New Kids were the way I found out about music," said Tara Lagana, 34. "They were the first time I felt passionate about music -- about anything. And they came back for me at the right time, when there's stress in your job and it's harder to make friends. And I've met a lot of new ones recently because of them."
She walked away, and I noticed a large tattoo on her back. It read: "Five Brothers and a Million Sisters."
NKOTB themselves stood behind a black curtain, and a greeter introduced the women to them in sets of five, assigning each group a letter. And without fail, each woman, once the curtain was pulled back, rushed to her favorite New Kid. And the New Kids? Even warmer than the Backstreet Boys, their smiles big and sincere. One woman in a black miniskirt ran to Jonathan, planted a hard kiss on his right cheek then pulled back, whispering quietly to him while wiping the excess lipstick from his stubbled face. He stared ahead, nodding politely, like a man cornered at a party by a drunk stranger.
I left the room and found Melanie Hampton, looking startled and uncertain what to do next. By day, she explained, she is a crime investigator in Wisconsin; by night she is an elected official, the District 14 supervisor in Madison. She wore a black leather coat and boots. She'll be 40 in August. I asked how her experience was. "I can't do this all the time," she said. "It went by fast. My favorite is Donnie. I feel shaky."
AT 6 P.M., HORDES COLLECTED behind the glass doors at each of Allstate's gates, expectant. Now I pictured zombie movies, minus the banging and moaning.
At later tour stops, in Baltimore, Buffalo, N.Y., there would be rumors of fighting between the two groups of fans. Online forums lit up with claims that BSB fans were booing NKOTB and vice versa. Here, no one pushed when the doors opened. They entered quietly, then patiently gravitated to the merchandise booths, where lines stretched down hallways, longer than the lines for the bathrooms. There were skirts made from NKOTB bed sheets (circa 1989) and handmade T-shirts with "1997! BSB 4-LIFE!" scrawled across in glue and glitter, as though commemorating Monterey Pop 1967.
When the concert began, a forest of neon-colored cardboard signs went up, held aloft by fans -- my favorite, right at the lip of the stage, said:
"I'M NOT HERE WITH MY HUSBAND!"
Before the show, I chatted with Kristie Clark, 32, of Lake Geneva, Wis., who, when I asked if she ever stopped believing, asked, "Why?" I talked with Kristi Hyde, 32, of Rockford, who said she looks at Justin Bieber fans and is reminded of the short time teen idols spend close to our hearts -- more or less, she said this. I spoke with several dozen fans, and the music itself almost never came up; like many grade school idols, from the Monkees to the Bieber, image is as important as songs.
And then there was Michelle Kallick, 35, a paralegal at Chicago law firm Winston & Strawn, who sidled up to Wahlberg backstage. "How come you're not following me on Twitter?" she asked. He gave her his BlackBerry; she keyed in her handle. Moments later: "Oh my God, Donnie is following me on Twitter!"
Kallick stopped liking NKOTB for a long time, around the time of the group's early-'90s hip-hop phase. Then she went to a concert in 2008 and found herself screaming again, wondering "where was this coming from?" And she was hooked. She's met the group several times since, going on a NKOTB cruise last year, paying for backstage access. "It's strange. When I look at them, they're still the New Kids," she said. "I'm younger, and they're still celebrities."
New Kids on the Block
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