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."
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