It was June 1990 when the inevitable happened. I realized, two days before the end of first grade, that I liked the New Kids on the Block. Like, really liked them. It was a revelation that shocked me to my very core.
The road to accepting that I was an official NKOTB fan was the longest and most arduous road I’d traveled in all my seven years. Not one to adhere blindly to trends or succumb to mob mentality, my favorite band up until that point had been The Monkees. Yes, those Monkees — Davey Jones & co.’s late-’60s attempt at manufactured Beatlemania.
While other little girls in my class were gushing about their crushes on Elijah Wood (those piercing eyes!) or Fred Savage (sweetie boy next door!), I’d beam as visions of Monkees’ frontman-slash-drummer Micky Dolenz, so cute and so talented, projected on loop through my tiny brain. In my impervious bubble, all that mattered was the music that made me feel happy, whether or not my peers approved or were even aware of its existence.
For the greater part of 1989–1990, the New Kids were the only boy band that mattered in the eyes of my fellow first-graders, and frankly? I thought they were kind of corny, and the manic allegiance kids my age had toward them even cornier. I stood my ground as a testament to being true to my ideas of what constituted good and bad music. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I wanted so badly to be the different one in my class, to prove that I was an independent person with individual convictions and opinions that were interesting and true. I’m not sure how this badass approach to life took form, sudden and strong; perhaps a product of teachers’ — and Sesame Street’s — insistence that being different was cause for celebration, or perhaps I was simply at the age where one realizes they have agency over their identity.
But let’s be real: “Step by Step” was a freakin’ banger, and if you were a human with a pulse in 1990, you couldn’t make it through the day without hearing it at least two or three times — on MTV, booming from every shopping-mall store, or just walking through your local pharmacy. And anytime it played on the radio (my primary means for discovering new music until we got cable TV two years later), in the privacy of my own room I smiled inside and did a little bop to the chorus. I wasn’t yet familiar with the term “guilty pleasure,” but this was my first foray into understanding the concept, and man, did it feel good. The song was fun and it gave me energy and it suddenly clicked: This was fine! This was joy! Even if every pre-pubescent girl across the country felt this same joy!
The brainchild of Maurice Starr, who had discovered R&B icons New Edition a few years prior, the New Kids were all strikingly good-looking, their choreography tight; two members were former breakdancers. The music was in many ways unlike anything the world had heard from a white-bread pop group before. A 1989 Rolling Stone article called “New Kids on the Block: From Puberty to Platinum” described their most successful album, Hangin’ Tough, as “an infectious if derivative collection of street-smart dance pop and soulful crooning.” They were clean-cut, but there was something about their sound, despite its calculated cheesiness, that went beyond the cotton-candy pop hits of the era. Sort of funky, it drew from hip-hop and soul influences (in ways that, today, could be fodder for thinkpieces exploring their appropriation), incorporated interesting string instruments, and was accompanied by the most mesmerizing if not endearingly goofy dance moves. Their sheer value as entertainers gave them the surprising ability to appeal to young fans of various sensibilities, even if those who leaned more toward rock, new wave, or hip-hop weren’t entirely sold on the music.
I decided to dip my toes in the water before widely announcing my new status as a casual NKOTB fan, to ensure I was making the right choice. I asked my mom to buy me their current album at the time, Step by Step, and the one they’d released just prior, Hangin’ Tough. Because my mother will listen to anything she can dance to, she was a fan as well, and my request was honored immediately. We went to Sam Goody and purchased them both on cassette tape. I spent the next week — basically a lifetime for a child of that age — obsessively listening to the albums on repeat on my dual-cassette boombox before realizing that this was it and there was no turning back: I was a Blockhead.
For the next two years, my existence was fueled primarily by my devotion to the New Kids. And in the 1990s, you couldn’t just follow a few Instagram accounts and see a show or two and label yourself a fan. You had to invest in some tangible evidence, and I went hard: We’re talking bedsheets, a bedroom rug, a locket I’d wear around my neck with Donnie Wahlberg’s picture in it, matching Donnie ring, an NKOTB hat, T-shirts and neon sweatshirts, countless (authorized and non-authorized) biographies, all five collectible figurines, a Trapper Keeper folder with an image of the guys looking super-cool leaning against a brick wall, the Hangin’ Tough, Hangin’ Tough: Live, and Step by Step special videos on VHS, stickers and posters galore, and even a shower curtain I somehow convinced my parents to hang in our bathroom? The perks of being an only child, I suppose.
My express ride to fandom was attributed in part to the music itself and in part to how exceedingly cute the boys from Boston were. Though I wouldn’t get my period for another four years, there was certainly something hormonal stirring, and my crushes, in general, were intensifying. As a seven-year-old, I was even bold enough to ask my best friend to tell my real-life crush, spiky-haired John Law, that I liked him, because I decided I was ready for my first kiss. He was the shortest kid in class, and I was the second-tallest, towering at least 6 inches above him, but I didn’t care. (His response: “She doesn’t like me, she only likes my hair.” This was probably true, though still heartbreaking.)
The New Kids were also instrumental for the role they played in helping me begin to more fully navigate my identity. Children and teenagers so heavily define themselves by their interests, and so the formula behind NKOTB made them destined for mainstream success: If you were a girl who liked boys (or a boy who liked boys), there was a New Kid for you. There was Jordan Knight, the de facto lead singer and prettiest pretty boy with a Prince-caliber falsetto. Then there was Jordan’s brother Jon, the shy, sensitive one who barely spoke during group interviews; we’d later find out he was gay, which is probably why he kept mum when the subject of girls came up, at least. Donnie was the charismatic, overconfident bad boy who loved his motorcycle and pumping iron, in a uniform of leather jackets, baseball caps, and shredded jeans. We had tiny Joey McIntyre, who at the apex of the New Kids’ fame was 15 years old, yet a dead ringer for a fifth-grader; with a voice akin to Jackson 5–era Michael Jackson, curly light brown hair, and icy-blue eyes, he was the designated favorite among the elementary-school crowd. And finally, Danny, all chiseled jawline and thick dark hair, who, at only four years older than Joey, looked like a grown man you wouldn’t be surprised to find out had a wife and three children. He got the older women (and Halle Berry).
It was a point of pride that Jordan was decidedly not my favorite member. I considered myself to have more refined tastes than the girls in my class who liked him best; he was the New Kid that unoriginal, boring girls liked. His dance moves were a little too enthusiastic, his arm-flailing too dramatic and, frankly, effeminate, for my liking.
Donnie ticked all the boxes on my “boyfriend material” checklist: rebel with a nose ring, big personality, great sense of humor, handsome face, and subjectively the least cheesy of the crew. Sometimes his attitude was so cool and detached that I’d wonder, Bro, do you even want to be in NKOTB? I’d imagine going to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with him as my date and being the envy of my family, with a hot, successful, charming boyfriend who I’d definitely marry. (A reminder that I did not understand what sex was, and that one of my rival crushes at the time was LaunchPad McQuack, a duck who was a pilot and starred on the animated series DuckTales.) More age-appropriate — if you could consider his 17 to my 7 years “age-appropriate” — Joey came in a close second favorite.
High off of catchy tunes and some cool-as-heck merch, I continued to ride the wave of my fandom until their star began to fall. Even when 1994 flop Face the Music embarrassed Blockheads around the world, I promised to give it a chance. But I couldn’t deny that my interest had waned, and the lackluster new album failed to satisfy the itch of four years without new music. I was approaching puberty, and a room decked out exclusively in New Kids décor was no longer cool; they were a signifier of immaturity and I was ready to grow up, wear makeup, wear big hoop earrings. I tossed my Donnie jewelry in a drawer and banished the bedding to a closet; I traded in Tiger Beat and Big Bopper for YM and Seventeen. I’d get annoyed when my mom would play the Step by Step album in its entirety as the background music for one of her cleaning sprees, well into the next decade.
In the years that followed, I weaved my way through rap and punk and techno and grunge and hardcore music, a little ska here, some reggae there. To say my passion for NKOTB had faded would be an understatement; they were a relic of my childhood resigned to the same category as my beat-up Alvin the Chipmunk pull-string talking stuffed animal. The bedroom walls once peppered with pictures of Donnie and Joey were soon home to posters of Kris Kross, Boyz II Men, Aaliyah, then Nirvana, Live, and Bush, then Anti-Flag, Deftones, and Weezer.
Like most tweens and teenagers, my tastes were largely influenced by the people I surrounded myself with, the girls I wanted to be like, the boys I had crushes on. Music has such profound power to shape one’s identity, to form and solidify bonds, to speak to one’s status and propensity for “coolness” in a way that even the most impassioned television, film, or art preferences cannot. The stakes for fitting in are unequivocally higher once middle school rolls around, and pretty much everyone at the junior high I attended in Queens listened to rap and hip-hop, so I did too. This followed a brief but intense Nirvana phase, because in the fifth grade, a cute blonde boy named Krystian who made me laugh convinced me that I should get into Nirvana and The Doors. (The Doors never stuck, but Kurt Cobain’s death at the height of my several-month fandom devastated me.) I got a boyfriend in eighth grade who liked Soundgarden and deposited the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack in my mailbox with a note dedicating Garbage’s “#1 Crush” to me. So I regularly bounced between Hot 97 and K-Rock while getting ready in the morning. I never abandoned one genre for another, but instead weaved them into my repertoire, a colorful yarn blanket made up of the sounds that shaped my moods and my desires and my memories. One that, I didn’t know then, would comfort me eternally.
Though small doses of NSYNC and Backstreet Boys were tossed in for good measure, I did make more than a little effort to distance myself from fully embracing mainstream pop in high school, because of what it signified: being vanilla, apathetic, uncultured, everything I wanted to be exactly 180 degrees away from. I also found myself a part of two very different friend circles. One group had more conventional, trendy tastes and style; the other I would stay out late with, going to punk shows and getting tattooed underage. The idea of rebellion for the former was sneaking out to a dance club. For the latter, it was flirting with venue employees so we could get into shows at Roseland Ballroom for free and drink with the band backstage.
Wearing wide-leg cords, logo tees, and a barbed-wire necklace, with faint streaks of red or blue Kool-Aid-dyed hair, I found my aesthetic, interests, and general set of values to align much more so with that second group. But I also adored the time I spent with the kind and funny, mostly rule-abiding girls who listened exclusively to songs on the Now That’s What I Call Music! albums of the era. It was high school, so each crew often looked upon the other with seething judgment. But the common denominator: We’d all adored NKOTB at one time.
No, the New Kids didn’t teach me that everyone, everywhere, can always find some semblance of common ground to connect on. I won’t go that far. But they did make me realize that I didn’t need to resist things I genuinely loved just because they were mainstream and just because they didn’t fit into the identity I so desperately wanted to project. That disparate interests don’t necessarily define you unless you want them to define you. That there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure — because no one should ever feel guilty for embracing harmless, innocent joy.
When I was 25 years old, I pulled up to Nassau Coliseum in a cab with my mom and a friend from high school I’d braved the mosh pit with at my first rock show a decade prior. We arrived just moments before the New Kids took the stage on their 2008 revival tour. Overpriced plastic cups of beer in hand, we sang along to every word.
Emmy Favilla is a New York–based writer and editor whose work has been published in BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, Tenderly, and other print and online publications. She's also the author of a book about language and the internet called A World Without "Whom" (Bloomsbury, 2017). Emmy currently lives in Queens with her partner, two senior cats, and a goofy pit bull.
Medha Singh is music editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and a researcher for The Raza Foundation. She functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems and interviews have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She tweets at @medhawrites from within the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.