In the haze of half-remembered decades gone past, acts like New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, and Boyz II Men might be thought of as easily interchangeable archetypes of a bygone era, united by the common terrain of eighties chart success and MTV ubiquity. While all three will share the stage at PNC Arena as part of the throwback "Total Package Tour," the reality is that they're far less alike than it would seem. Only when viewed through nostalgia's odd and distorted mirror would anyone think to group these particular talents together.
Headliners New Kids on the Block began life in the mid-eighties as a profoundly cynical but highly successful effort by producer Maurice Starr to replicate the success of the teenage R&B superstars New Edition with an all-white cast of characters. Setting aside the fundamental grossness of such an enterprise, there was something inimitable about NKOTB, and the group's happy-go-lucky teen pop resonated with mass audiences, resulting in a long string of omnipresent chartbusters.
Thirty years later, the New Kids' musical legacy is fairly negligible—even their best hit singles ("Step By Step," "You Got It (The Right Stuff)") feel like relatively perfunctory exercises in the high-energy, low-impact synth-pop and soul tropes of the era. In pure business terms, however, the group was visionary, demonstrating the extraordinary appetite for non-threatening hip-hop-influenced bubblegum and essentially writing the playbook for future heartthrob sensations from *NSYNC to One Direction.
For those born after the late eighties, Paula Abdul is best known for her daffy, vaguely addled stint as a judge on American Idol from 2002 through 2009. But the amazing run of hits Abdul delivered in her late-eighties/early-nineties commercial prime is not to be overlooked. The best of these titles—"Straight Up," "Cold Hearted," and "Forever Your Girl"—were powerhouse R&B confections buttressed by the choreographer-turned-singer's energetic, eye-catching Bob Fosse-inspired videos.
That Abdul was never a particularly strong vocalist is one of the principal ironies of her American Idol duties, but her capacity to marshal her strengths as a performer and her ear for choosing top-notch material make her one of the era's most fascinating and unforgettable figures. Few members of Generation X will soon shake the mesmerizingly bizarre spectacle of Abdul engaged in a four-minute pas-de-deux with the animated feline MC Skat Kat in the "Opposites Attract" video.
They were just teenagers at the time, but the Philly-based soul juggernaut Boyz II Men seemed to emerge fully formed in the mid-eighties. They were new traditionalists whose doo-wop leanings, and four-part harmonies connected them creatively and spiritually both with their hometown forbearers and their legendary Motown labelmates.
At a moment when their contemporaries and sometimes collaborators in New Edition and Bell Biv Devoe were embracing the in vogue New Jack Swing production style, Boyz II Men largely went the other way, favoring slow-jam ballads like the sublime "End of the Road" and its more insipid cousin "I'll Make Love to You." Boyz II Men may not immediately spring to mind as the biggest stars of their era, at the peak of their fame, "End of the Road" spent thirteen weeks at No.1 on the Billboard charts, an achievement that bested a previous record held by Elvis Presley. Over the years, the band has soldiered on in various iterations, shedding some of its original members in an effort to keep the flame alive. For better or worse, this is another thing they share in common with their forerunners in The Temptations and Four Tops.
The occasion of all three touring together is odd, as is frequently the case with events so freighted with nostalgia. What should the audience expect, and what ultimately does it want? What does it mean to watch a reconstituted New Kids on the Block in 2017? Is the spectacle of a forty-seven-year-old Donnie Wahlberg capering alongside his adolescent running mates comforting? Is it funny? Is it sad?
The answer is likely some combination of all three. For Boyz II Men, a group of old souls whose connection to teen heartthrob status was never fully explicit, the circumstances seem less daunting, and far less likely to devolve into a humiliating spectacle. As for Paula Abdul, who could possibly say? Now fully into her third act as a public figure, this charming enigma seems equally likely to reclaim her previous stature as to disappear into a strange and contented obscurity.
This is the flipside of nostalgia: a kind of cultural rubbernecking. Some of our previous heroes may turn out to be bigger and better than ever, thus validating a restless yearning for the potentials of our carefree youth. Others may prove inept and feeble, thereby ratifying the accumulating and utterly insoluble realities of old age and its limitations. It's Eighties Night at PNC Arena. All will be revealed.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Old Kids on the Block"