25 March 2009

The Right Stuff

Where you grow up has a big influence on who you are. Growing up outside of Boston teaches you a few things. (And no, not just to talk with a funny accent.) You learn that Bostonians are fiercely loyal to their sports teams. And that Bostonians are fiercely proud of locals made good. And you learn that this loyalty and pride makes a big city feel like a small town.

Just like any small town, you find that you have connections to local celebrities. I know people who live next to Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. My brother used to shoot pool at the same bar as a bunch of New England Patriots. And I went to high school with people who dated the New Kids on the Block and their bodyguards.

I was a little bit old for the New Kids phenomenon. I was taking the SATs and prepping for college when the teenyboppers were “Hangin’ Tough.” But it was hard to escape them.They were local boys made good and they were everywhere. Songs on the radio, interviews on television, posters at the mall, and t-shirts on teenyboppers—wherever you looked you’d find Donnie, Joey, Jordan, Jonathan, and Danny staring back at you.

Joey was the most popular. He was the youngest, with a precious little baby face, so he was omnipresent. My friends and I started a contest (modeled after the punch buggy Volkswagen Beetle game) to see who could spot the most “Joeys.” We’d rack up tons of points just by walking through the mall.

Even though NKOTB wasn’t my group, it was definitely part of my culture. So when I saw that the New Kids would be in concert at the Jordan Center, I was amused, intrigued, and a bit wistful. Amused: because it brought back memories of high school. Intrigued: because I was wondering how these almost forty-something men could recreate a boy band. And wistful: because I figured no one would go see them with me.

But I was wrong. I mentioned the concert to Cynthia one day and she said “Sure. Let’s go.” I said, “Nah, I was only kidding.” But she grabbed the phone and we ordered tickets.

Fast forward two months. In the interim, my family and friends laughed at me (but that’s not really new) and told funny jokes. My husband called them “Grumpy Old Men on the Block” and wondered how they’d make it through the show without breaking a hip. My brother would call singing “Mmmmmm Bop” (wrong boy band) and then laugh and break into “The Right Stuff.”

On the morning of the concert, I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. But Cynthia convinced me it would be fun. We are always working together, so this was a chance to play.

The lights went down and then the boys rose up on a platform, grabbed the microphones, and started performing. While their singing and dancing was the same, close-ups on the big screen showed that the boys had now become men. Clips of their early videos found me almost overcome with nostalgia. Baby-faced Joey was dancing onscreen while a more mature Joey sang on stage. The juxtaposition was touching.

There were only a few cringeworthy moments. I felt embarrassed for Jordan when he stood on a platform, shirt unbuttoned, with a wind machine blowing at him. And I laughed out loud when Donnie shook his butt. But the show was good-humored and the boys (men?) seemed to understand what it was all about.

Towards the end of the concert, Donnie started talking about the reunion tour and how it wasn’t just a reunion for the band, but a reunion for the fans as well. They seemed to appreciate that—although twenty years had passed—their fans were still loyal.

In some ways, it was a disorienting couple of hours. It was like traveling backward and forward in time. In one moment, I’d be reminiscing about high school and in the next I’d be reading what Cynthia posted on facebook with her phone. I’d look to the video screen and see the young Boston boys dancing in the street and then look to the stage and see the older Boston men posing on stage. The comparisons would be enough to cause temporal whiplash.

But I’m grateful that I went. Life is made from these contradictions. I might be a thirty-something quilt shop owner in Central Pennsylvania, but part of me will always be a seventeen-year old high schooler from Boston.

(Read Cynthia's take on the concert here.)

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